Sunday, July 3, 2016

Building a Team of Teams

Tomorrow is Independence Day here in the States, and it's appropriate that the topic of this post is a book by General Stanley McChrystal (with co-authors Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell). General McChrystal commanded the US Joint Special Operations Task Force (the "Task Force") from September 2003 until August 2008. During this period, one of the primary missions of the Task Force was to engage and defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq ("AQI"). When General McChrystal assumed command, the Task Force wasn't winning the fight against AQI.

Team of Teams:  New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World is a business book written against the backdrop of a major combat operation. It tells the story of how General McChrystal and his leadership team transformed the Task Force in the middle of a war so that it could defeat a new type of adversary in a new and very different warfighting environment. General McChrystal and his co-authors argue that the lessons learned from the Task Force transformation can be applied to companies competing in today's complex and rapidly-changing business environment.

The basic problem facing General McChrystal and his leadership team was that organizational silos and bureaucratic management processes were preventing the Task Force from acting quickly enough to deal effectively with AQI. The Task Force included many small, specialized units or teams. Each of these teams was very good at what it did. Because of training and culture, the individual members of each team knew and instinctively trusted each other. Each team was highly adaptable because every team member knew and trusted what other team members would do in almost every situation.

Unfortunately, the same training and culture that built such a high level of trust and cohesiveness within each team led to a lack of trust and cohesiveness among teams. As a result, the Task Force as a whole wasn't as flexible and agile as it needed to be. As General McChrystal put it:

"For decades, we had been able to execute our linear approach faster than the external environment could change . . . But by 2004, the world had outpaced us. In the time it took us to move a plan from creation to approval, the battlefield for which the plan had been devised would have changed. By the time it could be implemented, the plan - however ingenious in its initial design - was often irrelevant."

General McCrystal and his leadership team recognized that they needed to "scale" the trust, cohesiveness, and agility that existed within the small teams across the entire Task Force. In other words, they needed to transform the Task Force into a team of teams. To make this transformation a reality, every team in the Task Force needed to have insight into how their peer teams functioned and how all the pieces fit together. Each team also needed to trust the other teams in the Task Force.

Task Force leaders took several steps to build this shared consciousness and trust, but two stand out in importance. First, they replaced the "need to know" mentality normally found in military organizations with "information sharing on steroids."

All Task Force operations were run out of a Joint Operations Center, the principal feature of which was a large central room that provided space for representatives of all the functional specialties of the Task Force, as well as representatives of "partner" organizations such as the CIA. A wall of screens at the front of the room provided real-time information regarding Task Force operations, so anyone in the room could know instantly about the major factors affecting the mission of the Task Force at that moment.

To further encourage collaboration, Task Force leaders designated this entire room as a top secret security space. This meant that almost any document or topic relevant to Task Force operations could be discussed and debated by anyone anywhere in the room. Task Force leaders also conducted a daily meeting called the Operations and Intelligence brief, which was designed to integrate everything the Task Force was doing with everything it knew.

The second major step was an "embedding" program. Under this program, Task Force leaders would take an individual from one team and assign him or her to a different team in the Task Force for six months. The idea was to allow these individuals to see how the war looked from inside other teams and build personal relationships across teams. The objective was to build more trust among the teams in the Task Force.

These and other changes enabled General McChrystal and his leadership team to transform the Task Force from a fairly traditional military organization into a true team of teams. This transformation wasn't completed overnight, but over time, it enabled the Task Force to produce an impressive record of success.

In a future post, I'll discuss how B2B companies can use a team of teams approach to drive improved marketing performance.

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