A Real Team

I just finished reading Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal.  This is the best non-fiction and the best business book I have ever read.  If you manage people, you owe it to your staff to go read this book…NOW.

I will condense to a super-abbreviated summary here.  In 2003-4 Al Qaeda started rapidly ramping up terrorist activities inside Iraq.  General McChrystal took over a special Task Force charged with fighting back and enabling the new Iraqi government and military to provide peace for the country.  While US soldiers won each battle, they quickly found that they couldn’t respond with the swiftness of the Al Qaeda insurgency and they lost ground almost as soon as it was taken.  They were constantly in a very slow reaction mode.  The general and his staff began to realize that the command and control hierarchical nature of the military was not able to adapt as quickly as al-Zarqawi’s lose network of terrorists.  So the General’s senior staff took about an unprecedented flattening of his team to adapt to the insurgent threat.  Some notable achievements:

  1. Every single day over 7000 people across the world were connected in real time on a video conference call to share every bit of information they learned.  This was a mandatory 90 minute meeting that was later identified as the foundational component of what they called “Shared Consciousness”.  Rather than information following the chain of command, it went to everyone immediately.  You don’t know what other people need to know or what they have to contribute to a topic, so share it all.  Including highly classified intelligence.
  2. When the task force started operations, the general would approve all missions and like all military structures, planning and approvals would flow up and down the chain of command.  These often took so long that by the time the mission was executed, the opportunity had passed. This was replaced with what he calls “Empowered Execution”.  Leadership sets broad guardrails and objectives, you trust your team to make choices that follow those guidelines.  In 2003 the Task Force was running appr. 20 missions a month, by 2005 they were conducting over 300 a month, almost none approved by McChrystal, Pentagon, or any local brass.
  3. Leadership’s responsibility is to instill the notion of “Resilience Thinking” in your team.  Like the SEALs, don’t train for the mission, you train for situations.  Because you never know what situations will present themselves on a mission, be ready for anything.  Be resilient in the face of adversity.

There is a ton of great historical perspective on how the US evolved into a state of efficiency management practices that have largely proven ineffective in a complex networked world.  Complex is different from complicated.  Complex reflects the notion that we are so interconnected that it is impossible to predict a series of events because too many variables impact a result.  Classic butterfly effect.  So unlike the way management used to try to plan for complicated scenarios, they are now ineffective.  Complicated reflects the notion that you can role play and assign probabilities to all potential eventualities.  This hasn’t worked since the 80’s, you need people that can be resilient and act on their own.

I have long struggled with defining my own management philosophy wherein I have felt that much of the costly overhead of an organization (HR, Finance, Purchasing) and all of the governance (policies and procedures) needed for each is a waste.  I would set guidelines for my team and let them perform those support functions for themselves coupled with technology.  In addition, I have no respect for organizational egos that are hellbent on protecting turf.  I think Holocracy takes the reaction to these norms a small step too far.  Yet I respect what Zappos is doing to directly enable their associates.  I also admire the way Return Path’s Matt Blumberg shares information openly with his entire org.  And I love the way some startups like Moz post their financial activities openly to all employees.  Everyone should be invested in the mission.   I have come to believe that Empowered Execution when your Resilient team has a sense of Shared Consiousness coupled with a mission statement and set of guiding principles, is exactly how I want people to operate.  Question: Boss, can I spend money to buy this software package?  Answer: Our goal is a 10x return to our investors, does the purchase execute on that goal?

While I am a little ways off of bringing this management philiosophy to my own company, I developed a pitch to the leadership of my ‘day-job’ organization (+150 people) to follow a structure very similar to General McChrystal’s precepts.  I saw him speak to our company about a month ago (super-geek moment; I got to ask a direct question) and I have to assume that he did so in exchange for the opportunity to pitch a consulting gig to impart this philosophy to the Sr. Leadership.  I doubt anything will move on a larger scale, but I am excited at the possibility of proving it can work at the micro-level.

 [from my book] 

About Josh Rutstein

I am an aspiring entrepreneur and hopeful political candidate. Father of 2 very special girls, husband to an amazing woman, and passionate American. I snowboard whenever possible and follow a 20x mentality for exercise. I also play golf and ultimate frisbee and am a die hard New England Patriots fan and season ticket holder. Everyday I wake up wanting to make this country a better place, someday I hope to actually succeed.
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