Book Review: Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

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If you’re worried that a book with this title by a prominent retired General is just another version of “Super leadership secrets of the Navy SEALs” don’t worry.

The lessons in Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World were learned in war, a crucible that produces a lot of innovation. In this case, the innovation is in thinking about what most business writers call “management” or “leadership” or “organization,” and it’s one of the best books I’ve read on those topics.

A decade ago, Gary Hamel and Bill Breen asked us to cast our mind “forward a decade or two” and ask what management will be like then. That was in their excellent book The Future of Management. Guess what? They got some things right, but missed a lot because they were the early warning system. Team of Teams is the latest report on today’s best thinking.

The through-line of the book is about the formation and evolution of the Joint Special Operations Task Force. It is the story of the quest for members of that task force to find and defeat Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is not a story about a planned change.

What McChrystal and his co-authors write about is an iterative evolutionary process of developing to understand and adapt to defeat an organization that was better suited for the modern battlefield than they were. It is also the story of how General Stanley McChrystal’s understanding of his role as the task force leader evolved. If he had stopped there, this would be another “this is how I did it” book. But McChrystal supplemented his experience with extensive research.

Two Different Models

In the beginning, the Task Force confronted Al-Qaeda in Iraq with a typical Industrial Age organization. It was designed to thrive in a complicated world, where relationships were linear and organizations strove primarily for efficiency. For that reason, the Task Force, like the rest of the Army, was hierarchical, with decisions moving up and down the chain of command. The task force relished planning, and had a culture of making decisions at the top.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was very different. Their organization was suited to today’s complex world. They shared information horizontally in an essentially flat organization. They were resilient because they were made up of many small units with freedom to act as fast as information-sharing suggested it was a good idea.

In the beginning, Al-Qaeda in Iraq had the upper hand. Chapter 1 of the book outlines that situation.

“To win, we had to change. Surprisingly, that change was less about tactics or new technology than it was about the internal structure and culture of our force – in other words, our approach to management.”

The Task Force structure was the typical Army structure. It’s also the typical organizational structure since the Industrial Revolution. Those organizations are great at efficient execution of known and repeatable processes. McChrystal and his team concluded that efficiency is no longer enough.

The challenge for the Task Force and for most organizations today is that technological changes have speeded up the world and made it more interdependent. In the old industrial world, complicated challenges would succumb to careful analysis. That made them predictable. Today, a fast-paced interdependent world is a complex phenomenon. Analysis doesn’t help much here. Instead of planning and prediction, what the task force found that it needed was resilience and adaptability. That requires a different style of management as well as different structure.

McChrystal compares a command structure to a team. In a command, hierarchy, planning and executing the plan were the way to succeed. But, if you’ve ever been part of a great team, either a military team or a sports team or a business team, you know that teams are qualitatively different from commands.

Teams are usually small but characterized by trust and information-sharing. Great teams grow by collaborating in several successful ventures. Working together is how teams learn what teamwork is for them. Team members learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses and tendencies. That’s why, on most great teams, there is almost a sense that each team member knows what the others are thinking.

Transparency and information-sharing do not come naturally to most organizations, or even to most teams. For the task force to achieve what it needed to achieve, it had to go through several iterations where everything, ultimately, came up for review. By the end of the series of changes, the physical spaces where the teams worked were different, and almost every procedure had been changed in some way.

McChrystal uses SEAL teams as his model for a great team. The book describes basic SEAL training and team development, and in the process, gives a different picture than most treatments of the SEALS. McChrystal and his team point out that the primary purpose of SEAL training is not to develop super fit warriors as much as it is to develop the interdependence and trust you need to function effectively as an elite combat team. Again and again, the book returns to trust and transparency and collaboration as keys to the way organizations can work in today’s environment.

Other books that I’ve read have done a good job of describing elements of the kind of team organization that McChrystal and his co-authors are outlining. This book is different in two important ways. First, the book describes the development of team thinking in an organization that had to adapt to win. What results is a real-world example of actual changes that almost certainly would not have happened if some planning committee had tried to come up with them.

The second thing the book does is bring in research in many different fields to explain why some of the changes they made in a process of trial and learning work the way they do. What that means for you, the reader, is that you don’t have to look at McChrystal’s experience and the team he and his colleagues developed as the only way things can work. You can learn from their experience, but adapt to your experience because of the additional insights the book brings you.

There’s another big benefit to this book. Most of the key points about what makes a great team were things we already knew. McChrystal’s book puts them into a framework that’s helpful, but the book goes on to talk about how you expand that sense of trust and that transparency to a larger organization.

The truth is that one reason teams can have the transparency and trust they do is that they’re small. Most combat teams are six to eight people at the most. The largest athletic teams may have 85 players, but only a core of maybe twenty work together regularly enough to develop a team chemistry. McChrystal and his co-authors describe techniques that can expand the trust, transparency, agility, and resilience model to a larger organization. That, alone is worth the price of the book, but you wouldn’t understand it without the 130-some pages that come before it.

Bottom Line

If you’re interested in or concerned about the ways organizations must change to be effective in a complex and fast-moving world, this book is a must-read. If you want a good study of team dynamics, this book will be worth your time. It will also be a good read for you if you’re intrigued with the military aspects of this, how the Joint Special Operations Task Force adapted to be more effective in Iraq.

Overall, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World is the best answer I’ve seen so far to the question Gary Hamel and Bill Breen asked a decade ago.

For Further Reading

David Burkus’ book, Under New Management makes a great companion read to Team of Teams. Burkus gives you descriptions of some things that companies are already doing that may turn out to be common practice in the 21st Century.


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