What can public services learn from General Stanley McChrystal’s approach – Team of Teams?
I was pointed towards this podcast by my colleagues Mike Haber and Tim James www.bosslevelpodcast.com/general-stan-mcchrystal-and-a-team-of-teams/
I was totally inspired by General Stanley McChrystal so I went on to read his book, Team of Teams.
I loved the book, not least because of his amazing work but because his application of systems thinking is not relayed via technical accounts of what a system is or what a viable system etc. is, but because he tells a story; the story of how he applied an approach that was effective, that worked and he did it in the real world.
So, what is it all about?
The forward of his book starts by telling us, ‘Whether in business or in war, the ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and it’s becoming even more so as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change. That requires new ways to communicate and work together. In today’s works, creativity is a collaborative endeavour. Innovation is a team effort.’
20th century organisation is of little use in the 21st century and yet many organisations cling on to it like an old friend, preferring to focus on things like reducing variation, separating out planning and execution via organisational charts and having managers who focus on keeping things in working order and maintaining morale. But, as General McChrystal points out in his book, ‘You cannot force the complex to conform to rules meant for the merely complicated’. Our new environments demand new approaches.
These new approaches are ones of agility, coherence of purpose and strategy and evolution through adaption. They are dispersed, organic, associative networks with a culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking (rather than simple execution of demands) and they are nurturing of competence and adaptability. They are approaches of decentralised teams who are well co-ordinated, have tight accountability and widespread information exchanges. Change is less about tactics or new technology but is more about internal architecture, culture and people as interchangeable parts. They are approaches where people have a willingness to ‘know what we don’t know’ and ‘expect the unexpected’. To enable the required agility, the approaches need to make a shift from strategic planning and predicting to reconfiguring. After all, ‘setting oneself on a predetermined course in unforeseen waters is the perfect way to sail straight into an iceberg’ (Henry Mintzberg). Adaptability, contextual understanding, flexibility and collective responsibility for success, and what that responsibility entails, should be new predominant features.
He also clearly states that, ‘an organisation’s fitness – like that of an organism – cannot be assessed in a vacuum; it is a product of compatibility with the surrounding environment.’ Contextual awareness is imperative.
What did he do?
‘Team of Teams’ focusses on the transformation of an elite military organisation, the Joint Special Operations Task Force, in the midst of a war.
For General McChrystal, different thinking and a different approach weren’t really optional. He was not just dealing with, ‘looking at the same roads with faster traffic; we were looking at an entirely different and constantly shifting landscape.’ It soon became clear to him that the old world, where efficiency was enough, no longer existed and ‘adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency’.
General McChrystal set out to look for familiar structures and patterns hidden in the chaos around him and started focussing on connections between things, rather than the things themselves. He set out re-structure his teams to develop a more networked, non-hierarchical operation.
His re-structuring was focussed on the principles of extremely transparent information sharing to develop a ‘shared consciousness’ and coupled with this was a decentralised decision-making authority, which he called, ‘empowered execution’.
What I see in what General McChrystal did is very transferrable to the world of public services and especially to those moving towards more team based working across multiple organisations.
Let’s take a look at some of the key points/ thinking behind his transformation.
Some key points/ thinking about the approach
- Focus on connections between things, rather than the things themselves. ‘Resilience is the result of linking elements that allow parts of the systems to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage’;
- Predicting and planning should no longer be the main focus because we exist in an ecosystem, much of which we have no control over;
- Efficiency is important but ability to continually adapt to complexity is imperative. The old world, where efficiency was enough, no longer exists;
- Move away from the fragility of being damaged by shocks and aim to be an organisation that can benefit from shocks, because it can adapt quickly;
- Focus on an organic and associative network that is decentralised, well-co-ordinated, with tight accounting, widespread information exchange and agility and resilience;
- You should only empower if the recipients of new found authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely. Empowerment without sharing doesn’t work, neither does sharing without empowerment. You must have shared consciousness and empowered execution together;
- Focus on purpose and adaptability, rather than procedure and efficiency;
- Create adaptability whilst maintaining traditional strengths. Hierarchy needs to exist but needs to understand that it is part of a network;
- Shift the focus from categorisation to integration – become a network;
- Contextual awareness is key.
Some key points/ thinking about the leadership style
- Replace command structures with teams but maintain a hierarchy to set boundaries. However, the hierarchy should behave differently. Teams need autonomy to make decisions and the hierarchy needs to let them do it. The leader needs to let the team problem solve and they need to be one of the team. ‘Team players should not have to consult with the coach before taking a shot.’
- The leader should ensure their subordinates know the leader’s decision-making processes, so they can make decisions themselves on the leader’s behalf. Agility and adaptability is achieved by loosening control. The leader has ultimate responsibility still;
- Adopt an ‘eyes on – hands off’ leadership style. Push decision making and ownership to the right level for every action;
- Lean towards enabling, rather than directing and aim to build trust and common purpose. Pump information out and empower people at all levels;
- Maintain consistent example and message. The most powerful instrument of communication is your own behaviour;
- Dissolve the barriers of silos and floors of hierarchies. ‘As our own environment erupts with too many possibilities to plan for effectively, we must become comfortable sharing power.’
Some key points/ thinking about the teams
- ‘Design your teams and their development to foster emergent intelligence that can thrive in the absence of a plan’;
- What makes teams adaptable is key to transformation. ‘Adaptability is built through trust and a shared sense of purpose’;
- People act as interchangeable parts. They change to suit the environment. General McChrystal found that the lack of traditional hierarchy meant that there was no internal anarchy by removal of significant individuals. The hierarchy is maintained but in a different way. There should be a combination of management and team work;
- Let the ones who want to quit, quit;
- Collective team consciousness is required. Trust and purpose are KEY. Teams need to believe in the cause;
- The team must act as a co-ordinated whole. Teams whose members know each other deeply perform better;
- The team should be collectively responsible for the team’s success and understand everything that that responsibility entails;
- They need to build these things as instinctive behaviours that are triggered by communication;
- Trust and communication are more important than technical skills;
- Teams need to produce clear, sufficient information about their operations so the hierarchy can watch from a distance;
- Have flexible, multi directional communicative bonds. Have a strong lattice of trusting relationships. Horizontal connectivity is important. There MUST be meaningful relationships between teams;
- ‘Interconnectedness and the ability to transmit information instantly can give small groups unprecedented influence’;
- ‘Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.’
Some key points/ thinking about culture
Most systems thinkers will stress that culture is an emergent property of the system. This system is designed to enable the following culture:
- A culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking, rather than simple execution of demands;
- Nurturing of competence and adaptability;
- Empowerment/ self-organisation and freedom to act;
- If you receive a complaint, you own it;
- ‘Use good judgement in all situations’
So, what about scaling up?
- Scale up the teams by building a team of teams;
- Relationship between constituent teams should resemble those of the relationships between individuals in teams;
- Teams are bound by common purpose, rather than outperforming another team. They are a friendly force, not a competitive rival and they understand the impact of their work on other teams;
- You don’t have to know everyone in the other team but you do need to know someone. Job swapping can be beneficial;
- All teams co-operate to achieve strategic and tactical success by sharing and connecting the dots;
- Have daily communications between teams with counterparts. Conduct daily analysis and have quick data exchanges. Make sure you have everyone in attendance who is required to make a decision;
- Fuse generalist awareness with specialist expertise. Settings must allow teams to work together;
- Key leaders move between teams often to share information;
- Have quick feedback loops to update information to inform next actions – this allows quick, iterative adaption;
- Have fluid integration between operations and analysts – build trust, co-operation and working together for the greater good.
How can this help public sector leaders?
Public sector leaders who now have to merge teams across organisational boundaries, deal with ever changing complex environments, modernise working practices and develop effective strategies may want to pick up on General McChrystal’s change of focus – from heavy planning to adaptability, from silos to shared consciousness, from command and control to empowered execution and from a narrow internal focus to internal focus coupled with contextual awareness.
Nowadays, being aware of the bigger picture is imperative. Quick re-calibration of short-term plans can allow problems to be addressed quickly and enable improved operations. Leaders may want to shift from moving players on the chess board to shaping ecosystems. They may want to create and maintain the teamwork conditions required to balance information and empowerment and develop cross functional co-operation. They may want to explicitly articulate priorities and delegate decisions with no incongruence.
What General McChrystal states in his book and what is very clear to me is that what is required is,
‘a complete reversal of the conventional approach to information sharing, delineating of roles, decision-making authority and leadership’ which is precisely what he did with his Task Force.
Team of Teams – General Stanley McChrystal