General Stanley McChrystal: Team of Teams

General Stanley McChrystal (SMC), who from 2003 led the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq, wrote a book called “Team of Teams” in 2015 about his learnings in Iraq and later in Afghanistan. The book recently came to my attention, and once I got hold of it I had to read it more or less in one long session.

I was researching the history of scaling agile teams to whole organizations. Something that we found came very intuitively when we described the rationale behind, what we called Level 2 Circles in Agile Lean Leadership. It turns out that McChrystal was already there. It was reassuring and also humbling that this structure of levels of Teams is not something we dreamt up; others much more qualified have seen the same patterns.

SMC explains how the coalition forces were failing against Al Qaeda (AQI) in Iraq in 2003 although they had overwhelming force and planning capability. Before the coalition could plan and decide on action the situation had already changed and the AQI opponents – fluid in their nature – had morphed into another shape and form. They were dealing with a complex adaptive system; their solution to the complex challenge, as most managers will recognize, was to enforce more minute control and planning, an even better machine. It failed.

The solution found was one of radical transparency of information and pushing power of decision as far out in the organization as someone could carry it. It was not easy and SMC himself, being somewhat a perfectionist, had to unlearn years of top down practice, that was perfected through the 20th century inspired F. Winslow Taylor: Experts are thinking, planning and controlling; subordinates are obeying and working.

In the process, SMC has some stunning quotes, for example:

In a bureaucracy, control is being enforced simply because you can. With new technological possibility control will be evermore minute.

It is a natural consequence of the Neo-Taylorist mindset. Therefore the agile, lean leadership style cannot be adopted while retaining Taylor’s reductionist worldview of a plannable ordered universe.

In this article I have taken SMC’s resumes after each chapter and made a brief comment to them. I hope it conveys some of the radical positions of this general in one of the most well planned  organizations in the world.

The Proteus Problem

SMC uses Greek Mythology defined in the story of Menelaus, king of Sparta, facing the shape-shifting polymorph Proteus in battle. Their traditional method of battle was futile and they needed to adapt to win. Read more here…

The Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that our Task Force confronted in 2004 looked on the surface like a traditional insurgency. But under the surface it operated unlike anything we had seen before. In place of a traditional hierarchy, it took the form of a dispersed network that proved devastatingly effective against our objectively mere qualified force.

AQI’s unorthodox structure allowed it to thrive in an operating environment that diverged radically from we had traditionally faced: the twenty-first century is more connected, faster paced, and less predictable than previous eras. Though we encountered this shift on the battlefield similar changes are affecting almost every sector of society.

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

The first thing SMC realized was that the sheer pace of changes and the unpredictability of an enemy, that effectively didn’t mind being killed, was totally different than what the coalition organization was built for. Like Proteus of the Greek mythology, AQI could assume any shape and form it chose to. The answer for the coalition lay in the organization; not in more and better machinery, they had to be able to change faster than AQI. SMC’s claim is that that is not just the case for the military, but it is equally relevant for many civil organizations as well. Things are changing so fast and new patterns emerging, so the 20th century mode of operation is not a way to counter this.


Our Task Force’s structure and culture of disciplined, stratified reductionism had its roots deep in military organizational history.

This organizational culture is not unique to the military; since the Industrial Revolution, most industries have subscribed to management doctrines informed by or similar to Frederick Taylor’s “Scientific Management,” a system that is excellent for achieving highly efficient execution of known, repeatable processes at scale.

I resist the challenge to go off again and repeat why it is that in the complex scenarios with only fragmented knowledge, the big upfront plan policy fails. Please see the other articles about the misery of Neo-Taylorism in our days,

We were realizing in 2004 that despite the success of this approach throughout the twentieth century, it had its limits. Like the Maginot Line, it was insufficient for tackling a new generation of threats. Efficiency is no longer enough.

Like the French had carefully  invested in preventing the Germans from entering France from the East by building the formidable Maginot line with forts and artillery, the Coalition had very carefully prepared itself for yesterday’s battle. The Germans ignored the Maginot line, went through Belgium and took France from north. AQI kept moving and changing shape and the Coalition could not “turn on a dime, for a dime” as Craig Larman expresses what Agile is.

From complicated to complex

The technological changes of recent decades have led to a more interdependent and fast-paced world. This creates a state of complexity.

Complexity produces a fundamentally different situation from the complicated challenges of the past; complicated problems required great effort, but ultimately yielded to prediction. Complexity means that, in spite of our increased abilities to track and measure, the world has become, in many ways, vastly less predictable.  

This unpredictability is fundamentally incompatible with reductionist managerial models based around planning and prediction. The new environment demands a new approach.

This is exactly what this article series and our upcoming book “Navigating the Rapids” is about. Our present managerial paradigm is incompatible with the world we actually are in. Wouldn’t it be wise to take heed and stop banging our heads against a wall, that is apparently going to give in anytime soon?

Doing the right thing

Prediction is not the only way to confront threats; developing resilience, learning how to reconfigure to confront the unknown, is a much more effective way to respond to a complex environment.

Since the pursuit of efficiency can limit flexibility and resilience, the Task Force would have to pivot away from seeing efficiency as the managerial holy grail. To confront a constantly shifting threat in a complex setting, we would have to pursue adaptability.

Our foe, AQI appeared to achieve this adaptability by way of their networked structure, which could organically reconfigure with surprising agility and resilience. We realized that in order to prevail, our Task Force would need to become a true network.

SMC introduces one of our favorite terms: resilience, the ability to reconfigure, recover and repurpose under attack from the unknown, whether that be AQI in Iraq, new competitors or changing technology.

This is one of the hardest pills to swallow for the current management paradigm, that the chase for efficiency and control will hamper flexibility and resilience. The classic hierarchy has to go and be replaced with a networked system of leadership.

From command to team

Fundamental structural differences separate commands from teams. The former is rooted in reductionist prediction, and very good at executing planned procedures efficiently. The latter is less efficient, but much more adaptable.

The connectivity of trust and purpose imbues teams with an ability to solve problems that could never be foreseen by a single manager – their solutions often emerge as the bottom-up result of interactions, rather than from top-down orders.

In recent decades, teams have proliferated across domains previously dominated by commands in response to rising tactical complexity.

The adaptability of the Task Force’s teams represented a valuable start, but we would have to build that same adaptability at a much greater scale.

A command is about obeying orders from superiors; that is what Neo-Taylorist management is about, although h many aspects have been sugarcoated with a more human face as brute command-and-control have become unfashionable. One example is Prince2 embracing agile and flexibility and leaving its old 4 point circle of “Plan-Delegate-Monitor-Control” behind.

Teams are different. At their core there is trust and purpose and solutions often emerge bottom-up in contrast to Taylor’s idea of the expert doing all the thinking and the planning. Teams have indeed been accepted over the last couple of decades, but mostly at the tactical level. With the advent of Lean for example, the facts just could not be denied any longer. We see this for example in the proliferation of Scrum teams for project and development work.

However, the strategical layers of management have largely been left untouched; our claim is that like SMC’s coalition, the decision making is still largely hierarchical. An example is the adoption of SAFe, that recognizes agile and Scrum at the tactical level, but retains the planning cycles at higher levels.

Team of teams

Although our Task Force’s constituent teams exemplified adaptability, a commandlike superstructure constrained the organization at large. This “command of teams” approach was more flexible than a conventional command, but was still not adaptable enough to deal with the complexities of the twenty-first century and battle AQI.

Although teams have proliferated across many sectors, they have almost always done so in the confines of broader commands. More and more organizations will need to overcome this hurdle and become more adaptable.

Unfortunately many of the traits that made our teams so good also made it incredibly difficult to scale those traits across our organization. We were also up against some fundamental constraints. Building a single team the size of our Task Force would be impossible.

The solution we devised was “team of teams” – an organization within which the relationships between constituent teams resembled those between individuals on a single team: teams that had traditionally resided in separate silos would have to become fused to one another via trust and purpose.

The challenge for SMC was to scale the benefits of the individual Team to cover those situations where cross-team collaboration and decision making was called for – frankly, that was most of the time.

The solution was very radical and somewhat unheard of in the military with its pronounced dispersion of information “on a need to know basis”. I recommend reading this part directly; it is probably not applicable to most organizations, after all most of us do not deal with dispensing life and death and fighting suicide bombers, but the pattern is good to be inspired by

We defined in Agile Lean Leadership the purpose of “Level 2 Teams” and “Secondary Teams”, and I experienced reading SMC’s account as very reassuring of the wisdom in organizing for complexity like that.

Seeing the system

Like NASA before it, our Task Force found itself confronted with a complex problem that demanded a systems approach to its solution; because of the interdependence of the operating environment, both organizations would need members to understand the entire, interconnected system, not just individual MECE boxes on the org chart.

Harnessing the capability of the entire geographically dispersed organization meant information sharing had to achieve levels of transparency entirely new to both organizations.

In traditional organizations, this constitutes culture change that does not come easily. It demanded a disciplined effort to create shared consciousness.

The traditional hierarchy was checked and outraged, when SMC insisted on radical transparency between the actors, but it was a necessary step towards a solution. Without this immediate access to the full picture nobody could make cross-team based decisions.

In organizations this is also unsettling; the control of information is the source of power and the hierarchy does not easily give up this control. Some have sinister self-serving motives, but in fact most are just doing their job as they see it, protecting the status quo. In one large organization that we worked with, Scrum Masters were not allowed to report impediments before these were approved as impediments by a superior. Needless to say, that defeats the purpose of a Scrum master.

Brains out of the foot locker

Shared consciousness in an organization is either hindered or helped by physical spaces and established processes. Often, efforts to facilitate Taylor-inspired efficiencies have produced barriers to information sharing and the kind of systemic understanding we needed to pervade our Task Force.  

Creating transparency and information sharing at the scale we needed required not only a redesign of our physical plant, but also a rethinking of almost every procedure in our organizational culture. The daily Q&I briefing lay at the core of our transformation, this pumped information about the entire scope of our operations out to all members of the Task Force and partner agencies, and also offered everyone the chance to contribute.

Often sharing information with people is seen as unnecessary waste, “just tell them what to do”. The problem is that in this day and age, we don’t know what they should do, they have to use their own best judgement, and be trusted to act on that. Radical visibility is where it all starts.

Beating the prisoner’s dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is about situations where working together does not seem to be a rational strategy, read more here…

Cooperation across silos would be necessary for success, and while systemic understanding was a valuable first step, we needed to build more trust if we were to achieve the fluid, teamlike cooperation that we needed across our force; we had to overcome the challenge of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

To this end, we used embedding and liaison programs to create strong lateral ties between our units, and with our partner organizations. Where systemic understanding mirrors the sense of “purpose” that bonds small teams, this mirrored the second ingredient to team formation: “trust.”

Together, these two elements completed the establishment of shared consciousness, something that was vital to our success. As is evidenced by the failures of GM and successes of Ford, the same innovations are sorely needed by many organizations still using rigid silos in an interdependent world.

In a networked organization the main challenge is to build enough trust for each Team to share information and trust the others to do their job. SMC calls this “shared consciousness”. While that may sound a bit New Age or fluffy bunny to some, it covers the fact of building enough common understanding of goals, needs, capabilities and issues combined with the trust of moving towards the same, common solution.

Too much resource and time is wasted in classic organizations, when suboptimizing the parts.

Hands of

Traditionally organizations have implemented as much control over subordinates as technology physically allowed.

New technologies offer today’s leaders unprecedented opportunities to gather information and direct operations, but because of the speed necessary to remain competitive, centralization of power now comes at great cost. While shared consciousness had helped us overcome the interdependence of the environment, speed, the second ingredient of complexity, still posed a challenge.

Effective adaptation to emerging threats and opportunities requires the disciplined practice of empowered execution. 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.

It follows from Taylor’s premise, that the better the expert can control the subordinates and make them do exactly what they are asked to do, the more efficient the solution will be. That may be so, but at the same time it increases the risk dramatically that the solution is the wrong one; the expert is perhaps not that much of an expert in the complex domain.

This is where it becomes really hard for organizations to let go of the decision power; many will gladly institute Teams and give great inspirational speeches, as long as the Team members do exactly what they are told. It is a real problem – what should managers do if they don’t issue orders and monitor their execution? Some react with abhorrence like nobility of old with the prospect of having to be involved with real work to make a living. Like SMC, they have to become leaders instead.

Leading like a gardener

Although we intuitively know the world has changed, most leaders reflect a model and leader development process that are sorely out of date. We often demand unrealistic levels of knowledge in leaders and force them into ineffective attempts to micromanage.

The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing.

A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.

In this great chapter SMC explains how it all came together for him; he had to act like a gardener instead of a chess master. As unhelpful as it is pulling a plant or commanding it to grow, as little does it help to command a network from the top; it has to be nurtured and attended to. The organization gardener creates the ecosystem for actors who can deal with complexity.


As our Task Force transformed itself, both our speed and precision improved dramatically. This was not a triumph of fine-tuning it into a hyperefficient machine. It had become a more transparent, more organic entity.

Technology had been both a cause of our challenge and a tool for our success. But is was the culture change in the organization that allowed the Task Force to use it properly.

At the core of the Task Force’s journey to adaptability lay a yin-and-yang symmetry of shared consciousness, achieved through strict, centralized forums for communication and extreme transparency, and empowered execution, which involved the decentralization of managerial authority. Together, these powered our Task Force; neither would suffice alone.   

Our transformation is reflective of the new generation of mental models we must adopt in order to make sense of the twenty-first century. It we do manage to embrace this change, we can unlock tremendous potential for human progress.

This is not a fluffy bunny, romantic view of the world and our challenges in it. SMC’s implementation and Agile Lean Leadership come into fruition through strong leadership, relentless training, building trust and a disciplined approach to knowledge-sharing and learning. We have to push responsibility as far out in organizations, as we can find someone to carry it.

It does require however, that an organization is united in pursuit of a common goal and with common values; otherwise there is nothing to direct efforts in the desired direction, when brute command and control is absent. How can this be accomplished  in a world that more and more falls back to the celebration of  individuals and their right to do what they please? The individuals are important and should be free to set their own course, but this freedom is not an absolute; it has to be balanced with a sensitivity to the greater good, otherwise we revert to law of the jungle. And to accomplish that, is an even bigger task than building an organization.


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