Our Complex World Demands a “Team of Teams”

People often suggest books for me to read, and when I read them, I wonder what they have to do with what I do or the business world. But Team of Teams is one book that really struck a chord with me. 

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Relevant From the First Page

I receive a lot of recommendations about books I should read, and I’ll generally give them a try if they are about a subject I’m interested in. However, I often find myself wondering what they have to do with my life as a CEO and business continuity consultant.  

One book I read recently prompted no such questions. It connected with my own experience from the first page. The problems it describes echoed things I see week in and week out in conducting recovery exercises with MHA Consulting clients. The solutions it proposes seemed to me to be pretty promising, as well. 

The book was Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by Gen. Stanley McChrystal (U.S. Army, ret.).  

The book came out in 2015, which makes me a little late to the party. But since it was new to me, I’m guessing it might also be new to many of you. 

Today’s Complex World

The key to the book lies in the subtitle.  

McChrystal says that in the twentieth century, the world was “complicated” but in the twenty-first, it has become “complex.” 

Something that is complicated has many parts but the individual parts do not move and they perform the same way every time. A car engine is a good example. 

Something that is complex has many parts and each part can move independently and has a mind of its own. An example is al-Qaeda, which McChrystal had first-hand experience of fighting as a general in Iraq. (His experiences with the army during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the ideas in the book.) 

A complicated world is hierarchical; a complex one is networked. A complicated world is machine-like; a complex one is organic. 

In a complicated world, the most successful organizations are those that excel at being efficient. To succeed in a complex world requires agility. 

This has implications for everyone who is in a leadership role today. 

Treating People Like Machine Parts

One figure in the book embodies the old way of doing things. He was a mechanical engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor who became famous as an efficiency expert in the early twentieth century. Taylor helped factory owners redesign production processes to make them more efficient. He broke processes down into very small steps, eliminating any chance for workers to exercise their own judgment. He treated workers like cogs in a machine, having them do one simple action over and over.  

In the complicated world of the twentieth century, this brought organizations success (the impact on the workers was more mixed). In the complex world of the twenty-first, treating people like machine parts is a recipe for failure. 

Picturing a Team of Teams

The best form of business organization today, says McChrystal, is a “team of teams.” If an old-school organization can be depicted as a traditional org chart with the boss sitting at the top and everyone reporting up to him or her through the various departments. The team of teams resembles several clusters of dots on a page. Each cluster is a team. On that team, all the dots (that is, people) that make up the team are connected to one another by lines indicating a relationship. The clusters (that is, teams) are connected to each other in the same way. That’s your team of teams. 

A team of teams is less efficient than a hierarchy, says McChrystal, but it’s more agile, adaptable, and resilient. There’s less top-down control and more trust. There are fewer orders and more delegation. The main lines of communications aren’t top-down but horizontal, between peer groups. 

A Good Leader is a Good Gardener

McChrystal’s idea of a good leader for complex times is essentially the opposite of the Frederick Winslow Taylor approach. Instead of a boss who turns people into cogs, the effective leader of today should think of himself or herself as a gardener, creating conditions in which others can thrive, McChrystal says. I couldn’t agree more. 

An Accurate Depiction of Today’s World

McChrystal’s book impressed me because I kept recognizing myself in the stories he tells, or not myself but rather experiences I’ve had with clients. The book is an accurate depiction of the world as I’ve seen it myself. 

I’ve seen organizations crack up during exercises because the leaders get overwhelmed and the people lower down don’t communicate among themselves and lack the authority to make decisions or take the initiative. I’ve also seen organizations where the culture is more flexible and there’s a lot of communication and trust among teams sail through crises that should, on paper, have left them flat on their backs.  

The fact that I’ve seen things play out just the way McChrystal says they do sharpened my interest in his ideas. 

Learning from a Team of Teams

The book, in addition to being insightful and thought-provoking, is full of interesting stories drawn from McChrystal’s military experience and from a variety of industries and situations.  

I’m not suggesting every organization should immediately implement this book to the letter. But if you’re a leader who’s trying to sort out what it takes to succeed in that role in today’s complex world, you could do worse than seeing what Stanley McChrystal has to say about the subject in Team of Teams

Further Reading

For more information on building a business continuity management team (BCM team) and other hot topics in BCM and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from BCMMETRICS and MHA Consulting: 

Michael Herrera is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of MHA. In his role, Michael provides global leadership to the entire set of industry practices and horizontal capabilities within MHA. Under his leadership, MHA has become a leading provider of Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery services to organizations on a global level. He is also the founder of BCMMETRICS, a leading cloud based tool designed to assess business continuity compliance and residual risk. Michael is a well-known and sought after speaker on Business Continuity issues at local and national contingency planner chapter meetings and conferences. Prior to founding MHA, he was a Regional VP for Bank of America, where he was responsible for Business Continuity across the southwest region.


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