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Driving outcomes with a team of teams

Katherine Shao
VP Sales Enablement Practice
Retired Army General Stan McChrystal’s Team of Teams provides a real-world model for the adaptive organization.
December 18, 2020
"There is a comfort in ‘doubling down’ on proven processes, regardless of their efficacy.  Few of us are criticized if we faithfully do what has worked many times before. But feeling comfortable or dodging criticism should not be our measure of success. There’s likely a place in paradise for people who tried hard, but what really matters is succeeding.If that requires you to change, that’s your mission".
-       Stanley McChrystal in Team of Teams

Our digital age has made so much possible, yet it’s also wreaked havoc on the traditional constructs that corporations have used since the industrial revolution. Peoples’ roles, the way decisions are made, the way teams operate, and leadership—all of these organizational components that were so effective in the growth and scale of businesses for the last century, are all under the great stress and pressure of ubiquitous information, global scale and reach, and rapidly shifting customer demands. Many businesses and institutions have had no choice but to reinvent themselves, outside and in.

Yet in so many of the companies we’ve worked with, entire organizations continue double down on the systems that have worked for a hundred years. The results are risky: as more and more teams work in silos, they become more fragmented, antiquated, and paralyzed with every passing quarter.

Enter Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (2015). It’s a cohesive argument for the type of organizational change that’s needed in our world, one completely reshaped by global health crises and rapid technological development. The shift: moving from our existing, brittle organizational silos and top-down structures to nimble, adaptive groups of teams. As someone who loves reading about the approaches that others have used to become more resilient, agile, and I immediately recognized the value that McChrystal’s well-articulated insights could bring to Oxygen’s clients in the working world.

McChrystal, a retired United States Army general who is best known for his leadership of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan, transformed the collaborative unit (which has members from every branch of the military), discarding its rigid, cumbersome structures and instead becoming more like the opposing, decentralized forces—“faster, flatter, and more flexible.”

McChrystal’s book makes a connection between the challenges defense forces face in a post-9/11 world and how today’s organizational and operating structures have become entrenched, for both the US military and also for large businesses.Citing Frederick Winslow Taylor and his innovations for developing repeatable processes that could be performed by a wide range of minimally-skilled workers (think assembly lines), the book shows how those repeatable structures enabled business growth at a time when scale was most needed to drive progress. Taylor-esque operating models and organizations, with their hierarchies of command-and-control decision-making functions, permeated businesses for all of the 20th century. Military structures also worked in this way, as was suited for the type of conflicts that defined the first half of the 1900s—scale and rapidly improving technologies (culminating in the use of the atomic bomb) defined victory in both world wars.

But in the 21st century, those structures aren’t holding up in armed conflict or in business. Our increasingly connected world has made it tricky to discern or clarify structure and hierarchy, which in turn has disrupted separation and distinction of roles, responsibilities and functions–whether on the battlefield or in the office. Old protocols are upended. People learn how to game the system, and they learn how to make decisions faster than the system is built to move. Somewhere else in the real world, a pilot lands a plane on the Hudson River, saving everyone on board, and the next step after such a remarkable feat is to take him to court to scrutinize why he didn’t follow protocol.

I saw similar patterns between McChrystal’s analysis of antiquated structures in both the military and in business (he provides many examples, from NASA to General Motors), and Oxygen’s view of the workplace, its teams, and the barriers to proving value that teams and leaders face at work today. The idea of structuring roles, responsibilities, decision making, and leadership in amore modernized way is something we’ve been helping clients with for years.

What’s cool about the concept of a “team of teams” the way McChrystal describes is that it’s not the opposite of hierarchy or command-and-control. It’s just different. One of my favorite diagrams in the book (reproduced here) shows this difference:

Here are some of the attributes in the Team of Teams model:

What most was intriguing to explore in Team of Teams is that those cool-sounding attributes didn’t just happen by magic. They required work, vigilance, and a couple of other foundationally cohesive elements, such as:

And the most important: fostering a shared consciousness of the whole system and how it connects to an outcome.

But all of this discussion about the similarities and correlations between Oxygen and Team of Teams isn’t just to puff ourselves up. Really, we’re proud to have such adaptive company, because truly, as McChrystal writes:

The organization as a rigidly reductionist mechanical beast is an endangered species. The speed and interconnected nature of the new world in which we function have rendered it too stupid and slow to survive the onslaught of predators.

Translated, that means: people at work need an alternative to how they work today, and they need it now. And the more ways that we can help articulate it, the better.

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