In 2014 I was invited to join my former commanding officer, Stan McChrystal, as a co-author in writing Team of Teams. Our goal in writing it was to offer our view on why the military models of the twentieth century were fundamentally misaligned with the realities of an information- age battlefield. The speed and interconnectivity of this new type of conflict forced the senior leadership within our branch of the special operations community to make a choice: lead us through a culture change or potentially lose the fight against Al Qaeda. They chose the former.
Team of Teams explored a simple idea that sat at the epicenter of the challenge in making this culture change: How can large organizations move with the speed and agility of a small team?
In that vein, our writing team laid out the reactive small-team dynamics that are so powerfully highlighted within special operations units, as well as in any number of other high-performing teams. We explained that a small team’s ability to quickly adapt comes from the combination of four key drivers.
First, their members trust one another. Second, they are bound by a sense of common purpose—a shared ideology or purposeful trait. Third, given the small size and rich interconnectivity of a small team, they can create a sense of shared consciousness among the group: a state in which all members have a common understanding of their mutually-held problem set, a shared access to key information, and are aligned in the direction they need to move next. You’ve felt this, most likely, in small teams you’ve been on, but re-creating this state at scale, and with necessary regularity, is a far greater challenge.
With these three initial factors in place, the fourth and final quality can exist: empowered execution. The ultimate goal in today’s quickly changing environment for an organization is the ability to decentralize decision-making rights down to those actors closest to the issues: empowered execution was, for the special operations community, the key to moving as fast as or faster than the rate of change of our external environment. Empowered execution creates the space for teams to act with autonomy, but as it is coupled with the influence of shared consciousness, it is high-accountability(and therefore risk-reduced) autonomy.
The book we wrote found an audience with senior leaders across many industries. From the reading list of commandant of the Marine Corps to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon’s 2016 list of “must reads,” the book’s ideas found receptive audiences in some of the world’s most seasoned and credentialed leaders.
Even with Team of Teams as a frame, however, readers have continued to ask us a common series of questions: I accept the premise, but how exactly do we implement this model? Or What are the most important steps to focus on when attempting a team of teams? And even How does a forum with thousands of people not devolve into total chaos?
To this day, I’ll also often get another line of questioning meant to be respectful of our teams’ efforts in conflict, but which expresses a healthy skepticism about whether lessons from a modern battlefield can truly apply to other realms: What your organization did was impressive, but it’s different here. In the military you can just give orders, and subordinates have to follow. It’s not like that in the civilian world.
If there are any former military folks in the room, they’ll invariably chuckle at this.
I was on active duty for just over fifteen years, and I can’t think of a single time that I ever truly gave or received an “order” like the one you might imagine from watching a war movie, in which a higher-ranking officer’s harsh words are universally adhered to and respected by those under their command. That approach doesn’t work well in the conven- tional military, and it falls even further short in the special operations community—where triple-selected, highly qualified, and deeply experienced personalities don’t take kindly to being ordered by an officer with less practical experience than they possess.
Regardless of context, a leader cannot simply command people what to do and expect them to wholeheartedly follow. Rather, their task should be to guide teams, influence their decision making, and give them appropriate but not overly restrictive guardrails. But guardrails like this are impossible to establish without one critical factor—an organizational model that retains stability where necessary while also allowing for the distributed decision making that is mandated by our information age.
Many of the questions I’ve received, of course, can be compounded into the following line: What are the practical and tangible steps that business leaders must take if they are to build their own team of teams? Team of Teams told our story and made an argument about the final state that modern organizations need to arrive at to succeed, but it was not a practicum on how to reach that goal. Our intent in the pages ahead is to offer just that; to provide leaders with a sense of the necessary steps to creating a team of teams.
Excerpted from ONE MISSION: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams by Chris Fussell, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Chris Fussell, 2017.