In 2004 General Stanley McChrystal was appointed head of Joint Special Operations Task Force for the US military in Iraq.  He subsequently recorded his experience inTeams of Teams published in 2015.

In summary McChrystal came equipped for the job with the best technology and the best military training that money could buy.  At 50 he was at the peak of his career and capabilities and he was ready to put his 30 years of military theory and experience to good use.  His adversaries possessed none of these advantages.  They were poorly equipped, had little formal training and no obvious command and control structure.

It was never going to be a fair fight.

McChrystal found a US fighting force that was on the back foot. The apparent advantages of scale, manpower and technology were turned on their head by irregular insurgents operating with rapid communication and flexibility in a terrain that they knew intimately.  McChrystal soon realised that he needed to fundamentally re-think how the Task Force was organised. 

His key insight was that ‘we have moved from a data poor but fairly predictable setting into a data rich uncertain one’ The First Human Age

From ‘Command and Control’ to the ‘Team of Teams’

In this new environment, the traditional command and control structure was no longer effective.  The decision makers at the top of the command chain were too far removed from the relevant information and they were two slow to react.

This led McChrystal to change the organisational and decision making structure of the task force to a ‘Teams of Teams’ approach. The underpinning tenets of this were transparent communication and decentralised decision making.  For those making the decisions the maxim was simple:  ‘use good judgement in all situations’.

McChrystal recognised that his role needed to change too.  He came to view his primary responsibility as being to create a ‘shared consciousness’ or common purpose.  Rather than being the master strategist, he saw his role as being similar to that of a gardener. He needed to create the right environment to allow these teams to flourish and decisions to be made within the context of this shared consciousness.

This change in approach had dramatic effects of on overall effectiveness of the programme.  They went from performing a mission once every 5 days to performing 5 every single day.

A model for the future

McChrystal’s story is beginning to be echoed in the corporate world.  There is a growing recognition that command and control that dominated the corporate structures of the 19th and 20th centuries is structurally incapable of responding effectively to the ‘data rich and uncertain world’ that we now work in. 

The power of teams and delegated decision making is gaining broader attention through a movement which attempts to codify this team-based/delegated authority management system into something that any company can use. Holacracy, as it is known, substitutes hierarchical authority for a constitutional framework that defines how autonomous team-based decisions are made.  Amongst others, Tony Hsieh, the iconoclastic and inspirational founder and CEO of Zappos, has adopted Holacracy on a wholescale basis.

While full-blown Holacracy may be a step too far for many businesses, there is no doubt that few will be able to flourish in the new data-rich,  rapidly changing and interconnected world  without re-thinking the role of management and the way that decisions are made and implemented.  We need to trust our teams to use good judgement and to make decisions within the context of a commonly understood shared consciousness and purpose.