Team of Teams | Book Review

General Stanley McChrystal (retired) with Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell share the limitations and failures of a traditional command and control centric response to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), their transformative and successful adaptation and response, and the relevant lessons for any contemporary organization.

Organizational Self-Audit

Think of Part I, The Proteus Problem, as a call for self-audit of your organizational structure. McChrystal, a very well trained and competent military officer, wondered why AQI was not collapsing under increased military action. From page 26, “But it [AQI] didn’t. It continued to function as persistently and implacably as ever, demonstrating a coherence of purpose and strategy.”

Central to Part I is the story of Quaker Frederick Winslow Taylor (introduced on page 36). McChrystal persuasively argues any organizational endeavor would learn well Taylor’s lasting influence about how people and teams do things. Taylor focused on extreme efficiency, which correspondingly discounted people:

“[A laborer] shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type… the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work. He is so stupid that the word “percentage” has no meaning to him, and he must consequently be trained by a man more intelligent than himself into the habit of working in accordance with the laws of this science before he can be successful (page 43).”

With humility, McChrystal’s team (page 52) concluded, “the proliferation of new information-age technologies rendered Taylorist efficiency an outdated managerial paradigm.” A great story on pages 53-54 describes how Hosni Mubarak’s reign in Egypt ended within just three months after Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi’s horrific self-immolation protest. The authors also draw an important explanation and differentiation (on page 57) between complex (sharp increase in interactions) and complicated (many parts, but may be broken down) very instructive for leadership understanding, concluding (on page 59) “small things in a complex system may have no effect or a massive one, and it is virtually impossible to know which one will turn out to be the case.” The authors also mention Steven Johnson’s Emergence, which strips the mythology of the Ant Queen away (pages 103-5), eventually yielding that “order can emerge from the bottom up, as opposed to directives from above.”

By Chapter 4, Doing the Right Thing, we may (as McChrystal’s team did) feel outdated, outflanked and uncompetitive, very similar to our Setting Leadership Priorities workshop focusing on a leader’s need to be effective rather than efficient.

This sets up Part II, contemporary examples of the need for agility, including the sobering comparison of United Flight 173 (airline crews structured as a command) with US Airways Flight 1549 (airline crews functioning as a team). Or, perhaps worse, the number of [annual U.S.] deaths due to medical error is now estimated to be between 210,000 to 400,000, which equates to the third leading cause of deaths in (CDC - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) 2011 (page 124). McChrystal’s summary: “We just needed every member of the Task Force to know someone on every team.” Think about that and whether or not it applies within your (often matrix) organization. The authors cite J. Richard Hackman and “Brooks Law,” in Leading Teams, arguing that adding staff to speed up a late project has little chance of working (p. 127-128).


Part III, Sharing, offers penetrating chapters which challenge how well we share, communicate, and ultimately delegate. McChrystal was faced with several truths:

• “Our operation was a success at the level of each individual team (page 137), but was also rife with opportunities left unrealized for our Task Force at large.”

• “The problem with the logic of ‘need to know’ depends on the assumption that somebody -- some manager or algorithm or bureaucracy -- actually knows who does and does not need to know what material (page 141).”

The Secret of Apollo, Stephen B. Johnson – a fantastic story (page 147) is offered as an example of what type of organizational structure was necessary.

Chapter 8, Brains Out Of The Footlocker, is magnificent.  McChrystal describes how, starting from scratch, a headquarters was assembled with continuous Situational Awareness, worldwide, as a primary objective. Compare that with (P. 163) 93 percent of those working in cubicles saying they would prefer a different workspace.

McChrystal observed “How we organize physical space says a lot about how we think people behave; but how people behave is often a by-product of how we set up physical space (page 159).” Rather than brick and mortar, the team invested in bandwidth for communication and patiently solicited broad participation, resulting in the Operations & Intelligence (O&I) briefing becoming one of McChrystal’s most powerful leadership tools.

McChrystal addressed the challenge of The Prisoner’s Dilemma with collaboration, or more specifically a linchpin liaison officer (LNO). Imagine [functional] LNOs within your organization and the challenges facing them (especially access to senior leaders) and the benefits when supported and trusted throughout an enterprise. In summary, systemic understanding and strong lateral connectivity (page 187) are needed for success, exemplified with contrasting recent leadership at General Motors and Ford Motor Company.

Be a Gardener

In Part IV Letting Go, McChrystal described supervising processes leading to a 1,567% increase in raids (from 10 to 18 to 300) per month (P. 218).  The authors conclude with an analogy again based in humility, that of a gardener. “The gardener cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes, squash or beans – she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.” Much like findings in our Motivation Workshop, our role as a leader is establishing the environment and then tending to it, letting it grow.

A must-read for anyone serious about the future of his or her organization.

JE | July 2015