7 Key Lessons for Agile Leaders from McChrystal’s Team of Teams Book

7 Key Lessons for Agile Leaders

I am always on the lookout for great books. Recently a fellow Agile Coach recommended General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams book to me. Wow, I was really blown away by this book! I thought it was going to be all about the military but McChrystal has instead written a leadership book that describes how to create true agility even in a large organization. It is a great book with many lessons for Agile Leaders!

In this article, I have summarized seven key takeaways or lessons for Agile Leaders. I’ve written them in the form used for the Agile Values statements – one thing over another. As you will see, each of the lessons for Agile Leaders is like a puzzle piece that fits together with and complements the others. They should not be applied in isolation.

I hope that you will be inspired to read the book.

7 Key Lessons for Agile Leaders

1. Adaptation over Taylorism

McChrystal goes into detail in his descriptions of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his influence on manufacturing processes in the early 20th century. One of Taylor’s main management tools was the stopwatch. Taylor used time studies to show the inefficiencies of manual laborers and was able to scientifically determine the one single best way to do work.

Consider this example of shoveling in a steel mill:

While working in the Bethlehem Steel plant, Taylor noticed that the shovel used by workers to shovel the pig iron was a size to handle 38 pounds and on an average a worker handle 25 tonnes of pig iron ore per day. However, with a heavy dash load shovel, the worker soon got tired and took unannounced and unscheduled breaks from shovelling. As he reduced the load handling capacity of the shovel from 38 to 35 to 30 pounds he noticed an increase in the average tonnage of output. After repeated trials when the load-carrying capacity of the level was reduced to 21.5 pounds, a substantial increase in average tonnage handled was noticed. The reduced size of the shovel delayed the onset of fatigue among the employees, giving them more time to shovel.

— Mirza S Saiyadain, Organisational Behaviour (2003)

By experimenting to determine the optimal shovel size, Taylor was able to get the best workers to consistently handle 60 tons of pig iron – more than double the average rate prior to the studies.

As you can imagine, Taylor’s approach was applauded by managers and owners. The determination of the one single best way to do things, coupled with the idea that workers just work and don’t think, led to huge productivity gains. Taylor was able to help organizations get the biggest payback for the least investment in energy.

What worked great for manual labor in the 20th century failed miserably with knowledge workers in the 21st. Taylor’s “Scientific Management” led to led to deep task specialization, compartmentalization and a focus on efficiency. It also cemented the paradigm that managers are the thinkers that know the best way to do things and workers are the doers who carry out orders.

Unfortunately, those ideas that Taylor introduced permeate all aspects of work today – including the military. As McChrystal points out, the hierarchical nature of the military along with the focus on efficiency produced a military capable of smashing large armies. But that same beast is ineffective when dealing with the network of terrorists. It simply wasn’t agile enough to respond in kind to the faster-moving enemy.

The pursuit of “efficiency”—getting the most with the least investment of energy, time, or money—was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

I like how he calls out the importance of responsiveness and adaptability. It reminds me of one of the four Agile Values:

Responding to Change over Following a Plan

Lessons for Agile Leaders – Don’t pursue efficiency for its own sake and don’t plan for a known set of variables. Rather, invest in the capacity to adapt and respond to what comes your way. In today’s competitive environment, you cannot predict what is going to come up or cover every scenario. So develop the ability to adapt to what comes at you rather than get locked into a plan.

2. Shared Consciousness over Information Hoarding

A common problem in most large organizations, including the military, is when people don’t share information. In most organizations, confidentiality is touted as is information on a “need to know” basis. Unfortunately, when those people closest to the work don’t have information, there is no way they can quickly and effectively solve problems.

McChrystal describes how he and his team labored to overcome siloes of information and instead creating a shared consciousness. He describes shared consciousness as “extremely transparent information sharing” and a “carefully maintained set of centralized forums for bringing people together”.

McChrystal caught my attention when he described something that agile proponents like Craig Larman emphasized – using low-tech tools like Whiteboards to create this shared consciousness among the members of his teams. The combination of the spoken word with the ability to draw pictures is a powerful technique for shared consciousness.

Most people go for a more limited communication approach. They just send out an email, post a file in MS Teams or perhaps they schedule a town hall or conference call. But there is something to be said for the collaboration that comes from talking and drawing things out.

In place of maps, whiteboards began to appear in our headquarters. Soon they were everywhere. Standing around them, markers in hand, we thought out loud, diagramming what we knew, what we suspected, and what we did not know. We covered the bright white surfaces with multicolored words and drawings, erased, and then covered again. We did not draw static geographic features; we drew mutable relationships—the connections between things rather than the things themselves.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

Jeff Patterson has a great diagram that illustrates the point of going beyond surface agreement and getting what is in people’s minds out into the open:

Lessons for Agile Leaders - Creating Shared Consciousness may require drawing on a whiteboard

Of course, the whiteboards were just one channel of communication. McChrystal also put in place the Operational and Intelligence briefing or O&I, a daily video conference with all team members.

The meeting ran six days a week and was never canceled. We conducted it by video teleconference at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. This made it a convenient start to the workday for the Washington-based departments and agencies we were trying to integrate ever more tightly into our operations. In Iraq, the meeting kicked off at 4:00 p.m., giving operators time to rise in the late morning, train, prepare, participate in the O&I, and then get ready for the raids and fights that would take them from dusk until dawn. That synchronized cycle—what we called our “battle rhythm”—was fueled by the O&I, which pumped information and context throughout our Task Force.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

The O&I became a key tool in helping to promote the shared consciousness of the group. Through the use of whiteboards and the O&I, McChrystal was able to “produce extraordinary outcomes across even large groups.”

We used shared consciousness to pump information out, empowering people at all levels, and we redefined the role of leadership (“gardeners”). What we did would not have been possible twenty, ten, maybe even five years prior—so essential to our approach were the information technologies we harnessed—nor would it have been necessary. Today it is.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

Lessons for Agile Leaders – Do push the limits on transparency and information sharing. Don’t hoard knowledge and don’t reward or promote those that do. Experiment with different approaches to expand transparency whether that is daily video calls, whiteboards, Wikis or other forums. The risk of failure from data exposure is far outweighed by the benefits of knowledge sharing.

3. Networks over Hierarchies

Initially, the Task Force that McChrystal took over in 2003 was a hierarchy, much as you would expect from a military organization. And that style of organization might have worked great against another similar organization. But the enemies that McChrystal and his team were fighting in the early 21st century didn’t look anything like previous opponents. And as McChrystal demonstrates in the diagram below from his book, the enemy was different than the one they were designed to fight.

The Enemy was Anything But Hierarchical - Key Lessons for Agile Leaders

What McChrystal faced was a network. To beat a network they had to re-organize themselves into their own network. This is what McChrystal called a team of teams:

The Task Force still had ranks and each member was still assigned a particular team and sub-sub-command, but we all understood that we were now part of a network; when we visualized our own force on the whiteboards, it now took the form of webs and nodes, not tiers and silos. … To defeat a network, we had become a network. We had become a team of teams.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

Deborah Lovich echoed the points made by McChrystal in her recent Forbes article, Thinking Radically About New Types Of (Agile, Empowering, Enabling, Inspiring, Supportive, Trusting) Leadership:

We need to retire the hierarchical, command-and-control leadership model and create leadership teams at every level that are more agile, more empowering, more enabling, more inspiring, more supportive and more trusting.

— Deborah Lovich, Thinking Radically About New Types of Leadership

It wasn’t just a matter of scrambling teams and management structures. McChrystal de-emphasized the hierarchy and instead focused on getting information out to whoever needed that information.

McChrystal also encouraged and facilitated high-trust relationships among people from different teams. He built on the idea that teams are more effective than the individuals that comprise them and that people tend to naturally think of us and them; us being our small team and them being everyone else. One key to his approach was promoting cross-pollination among teams – Seal Teams, Rangers, Air Force, Operations, and even the CIA and FBI. He created an effective network held together by those high-trust relationships.

Lesson for Agile Leaders: Hierarchies are slow and unwieldy. While powerful and efficient, they are too slow to deliver the needed solution before it becomes obsolete. Consider the use of a network where people work across organizational silos to bring the combined power of the organization to bear. These need to be nurtured.

4. Gardener over Chess Player

Military training and experience grooms generals to think like great Chess players. Chess players have the ability to move each piece on the board according to the capabilities of the piece. Chess players face just one opponent at a time and each player respectfully takes a turn at moving one piece before waiting for the opponent to make a move.

Unfortunately, the conflict that McChrystal was facing in 2004 no longer resembled chess. There was no patient back and forth of one move and there was no opposing chess player:

Even in its most rapid form, chess is still a rigidly iterative game, alternating moves between opponents. War in 2004 followed no such protocol. The enemy could move multiple pieces simultaneously or pummel us in quick succession, without waiting respectfully for our next move.

They did so with such speed that it was soon apparent that their changes were not the outcome of deliberate decision making by seniors in the hierarchy; they were organic reactions by forces on the ground. Their strategy was likely unintentional, but they had leveraged the new environment with exquisite success.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

McChrystal recognized that the best way to battle a network was not to try to direct the battle by personally dictating the moves of each of his “chess pieces”. That would be far too slow and cause too much loss of life.

Instead, he cultivated those same “organic” reactions within his own forces. He nurtured the structure, processes, and culture of the organization to enable “the subordinate components to function with smart autonomy”. Coupled with “shared consciousness” it freed the team members to execute actions in pursuit of the overall strategy as best they saw fit.

Of course, this wasn’t an easy shift for McChrystal. In his words, creating the environment for teamwork to flourish became his primary responsibility. And he recognized that this was more like gardening than playing chess.

First I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem. Paradoxically, at exactly the time when I had the capability to make more decisions, my intuition told me I had to make fewer. At first it felt awkward to delegate decisions to subordinates that were technically possible for me to make. If I could make a decision, shouldn’t I? Wasn’t that my job? It could look and feel like I was shirking my responsibilities, a damning indictment for any leader. My role had changed, but leadership was still critical—perhaps more than ever.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

McChrystal used the gardener analogy and I appreciated it, being a gardener myself. You cannot force a plant in a garden to grow. All you can do is create a culture or environment where plants can flourish. Similarly, you can create a culture and environment within the military to enable people to act without first securing approval.

This type of environment is not new or necessarily novel. McChrystal describes similar empowerment at customer savvy organizations like Ritz Carlton or Nordstroms where the first line employees are not only encouraged but required to do right by the customer.

At Nordstrom, employees are told that the number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. They have just one rule: Use good judgment in all situations.

Nordstrom doesn’t try to describe every possible scenario or customer issue that could arise. Instead, employees are told that the goal is to provide outstanding customer service and employees are to use good judgment in all situations.

Lessons for Agile Leaders: One of the most important tasks for an agile leader is to create an environment where people can do their best work. Rather than trying to direct all the actions or micromanage, create the structure, processes, and culture where 1) goals are clear, 2) information is shared and 3) individuals are empowered to use good judgment and take action to pursue the goals.

5. Empowered Execution over Scripted Directions

Empowered execution is closely related to the previous item. Empowered execution is a term coined by McChrystal for pushing decision-making out to his teams. You could think of empowered execution as distributed decision-making.

Empowered execution is a radically decentralized system for pushing authority out to the edges of the organization.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her 1985 book, The Change Masters, says this about the importance of empowering employees and team members:

“The degree to which the opportunity to use power effectively is granted to or withheld from individuals is one operative difference between those companies which stagnate and those which innovate.”

— Elizabeth Moss Kanter, The Change Masters (1985)

Lots of leaders talk a great game about this but the reality is, many of the leaders that I see in organizations are micromanagers. Rather than having a strategic focus or trying to be a gardener, they actually play down a level or two. Instead of leading, they are directing their subordinates as if they were chess players on a board.

McChrystal found that speed of responsiveness was problematic when leaders are making all the decisions.

The rigid hierarchy and absolute power of officers slows down execution and stifles rapid adaptation by the soldiers closest to the fight. When a subordinate must spend time seeking detailed guidance from a distant officer in order to respond to a rapidly evolving opportunity, the price for traditional order and discipline becomes too high.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

Empowered execution only works when information is shared with those making the decisions – what we described earlier as shared consciousness. In order for empowerment to work, you need to make sure those who are empowered to decide have the best information possible.

Empowered execution without shared consciousness is dangerous.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

Does that sound like any other military leader? Agile fans are probably aware of captain David Marquet and his excellent book, Turn This Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. Marquet describes in great detail how as a submarine commander, he was able to avoid giving commands and instead, encouraged his subordinates to make decisions by emulating Marquet’s thought processes and announcing their intent. Marquet also acknowledges the importance of shared consciousness:

“As more decision-making authority is pushed down the chain of command, it becomes increasingly important that everyone throughout the organization understands what the organization is about. This is called clarity,”

L. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

Lessons for Agile Leaders: Consider your current leadership style and level of empowerment. Are you pushing out decision-making to the people and teams you lead? Or do you tend to try to control others, rather than unleash them? Are you cultivating an environment where knowledge is shared and everyone understands the goals of the organization?

[This related article has a brief command and control litmus test to quickly assess your level of control: Stop Trying to Control People]

6. Resilience over Predictability

Donal Rumsfield is credited with describing the known knowns and unknown unknowns in a defense briefing in 2002:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.

— Donal Rumsfield, US Secretary of Defense

The previous military strategy focused on a range of possible outcomes and developing contingency plans for the most likely outcomes. Unfortunately, the number of possible outcomes for a networked enemy were nearly infinite and the ripple effect of their actions were impossible to predict.

We were stronger, more efficient, more robust. But AQI was agile and resilient. In complex environments, resilience often spells success, while even the most brilliantly engineered fixed solutions are often insufficient or counterproductive.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

The strategy that can be applied in this context is not to try to predict. Rather, it is about being responsive and resilient. To have the capacity prepared and at the ready to execute when it is appropriate.

“Resilience thinking” is a burgeoning field that attempts to deal in new ways with the new challenges of complexity. In a resilience paradigm, managers accept the reality that they will inevitably confront unpredicted threats; rather than erecting strong, specialized defenses, they create systems that aim to roll with the punches, or even benefit from them. Resilient systems are those that can encounter unforeseen threats and, when necessary, put themselves back together again. Investor and writer Nassim Taleb captures a similar concept with the term “antifragile systems.” Fragile systems, he argues, are those that are damaged by shocks; robust systems weather shocks; and antifragile systems, like immune systems, can benefit from shocks.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

Lessons for Agile Leaders: Trying to predict future challenges is extremely difficult in a VUCA world. Instead, build the capacity for resilience. Focus on responsiveness and anti-fragility. That means that instead of having all employees or team members fully utilized (100% resource utilization), have some slack in the system so that the team has the capability to respond.

7. Fostering Trust over Tribal Loyalties

Trust within a small team is generally pretty easy to achieve. We get to know people and work closely with them and we begin to see how they operate and we trust them and they trust us. But how do you do this across teams of 50, 100 or 150 people?

Large teams have a number of challenges – the first of which is the hierarchical organization structure. That organization structure as we showed before forces information to go up the chain, across, and then down the chain. Anyone who has ever played the “telephone game” knows what happens when information flows that way.

Information Flow in a Hierarchy

Rather than operating as a hierarchy, they needed to shift to a network – or what McChrystal called a team of teams. But just changing the organization doesn’t fix the communication issue. What needs to be addressed is trust.

You see what happens with teams is that tribal loyalties develop. The larger the team, the more fractured the organization is. People tend to trust and like those closest to them, and dislike and distrust those that are not close to them. There is a feeling that “We” are great (whoever we are) and anyone else is a “They” that sucks. McChrystal had to work hard to forge the bonds of trust across his team of teams.

This is about more than the feel-good effects of “bonding.” It is done because teams whose members know one another deeply perform better. Any coach knows that these sorts of relationships are vital for success. A fighting force with good individual training, a solid handbook, and a sound strategy can execute a plan efficiently, and as long as the environment remains fairly static, odds of success are high. But a team fused by trust and purpose is much more potent. Such a group can improvise a coordinated response to dynamic, real-time developments.

Groups like SEAL teams and flight crews operate in truly complex environments, where adaptive precision is key. Such situations outpace a single leader’s ability to predict, monitor, and control. As a result, team members cannot simply depend on orders; teamwork is a process of reevaluation, negotiation, and adjustment; players are constantly sending messages to, and taking cues from, their teammates, and those players must be able to read one another’s every move and intent.

Harvard Business Professor Amy Edmondson coined the term psychological safety, a key trait of effective teams. She explains:

“Great teams consist of individuals who have learned to trust each other. Over time, they have discovered each other’s strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to play as a coordinated whole.”

— Amy Edmondson, quoted in Team of Teams (2015)

McChrystal adds:

Without this trust, SEAL teams would just be a collection of fit soldiers.

— General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams (2015)

To build trust and cohesiveness across a large team, McChrystal took several proactive steps:

  • Rotated team members from one area to another, say Seals to Rangers
  • Asked his fellow leaders to only place their best people on other teams

Lessons for Agile Leaders:  Invest the time it takes to build a team culture for the entire team.

Bottom Line

Team of Teams is an excellent book and a must-read for Agile Leaders of all stripes. That includes managers and leaders in all types of organizations as well as agile coaches and Scrum Masters. I highly recommend it.

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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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