Reflecting on Team of Teams
I read a thought provoking book by General Stanley McChrystal, called Team of Teams. I live tweeted quotes from the book as I read it (easily-accessible thread). I wanted to reflect on the lessons I learned, along with a lot of direct quotes, in this post.
The book pits efficiency against adaptability. It argues that being adaptable is more important than being efficient. It talks about using adaptability to counter limiting factors ("limfac") as well as friction ("divergence of reality from plan").
We will argue that the familiar pursuit of efficiency must change course. Efficiency remains important, but the ability to adapt to complexity and continual change has become an imperative.
The book touched on big data and how it wasn't very useful in predicting the future.
Data-rich records can be wonderful for explaining how complex phenomena happened and how they might happen, but they can't tell us when and where they will happen.
The book also argued that predicting isn't the only solution.
Prediction is not the only way to confront threats; developing resilience, learning how to reconfigure to confront the unknown, is a much more effective way to respond to a complex environment.
The book defines complicated as a system which may be difficult to comprehend initially but has predictable results. It defines complexity as volatile where a system has numerous types and number of interactions which make it very difficult to predict results. The book argues that today's world is complex, nearly impossible to predict, thus being adaptable is even more important.
The reality is that small things in a complex system may have no effect or a massive one, and it is virtually impossible to know which will turn out to be the case.
Attempts to control complex systems by using ... mechanical, reductionist thinking ... - breaking everything down into component parts, or optimizing individual elements - tend to be pointless at best or destructive at worst.
In complex environments, resilience often spells success, while even the most brilliantly engineered fixed solutions are often insufficient or counterproductive.
The key lies in shifting our focus from predicting to reconfiguring. By ... - recognizing the inevitability of surprises and unknowns - and concentrating on systems that can survive and indeed benefit from such surprises, we can triumph over volatility.
The book talks about shared consciousness, which is based on "systemic understanding" and "strong lateral connectivity". In other words, people in an organization must have the same understanding of purpose and they must be connected to each other in a mesh rather than through hierarchy. It's the job of leadership to manage "a carefully maintained set of centralized forums for bringing people together."
Technically it was complex, financially it was expensive, but we were trying to build a culture of sharing
Team members tackling complex environments must all grasp the team's situation and overarching purpose.
Creating a team of teams is possible only when shared consciousness has been made possible. It's imperative for larger teams to go through some inefficiencies and overlap to achieve the goal of connectedness.
Purpose affirms trust, trust affirms purpose, and together they forge individuals into a working team.
Trust and purpose are inefficient: getting to know your colleagues intimately and acquiring a whole-system overview are big time sinks; the sharing of responsibilities generates redundancy. But this overlap and redundancy - these inefficiencies - are precisely what imbues teams with high-level adaptability and efficacy. Great teams are less like "awesome machines" than awesome organisms.
NASA leadership understood that, when creating an interactive product, confining specialists to a silo was stupid: high-level success depended on low-level inefficiencies.
Getting a team of teams to form is difficult but it serves a strategic purpose.
... when confined to silos ... teams might achieve tactical adaptability, but will never be able to exhibit those traits at a strategic level.
Teams, like many of the topics studied in this book (trust, purpose, the need for adaptability, etc.), can easily devolve into a "bumper sticker solution" - rhetoric parading as real transformation.
In the words of one of our SEALs, "The squad is the point at which everyone else sucks. That other squadron sucks, the other SEAL teams suck, and our Army counterparts definitely suck." Of course, every other squad thought the same thing.
We didn't need every member of the Task Force to know everyone else; we just needed everyone to know someone on every team, so that when they thought about, or had to work with, the unit that bunked next door ... they envisioned a friendly face
Leadership must recognize the need to share information freely.
Such absurdities reflect the truth that most organizations are more concerned with how best to control information than how best to share it.
The problem is that 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 which material.
Continuing to function under the illusion that we can understand and foresee exactly what will be relevant to whom is hubris. It might feel safe but it is the opposite. ... Everyone has to see the system in its entirety for the plan to work.
Once an organization has made shared consciousness possible, it can turn toward empowered execution, which "is a radically decentralized system for pushing authority out to the edges of the organization."
One individual, properly empowered, became a conduit to a larger network that could contribute back into our process.
... simply taking off constraints is a dangerous move. It should be done only if the recipients of newfound authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely.
Paradoxically, the seemingly instantaneous communication available up and down the hierarchy had slowed rather than accelerated decision making. Leaders who could be contacted in moments felt compelled to withhold authority on decisions of significant importance (or for which they might ultimately be held responsible). Communications may have been instantaneous but decisions never were. The aggregate effects were crippling.
We concluded that we would be better served by accepting the 70 percent solution today, rather than satisfying protocol and getting the 90 percent solution tomorrow (in the military you learn that you will never have time for the 100 percent solution).
We had decentralized on the belief that the 70 percent solution today would be better than the 90 percent solution tomorrow. But we found our estimates were backward - we were getting the 90 percent solution today instead of the 70 percent solution tomorrow.
The book emphasizes the need for specialized skills. However, they must also be accompanied by "generalized awareness".
We did not want all the teams to become generalists ... Diverse specialized abilities are essential. We wanted to fuse generalized awareness with specialized expertise.
The book argues that the role of leadership must change in a complex world.
... top-down coordination of siloed efforts works only if those on top actually understand how everything will interact. At GM they no longer did. The products, markets, and supply chains they dealt with had crossed the threshold from complicated to complex.
... confirmed my role as a leader, and made me feel important and needed - something most managers yearn for. But it was not long before I began to question my value to the process. I could ask thoughtful questions, but I had no illusions that my judgement was markedly superior to that of the people with whom I worked. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I only rarely had some groundbreaking insight. Most of the time I would simply trust the recommendations made by those who came to get me, as they knew most about the issue. My inclusion was a rubber stamp that slowed the process, and sometimes caused us to miss fleeting opportunities.
An individual who makes a decision becomes more invested in its outcome. Another factor was that ... our leadership simply did not understand what was happening on the ground as thoroughly as the people there.
In the old model, subordinates provided information and leaders disseminated commands. We reversed it: we had our leaders provide information so that subordinates, armed with context, understanding, and connectivity, could take initiative and make decisions.
The role of the senior leader was no longer that of controlling puppet master, but rather that of an empathetic crafter of culture.
Attention studies have shown that most people can thoughfully consider only one thing at a time, and that multitasking dramatically degrades our ability to accomplish tasks requiring cognitive concentration. Given these limitations, the idea that a 'heroic leader' enabled with an uber-network of connectivity can simultaneously control a thousand marionettes on as many stages is unrealistic.
The gardener creates an environment in which the plants can flourish. The work done up front, and vigilant maintenance, allow the plants to grow individually, all at the same time.
Creating and leading a truly adaptive organization requires building, leading, and maintaining a culture that is flexible but also durable.
The book ends emphasizing the need for technology.
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.
I learned that since we cannot predict what the future will hold or how any part of a complex system will behave or affect the system, we must learn to be adaptable. This applies to individuals, teams, and team of teams.
Leaders must foster a culture of sharing and connectedness, and empower people in every role to make valuable decisions. Since things may not always go well, if the team of teams is adaptable, it can be resilient against it.
The lessons in this book must be learned by individual contributors as well as leadership. Good ideas and good decisions can come from any direction and an organization must have the culture of letting these flow in all directions.