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Team of Teams — Sacrifice efficiency to achieve more problem solving capacity

The success of projects and organizations depends on their problem solving capacity. The principles that guide the organization play a key role in this. If you organize based on efficiency, you end up with an organization that is optimized for one task. That might work well in the industrial factories that Frederick Winslow Taylor aimed to optimize. But in the complex world organizations find themselves today, that doesn’t work. General Stanley McChrystal describes a different approach in his book Team of Teams. He advises to organize for adaptability, not efficiency.

Complexity changes the game

We live in a complex world. Bla bla bla. Every slide deck and promotional video that tries to sell you the next big thing starts that way. What does that even mean? Hasn’t the world always been complex? Well, it has. Everything has always been connected.

“All things are bound together. All things connect.”
— Chief Seattle

It’s just that today, due to the omnipresence of the Internet, there are more connections. If you look at this in a systems thinking way, that means:

  • There are now more dependencies between the elements of a system. This means that the actions you take in one part of a system, now have impact on more other parts.
  • The systems that were not or loosely coupled are now tightly coupled. This means that actions that you thought were outside your system, now impact your system.
  • Systems change faster. Because there are more connections, every action causes more change. So there is more change, which makes things change faster.

Unpredictability

The end result of this is that you cannot predict where change might some from or where your system is evolving towards. Your environment becomes unpredictable.

Taylorism

If you organize for efficiency in a Taylorian way in an unpredictable environment, you’re screwed. Taylor proposes to organize in the following way:

  • Work is broken down into specialist tasks.
  • Tasks have clear boundaries.
  • Tasks have clear procedures.
  • There is a clear chain of command that makes decisions.
  • Power lies at the top of the organization.
  • All information is on a need to know basis.
  • The organization, tasks and procedures are enforced by managers.

Learn from the military

That was also how the military was organized. General McChrystal found that this system worked well in a lot of situations. He also discovered that it doesn’t work in highly volatile situations. In situations where you have to be able to quickly change the plan and improvise, limited information and enforced chains of command start to work against you. A lot of intelligence is lost and decisions take too long. In the fight agains the al-Qaeda in Iraq he learned that teams are the perfect entities to provide solutions. When he put the power in the hands of the teams, the American army was far more successful in solving problems in the complexity of war. Of course the teams have to also be connected to other teams. He discovered the problem solving power of a team of teams.

Team of teams

For a team of teams to be successful you have to do a couple of things:

  • You need shared understanding and common purpose: everyone needs to see the whole system. People have to know what is good for the team but also for the organization as a whole. This requires a more open approach to information. You have to share more.
  • The relationship between teams is equally important as the relations in a team. A team of teams organization is only as good as its internal relations. A team can solve what an individual can’t. When the complexity is big for a single person to grasp, you not only need teams, but a team of teams. Information has to flow through the teams and this works best if there are good connections.
  • Teams need to be able to make decisions. Empowering teams to make decisions enables them to move faster and utilizes their knowledge. But the responsibility also creates more engagement and a different attitude towards the problems at hand.

This creates a smarter, more adaptable organization that is able to deal with complexity far better than a traditional organization based on the ideas of Taylor. The Team of Teams concept creates a natural organism that leverages the natural qualities of the people working in it. Taylor created the opposite: an artificial construction that reduces people to single minded production machines. The paradox is that if you base your organization on adaptability instead of efficiency, in the end you are more efficient than if you base your organization on efficiency.

Leading a team of teams

Taylor practically invented the manager. Team of Teams puts the whole idea of decision making and power upside down. This does not mean that a Team of Teams doesn’t need a leader. Apart from the fact that everyone can an should lead at different point in time and on different subjects, the role of the leader changes. He or she should not focus on the day to day operations, but tend to culture like a gardener:

  • He should empower the teams and the people in it.
  • He should spark conversations and connections between people in and across teams.
  • He should create engagement by respecting the autonomy of the teams.
  • He should use his helicopter view to collect input and develop the common purpose.
  • He should use his independent position to tell the stories of purpose and spread the information needed for shared understanding.

By doing this the leader can help turn an organization into a single, highly adaptable working organism with a single vision.

Unleash the power within

Humans have an innate creativity to solve problems. Without it we wouldn’t have arrived at the top of the food chain in this world. In the previous century the scientific approach to the organization of work has brought us a lot of improvements. Now we are running into the limitations of that approach. A lot of companies are organized based on Taylorian principles. Those organizations are have a hard time innovating and adapting to change. This way of working utilizes a limited set of the capacity of the working human.

People in these organizations feel

  • disengaged,
  • disempowered and
  • they only use a small part of their capabilities.

They are boxed in. If we keep on thinking in Taylorian ways, this human can be replaced by robots and AIs. Taylor reduces man to a machine and that can be replaced. But humans should not be reduced to machines. We are defined by

  • our capacity to learn
  • our capacity to adapt,
  • our imagination and
  • our creativity.

This is much more powerful than the ability to perform a machine-like task. We need to look for ways to unleash this innate human creativity if we want to solve problems in this complex connected world. Teams of Teams is certainly one of those ways. For me it’s also tightly coupled with the fundamental ideas of Agile and Lean Startup about how to organize work.

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This is my reading and interpretation of the book Team of Teams — New Rules of Engagement in a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal. Be sure to check out the original.

Strategic UX Design Consultant @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

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