Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

"Team of Teams" was not bad for a celebrity business book. McChrystal effectively managed a remote workforce of thousands through his daily Operations & Intelligence meetings - I'm going to try to implement some of his ideas in SilviaTerra's weekly meeting. But really, the most interesting (and controversial) claim in the book was:

Big Data will not save us because the same technological advances that brought us these mountains of information and the digital resources for analyzing them have at the same time created volatile communication webs and media platforms, taking aspects of society that once resembled comets and turning them into cold fronts. We have moved from data-poor but fairly predictable settings to data-rich, uncertain ones.

I also appreciated McChrystal's analysis of the efficiency/adaptability dichotomoy. Our world has been made in the image of Adam Smith and his efficient pin factory. But how robust is that factory in a constantly-changing globalized world?

Other than that, the book has some interesting (but somewhat stale) anecdotes/analysis of Frederick Winslow Taylor, Admiral Nelson, and MGH’s response to the Boston bombing, along with some first-person accounts of the war in Iraq.

My highlights below.


I have observed this phenomenon in my own study of innovation in the digital age. The greatest innovations have not come from a lone inventor or from solving problems in a top-down, command-and-control style. Instead, the great successes — the creation of the computer, transistor, microchip, Internet — come from a “team of teams” working together in pursuit of a common goal.


For a soldier trained at West Point as an engineer, the idea that a problem has different solutions on different days was fundamentally disturbing. Yet that was the case.

Tantum Collins, or Teddy as we know him, I met later, as an undergraduate in a graduate leadership seminar that I have been teaching at Yale University since 2010. The incredible impression he made on me led us to ask him to spend his first year after graduation (before heading to Great Britain as a Marshall Scholar to study at the University of Cambridge) leading this effort to capture the conclusions of our experiences and study in this book.

Efficiency remains important, but the ability to adapt to complexity and continual change has become an imperative.

And we’ll find, much to our disappointment, that Big Data will offer no respite from the unrelenting demand for continual adaptability.

The first was that the constantly changing, entirely unforgiving environment in which we all now operate denies the satisfaction of any permanent fix. The second was that the organization we crafted, the processes we refined, and the relationships we forged and nurtured are no more enduring than the physical conditioning that kept our soldiers fit: an organization must be constantly led or, if necessary, pushed uphill toward what it must be. Stop pushing and it doesn’t continue, or even rest in place; it rolls backward.



This was not a war of planning and discipline; it was one of agility and innovation.

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.

Interconnectedness and the ability to transmit information instantly can endow small groups with unprecedented influence: the garage band, the dorm-room start-up, the viral blogger, and the terrorist cell.

Maybe more important than laying out a specific strategy, Nelson took care to emphasize the role of the individual captains. At the very core of his plan was what he later termed “the Nelson touch”: the idea that individual commanders should act on their own initiative once the mêlée had developed.

At its heart, Nelson crafted an organizational culture that rewarded individual initiative and critical thinking, as opposed to simple execution of commands. As Nicolson explains it, “Nelson created the market, but once it was created he would depend on their enterprise. His captains were to see themselves as the entrepreneurs of battle.”

At the heart of his success was patient, yet relentless, nurturing of competence and adaptability within his crews. Here, for organizations, lies the critical nexus between theorized strategy and realized victory — the ground where doctrinaire theorists and armchair admirals fall short is the decisive terrain from which true leaders emerge. Nelson’s real genius lay not in the clever maneuver for which he is remembered, but in the years of innovative management and leadership that preceded it.


The soldier-turned-historian Josephus was said to have described Roman army drills as “bloodless battles,” and their successful battles as “bloody drills.”

In the winter of 1778, George Washington’s ragged army was reborn through a similar focus on discipline and uniformity. Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben (often referred to as Baron von Steuben), a profane Prussian-born officer who joined the troops at Valley Forge, introduced a training program for drill that was credited with transforming the efficiency and battlefield effectiveness of the fledgling Continental Army.

At the age of seventeen, Taylor turned down Harvard to work in a factory. An intellectually gifted child of privilege, he had attended boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he devoted himself rigorously to his studies and consistently ranked as the top student in his class. A lucrative career in law, following in the footsteps of his father, seemed all but inevitable, especially after gaining university admission at the start of his senior year. But around that time, a spate of headaches and deteriorating eyesight convinced his doting parents that he suffered from “overstudying.” (He was probably just farsighted.) So in late 1874, he boarded a carriage and returned to his quiet Pennsylvania home. After a few months of dawdling, Taylor yearned for something—anything—to keep him occupied. He signed up for an apprenticeship at Enterprise Hydraulic Works, a small company in downtown Philadelphia that made steam pumps and hydraulic machinery.

Taylor became the world’s first management guru. At a paper mill in Wisconsin, he was told that the art of pulping and drying could not be reduced to a science. He instituted his system and material costs dropped from $75 to $35 per ton, while labor costs dropped from $30 a ton to $8.

Taylor told workers, “I have you for your strength and mechanical ability. We have other men paid for thinking.”

When World War II broke out barely twenty years later, reductionist systems enabled tens of thousands of untrained sharecroppers to become welders and shipbuilders in the span of a few months.

Peter Drucker, the sage of modern management, argued that without Taylor’s innovations, America would have been unable to defeat the Nazis.

The lawyer who represented “the consumer” in the case, Louis Brandeis (who would later be appointed to the Supreme Court), wrote, “Of all the social and economic movements with which I have been connected, none seems to me to be equal to [scientific management] in its importance and hopefulness.”


Such unpredictability has happened not in spite of technological progress, but because of it.

They use phrases like “discontinuity,” “disruption,” or the recently minted military acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity).

Likewise, economic systems — the products of complex knots of human factors — confound linear attempts at prediction and control. It is because of this complexity that economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek argued against state-run economic planning. In his landmark essay “The Theory of Complex Phenomena,” he drew a distinction between “the degree of complexity characteristic of a peculiar kind of phenomenon” and “the degree of complexity to which, by a combination of elements, any kind of phenomena can be built up.”

The amount of nonlinear change that once took months to play out can now happen in the time that it takes to type 140 characters.

In Iraq, cutting-edge technology had provided us with the holy grail of military operations: near-perfect “situational awareness” or COP (“common operational picture”). This was the first war in which we could see all of our operations unfolding in real time.

Big Data will not save us because the same technological advances that brought us these mountains of information and the digital resources for analyzing them have at the same time created volatile communication webs and media platforms, taking aspects of society that once resembled comets and turning them into cold fronts. We have moved from data-poor but fairly predictable settings to data-rich, uncertain ones.


We were stronger, more efficient, more robust. But AQI was agile and resilient.

The Delta Works, completed in 1997, was a massive forty-year-long construction project that links dams, storm surge barriers, and sluices, and effectively shortens the coastline in need of protection by dikes. The American Society of Civil Engineers considered the Delta Works one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.”

Room for the River accepts the reality that floods are inevitable, representing a shift in mentality from making the Netherlands floodproof to making it flood resilient.

Even when in bivouac or on routine marches, leaders like Frederick the Great of Prussia imposed harsh punishments for transgressions, hanging any soldier caught looting. Frederick knew that strong officers were needed to keep the army from degenerating into an unruly, dangerous mob that murdered, robbed, and raped its way across the countryside.



Testing for a sense of purpose at its broadest and most visceral is simple: make the experience unpleasant enough and only the truly committed will persevere. The physical hardship of BUD/S is a test, not of strength, but of commitment. “We could tell from interviews who would drop,” Ruiz says. “It was the ones who were in it for themselves: ‘I want to try BUD/S,’ ‘I think I’ll enjoy the challenge.’ Nobody enjoys BUD/S — it’s hell.” The successful ones, he explained, “were the guys who said, ‘I wanna be on the SEAL teams. I wanna fight overseas.’ It seems like a small difference, but it means everything.”

As doctor and writer Atul Gawande put it, “We have trained, hired, and rewarded physicians to be cowboys, when what we want are pit crews for patients.” Emergency care, however, is different.


In a now famous 1999 Institute of Medicine study, “To Err Is Human,” it was estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 people died every year as a result of medical errors.

A new study published in September 2013 asserts that the number of deaths due to medical error is dramatically higher: 210,000 to 400,000. Either estimate would have put medical errors as the third-leading cause of death in the CDC’s 2011 ranking. If the estimated 100,000 deaths due to hospital-acquired infections are included, this loss is equal to twenty Boeing 747 airliners going down every week.

Here, we run up against a fundamental constraint in the empathetic bandwidth of the human mind. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized that the number of people an individual can actually trust usually falls between 100 and 230 (a more specific variant was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell as the “Rule of 150” in his book Outliers).



Like the landing gear failure that ultimately doomed United 173, the root cause lay not in the lack of a specific procedure, but in the inability to correct in real time in response to unexpected inconsistencies.

Without fluid integration, nothing would work. The massive forces and tremendous speeds involved in rocket travel led to unpredictable vibrations throughout the whole vehicle, creating systemic issues that transcended the individual fiefdoms of the teams developing the components, and the separate disciplines of the structural engineer, the propulsion expert, the electrical engineer, and other team members. There was also electromagnetic interference: never before had so much digital hardware been crammed so tightly into such a machine, and the signals from different computers often interfered with one another. And then there was gravity: on Earth, dust, fluids, and other contaminants fall to the bottom of vehicles, but in space these elements float freely; if a single floating metal particle happened to touch two adjacent wires simultaneously, a short circuit could cause a system-wide failure. The rocket’s computers, body, and electrical systems might have worked perfectly in isolation, but under the interdependent stressors of space travel, they broke down.

In half a decade, a space program that had once been a national embarrassment became the best in the world.


Our standing guidance was “Share information until you’re afraid it’s illegal.”

There were real risks in doing this. Opening a top secret video teleconference to a wide community exposed us to potential leaks — after all, the information we were discussing was secret for a reason. Also, broadcasting unfiltered accounts of our successes and failures risked misinterpretation of complex, in-process endeavors or statements being taken out of context. But I had no interest in, and we had no time for, painting a rosy picture of what was in reality a hellish scene.

By 2005 at least one of our hypotheses had been confirmed: because the intelligence agencies got faster and more robust intelligence from the Task Force than from any other source, they dramatically increased their participation. Our process began to develop its own gravitational pull as more and more groups recognized what the speed and transparency we had put in place could offer. Our forces were in daily contact with Al Qaeda, the nation’s highest counterterrorism priority, and we were offering to share whatever we were learning.

As he put it, “To win, all of us would need to be knee deep in the fight, all of the time.”

By having thousands of personnel listen to these daily interactions, we saved an incalculable amount of time that was no longer needed to seek clarification or permission.


When asking for LNO nominations to fill critical positions, we used two criteria: (1) if it doesn’t pain you to give the person up, pick someone else; (2) if it’s not someone whose voice you’ll recognize when they call you at home at 2:00 a.m., pick someone else. Previously, we might have made these decisions based on rank, position, or where people wanted to go in their careers. But to get this right, personal qualities trumped everything else. These were people who needed to enter an unknown, and sometimes hostile, bureaucratic environment, then build trust-based relationships with the leadership there — a very difficult proposition.

Only with deep, empathetic familiarity could these different units function so seamlessly together — put their lives on the line for one another. What on the surface seemed like an inefficient use of time in fact laid the foundation for our adaptability.

He saw that there were too many small meetings that fractured the organization. He replaced them with a single weekly corporate-level meeting—the “business plan review” (BPR). He allowed no side discussions, secrets, BlackBerry use, or even jokes at others’ expense. As Bryce Hoffman writes in American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company, “The BPR... would shine a light into the darkest corners of the company... in a company like Ford, the weak went to the wall; only the strong survived. Now they were being told they were all on the same team, and Mulally expected them to act like it.”

As Mulally put it, “Working together always works. It always works. Everybody has to be on the team. They have to be interdependent with one another.”



In short, when they can see what’s going on, leaders understandably want to control what’s going on. Empowerment tends to be a tool of last resort. We can call this tethering of visibility to control the “Perry Principle.”

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).

Soon, I found that the question I most often asked my force was “What do you need?”

To any other Nation the loss of a Nelson would have been irreparable,” said French vice-admiral Villeneuve, after the battle, “but in the British Fleet off Cadiz, every Captain was a Nelson.”

But I did not do that. I never told operators what to do on a raid; it would have been a mistake. I’d learned that seeing the conditions on the ground, hearing the tone and content of a radio call—having situational awareness of what was happening, and why — helped me do my part of the task better — not to reach in and do theirs. It was counterintuitive, but it reflected exactly the approach to decision making that we needed to pervade our force: “Eyes On — Hands Off.”

When we tried to do the same things tighter and faster under the constraints of the old system, we managed to increase the number of raids per month from ten to eighteen; by 2006, under the new system, this figure skyrocketed to three hundred. With minimal increases in personnel and funding, we were running seventeen times faster.


In the Task Force, we found that, alongside our new approach to management, we had to develop a new paradigm of personal leadership. The role of the senior leader was no longer that of controlling puppet master, but rather that of an empathetic crafter of culture.

Our teams were crafted to be chess pieces with well-honed, predictable capabilities. Our leaders, including me, had been trained as chess masters, and we hoped to display the talent and skill of masters. We felt responsible, and harbored a corresponding need to be in control, but as we were learning, we actually needed to let go.

Within our Task Force, as in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting than on consistent maintenance.

To post brief updates and observations, I used a secure Web-based portal accessible to everyone, carefully composing each memo to ensure that it reflected not only my thoughts, but also my “voice.” I tried to remember “less is more,” and stuck to a few key themes. Experience had taught me that nothing was heard until it had been said several times.

When necessary, I would preplan questions or comments and plant them with trusted partners to help demonstrate to everyone what I wanted the O&I to be.

When their turns came and their faces suddenly filled the screen I made it a point to greet them by their first name, which often caused them to smile in evident surprise. They were eight levels down the chain of command and many miles away — how did the commanding general know their name? Simple: I had my team prepare a “cheat sheet” of the day’s planned briefers so I could make one small gesture to put them at ease. As they briefed me I tried to display rapt attention. At the conclusion, I’d ask a question. The answer might not be deeply important, and often I knew it beforehand, but I wanted to show that I had listened and that their work mattered. Some were flustered by the question — they would sigh in relief when they made it through their briefing — but it also gave them a chance, in front of the entire command, to show their knowledge and competence. For a young member of the command, even if the brief had been terrible, I would compliment the report. Others would later offer them advice on how to improve — but it didn’t need to come from me in front of thousands of people. When we did it right, the analyst left the O&I more confident about, committed to, and personally invested in our effort. “Thank you” became my most important phrase, interest and enthusiasm my most powerful behaviors. In a small room with trusted advisers, frustration or anger can be put into context and digested. But the daily O&I was large enough that petulance or sarcasm could be disastrous. More than anything else, the O&I demanded self-discipline, and I found it exhausting. But it was an extraordinary opportunity to lead by example.

I later used a specific question when talking to junior officers and sergeants in small bases in Afghanistan: “If I told you that you weren’t going home until we win — what would you do differently?”

I would tell my staff about the “dinosaur’s tail”: As a leader grows more senior, his bulk and tail become huge, but like the brontosaurus, his brain remains modestly small. When plans are changed and the huge beast turns, its tail often thoughtlessly knocks over people and things. That the destruction was unintentional doesn’t make it any better.



Tocqueville recognized that empowerment without context will lead to havoc. This is the risk run if traditional, hierarchical organizations just push authority down, ceteris paribus (think of the 2008 financial crisis, largely sparked by young, uninformed finance professionals being given far too much leeway and far too little guidance). An organization should empower its people, but only after it has done the heavy lifting of creating shared consciousness.

Empowered execution without shared consciousness is dangerous.


Phil Kaplan provided valuable in-depth research

A personal note from General McChrystal: I met Teddy Collins when he was a student at Yale taking my leadership course. He immediately struck me as an extraordinary, brilliant individual. We maintained our relationship afterward, and when it came time to start considering my next book project, Teddy was the single person who I knew could take the most important role in crafting this book. Teddy became the gravitational pull that brought every idea, every piece of research, every experience, and every personality together, masterfully weaving all of our thoughts into a beautifully written and coherent narrative. I could not be more proud of what we have created together, along with our coauthors.