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

by Kim Turnage

July 26, 2017Culture

If you’re looking for a quick read with tips and tricks you can put to work right away, Team of Teams is not for you. But if you’re asking yourself, “Why is it that every time I crack the nut on one problem in my business, four more slide into its place?” or “Why are the strategies and processes that have stood the test of time in our business failing us now?” start reading this book today. Take it in small doses. It’s dense with stories and connections, and it’ll take most business readers more than a normal travel day to absorb (even with a long layover).

In a nutshell, Team of Teams is a paradigm shifting look at why the ways we’ve been successful in the past will not create success in the future. It starts from a military perspective, which makes sense given that the lead author is retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, with reflections on how fighting to reduce the threat of Al Quaeda in Iraq required a whole new approach to military operations. To readers who are old enough to recall it themselves or who have picked it up along the way, this may sound familiar. The U.S. encountered the need for a similar kind of paradigm shift in the Vietnam war in which the enemy was suddenly difficult to distinguish from innocent civilians. In both cases, the complexity had increased to demand a new approach, but the U.S. military was still working based on what had led to success in the past.

Transferring lessons learned with Al Quaeda in Iraq to the board room (and out of it), Team of Teams calls for a shift from centralized control to decentralized empowerment of the people closest to the right information to make the right decisions and take action. This is not a new idea, but its time has certainly come, and the authors use stories and wide-ranging historical examples to drive that point home while they unpack all the elements that make this paradigm shift an imperative. Complexity is one of those elements. One of my favorites chapters, “Complicated to Complex,” connects the dots from:

  • Taylor’s 1900 World’s Fair introduction of “scientific management” aimed at maximizing efficiency through standardization to
  • Lorenz’s 1961 discovery and articulation of the butterfly effect (popularized in a diluted form in Jurassic Park) to
  • 21st century securities trading algorithms that use AI to scan the news and buy or sell stocks and bonds within nanoseconds (which accounts for at least a couple of butterfly wings in the market – think The Big Short on autopilot) to
  • A fix for the greyback beetle problem in Queensland in the form of Hawaiian toads that go on to kill pretty much everything they touch in Queensland – except greyback beetles

“Wide-ranging” might be a euphemism. But here’s the point. Ours is a multivariate reality in which a wide array of potential outcomes is driven by unpredictably interdependent factors — and supercharged by the sheer speed of information flow and change — rendering prediction nearly impossible. Even big data won’t save us. It’s more descriptive of what has happened than it is precisely predictive of what will happen – because the interdependencies of today will change tomorrow (or sooner). That’s complexity.

This book calls for a paradigm shift. We have to stop thinking in 20th century terms of machines with efficiency, linear predictability, and simple (or even complicated) cause and effect. We must embrace the greater complexity and interconnectedness that define our reality. Machine models lack the complexity of reality, and we need to consider more organic models like organisms and ecosystems. And even then, we should expect our models to fail because they are only approximations of reality. In our reality, complexity and interconnectedness drive growth and survival, and it happens at the speed of YouTube videos and Twitter posts, not at the pace of refereed journals and books (or even book reviews as long as this one).

Team of Teams calls companies and leaders to build business models that break down the linearity of hierarchies and the insularity of silos so that people at every level become networked and empowered through a shared sense of purpose, enough contextual knowledge to understand what’s right and what’s wrong, cross-functional relationships marked by transparency, trust and unselfish collaboration, and through giving authority to the people who have the right information to make the best possible decisions as quickly as possible to optimize results. The model is less like a machine and more like a human body, in which people are the ligaments and highly transparent, inclusive communication systems are the nervous system that connect eyes and ears, hands and feet, so that they can work interdependently, with light speed reflexes, to solve problems and achieve objectives.

If General McChrystal could make this model of leadership and management work in a context as traditional and bureaucratic as the U.S military, it’s worth managers and leaders giving it a try. Paradigm shifts don’t happen quickly or without great, concentrated effort, but if results like getting seventeen times faster (it’s right there on page 218) speak to you, at least read the book for yourself.