What We Can Learn from "Team of Teams"

I couldn't imagine that a book about the US Military would be such a joy to read. But during my virtual coffees with Lisette Sutherland, she kept recommending the book every time we spoke about the need for transparency in organisations and the dangers of security concerns creating a culture of mistrust which prevents people from collaborating, innovating and keeping up with change.

Team of Teams does not just have many important things to say about the way managers treat people in old-fashioned organisations. It also shows how management as a practice and organisational structures need revising constantly - what works now might not work in .... (I don't know, you fill in the blanks, I can't keep up with the speed of change).

As an example, the command and control structure that served General Motors so well in one era, destroyed it in the next one as its own brands competed against one another.

An Unexpected Insight into Modern Management

Whereas we think of having access to mountains of information as allowing us to work better together and to trust each other more, General Stanley McChrystal illustrates how we can run the risk of making people more dependent on managers, rather than less - which is what we all aim for, isn't it? (Sorry, ego....)

The many channels of communication through which we can continuously share information make it easier for people to constantly seek approval from managers. We are in danger of making our processes more bureaucratic rather than less, as our points of approval increase without us even noticing.

On top of this, managers get information more regularly than they used to and so can feel more inclined to intervene in a team member's process.

The lesson here: we aware, be very aware.

(Read more on the dangers of over-sharing in one of my most shared articles to date: The Dangers of Working Out Loud.)

Flatter, Nimbler, Better

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World advocates for flatter organisations, for places where "juniors" can have a voice, where people understand the context in which they're operating and so, can make decisions on their own, even if they affect others.

I've always said that virtual teams can provide this environment - it's not the only suitable set up, of course, but going virtual provides us with a great excuse for revisitng the way in which we work.

However, "remote" and "virtual", while presenting opportunities to peel off unhelfpul management behaviours, can also present themselves as wonderful excuses of why management doesn't work. If you regularly read about the future of work, you will have come across statements like, "Remote leadership doesn't work" or"We can't innovate because there are no opportunities for serendipity."

In reply to the first statement: Your "remote" is not broken, it's your leadership style that needs fixing.
Second statement: In the same way as office spaces have been re-designed to increase the opportunities for chance encounters, you need to adapt your remote workspace and team processes to enable creativity and great teamwork.

So Where do Managers Fit In?

Dropping command-and-control and not being the ones with all the answers make us question our relevance. Even the more collaborative of managers are wondering (anxiously wondering) what their role might be in this flatter, more autonomous world of work. I like how the author of Team of Teams puts it:

It's less about moving chess pieces on the board and more about creating an ecosystem where the flora in the garden can grow.

(I love that the first metaphor is black and white and has straight lines and defined borders, while the second is colourful and all over the place!)

What McChrystal set out to do was not easy and it has resulted in practices that some people would abhor, such as the daily video conference involving people in over 70 locations. Meetings where he'll address juniors by their first name, to make them feel at ease. "The rules of any meeting are established more by precedent and demonstrated by behaviour than written guidance." (A reminder for all of us in charge that behaviour goes much further than a well written piece on company values...)

Letting Go

Trusting people to make decisions is not easy and can often leave us feeling like we'll eventually become dispensable. The way forwards seems to be to

"Fuse a radical sharing of information with extreme decentralization of decision-making authority."

Think of the rewards.

More nimble teams, more "engagement" (yes, sorry, it's really difficult to keep people on board - "engagement programmes" and rewards can only go so far) and more opportunities for people to solve all sorts of problems by themselves. You might not feel as important as a manager and you will see people come up with solutions better than those you can come up yourself. But you won't be out of a job because creating this kind of environment is incredibly difficult to achieve.

And this is not just best practice for virtual teams. It's what we should strive for in all kinds of work.


Ready to create an environment where your behaviour doesn't get in the way of team member's motivation? Join us for this Coffee Break Webinar: Leadership and Motivation in Virtual Teams.

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