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General Stanley McChrystal: How the Military Can Teach Us to Adapt

5 minute read
Stanley McChrystal, David Silverman, Chris Fussell, and Tantum Collins are the co-authors of Team of Teams.

Throughout history, the organizational evolution of the military has been inextricably linked with that of the business world. Industrial technologies that allowed for increased mechanization in 19th-century armed forces also spurred Frederick Winslow Taylor to develop his “Scientific Management” doctrine in Philadelphia steel mills. The Greatest Generation returned from European and Pacific battlefields and proceeded to run American corporations with the same drive and discipline that won World War II. The insights that FedEx founder Fred Smith used to revolutionize shipping came largely from observations of military logistics he made while serving in Vietnam.

Similarly, today’s military has the keys to unlocking what might be the critical challenge of our generation: retiring outmoded, bureaucratic organizational models and replacing them with something that can keep pace in the volatile environment of the 21st century. This challenge’s impact goes beyond profit margins: Sclerotic organizations inhibit everything from foreign-aid delivery to health-care performance to global governance, costing billions of dollars and millions of lives every year.

In the early years of the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), America’s special operations forces faced an adversary that was relatively untrained, underfunded and lacked modern weapons and communications equipment. We were, by objective measures, facing a vastly inferior enemy. But we were losing.

AQI consisted of a loosely connected network of individuals who could move quickly, strike ruthlessly, and then vanish into the local population. This flexible enemy shifted constantly, and never behaved predictably. Their organizational innovation enabled them to outpace what was on paper the most capable fighting force the world had ever seen.

AQI had the upper hand because of fundamental changes ushered in by the information age. In this fast-paced, interdependent environment, our organizational structures could not keep up. We reacted like every bureaucracy does in a time of crisis: We asked for more people and assets, and sought counsel from additional authorities. But none of it worked. The rules of the game had changed, and we were trying to solve 21st-century problems with 20th-century solutions.

To confront this new reality, we learned from our adversaries. Instead of continuing to crack down on AQI in traditional ways, we became a network ourselves. This was not as alien a concept as it had at first seemed: The defining attributes of AQI’s network—fluid adaptability and strong lateral bonds—had remarkable similarities with the traits that made our individual teams perform incredibly well. We just needed to reshape the superstructure that bound those teams together to look more like the bonds within those teams. We dubbed this approach “Team of Teams.” The transition was challenging, but remarkably successful: Over four years, we accelerated from 15 to 300 operations a month, with minimal increases in manpower and resources. The success rate of our operations increased, we found and eliminated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the architect of AQI’s mayhem, and beat back AQI.

Since then, we have continued to analyze our reconfiguration in Iraq, and guided companies in the private sector through similar transformations by way of our CrossLead consulting services. These experiences have helped us distill the essence of our system to a pair of founding principles that can assist all manner of organizations trying to keep pace in today’s world.

First, we accepted that the interdependence of new technology necessitated a radically different approach to managing information. Our bureaucracy had excelled at compartmentalizing intelligence—we had a “need to know” system—but by 2004 it was impossible to foresee what elements of our organization would and would not need to know a given piece of information. So instead of trying in vain to control information, we reversed direction and shared it as broadly as possible. We disseminated status updates, intelligence and strategic developments across our force and to partner agencies; our motto became “share until it hurts, then share some more.” At some points, we invited thousands of individuals to dial into daily video teleconference updates once open only to senior leaders. What sounds like chaos proved absolutely essential to connecting our once-stovepiped elements. We called this “shared consciousness.”

Second, we addressed the speed at which AQI moved by decentralizing authority. To complement our increased transparency, we pushed decision-making rights to the lowest levels. Now, those closest to the problem could move in real time as threats emerged, and we could react seamlessly as the enemy morphed. Gone were the approval cycles found in a typical hierarchy. In their place was a hyper-informed organization in a constant state of adaptation and action. We called this “empowered execution.”

There is no avoiding the realities of the information age. Its effects manifest differently in different sectors, but the drivers of speed and interdependence will impact us all. Organizations that continue to use 20th-century tools in today’s complex environment do so at their own peril.

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