Book Review – Team of Teams

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Do you work in an organisation where the pursuit of getting more from less is the ultimate goal? Have you always thought that one action determines the next? If your answer is yes, maybe it’s time to face up to some realities as General Stanley McCrystal invites us in Team of Teams – New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.

McCrystal’s premise is that large organisations, like the military, were built on the idea of scientific determinism (one action leads predictably to another) and a management culture that strives for efficiency. Both concepts gained traction in the Industrial Age and influenced the way that just about all large organisations would eventually be run, including militaries. Indeed, a number of strategists (Jomini for example[i]) of the 19th century even sought to define military actions by geometric theorems. Even now, the corps and branches typical of most armies reflect the separation of tasks as first popularised in the Industrial Age by Adam Smith and developed by Frederick Taylor as a management concept. As General McCrystal learnt during his 2003 experience in Iraq as the Commander US Joint Special Operations Task Force Iraq, this separation no longer works against an agile, adapative and well-connected foe. This experience informs the narrative of Team of Teams throughout and McCyrstal’s view is that unless you are running a production line, this industrial-age heritage is no longer suitable for the complex and technologically enabled world we now live in.

The premise of Team of Teams is not new; most western militaries have already identified a range of complex strategic threats often summarised as a congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained world (for example see UK Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2040). So too did the Australian Army with the 2009 release of Adaptive Campaigning – Future Land Operating Concept, where the term complexity became this army’s doctrinal buzz word. First popularised as the ‘butterfly effect’, complexity describes a non-linear system where seemingly insignificant changes, such as the flap of a butterfly wing in one location, can lead to unrepeatable and unpredictable outcomes, like cyclones, in another. Like many others before him, McCrystal argues that this is what we face in our present world given its globalisation and connectivity. He cites a number of examples from recent history: the Global Financial Crash of 2008 whose cause he attributes to the ill-informed use of complex derivative markets in the US housing loan industry. Another he cites is the self-immolation of a Tunisian man in 2010 that eventually led to the Arab Spring and the downfall of head of states in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. This complex environment has also been exploited by our state and non-stated based adversaries today and McCrystal contends that the standard structures, thinking and planning indoctrinated into most Western militaries simply cannot compete against the agile, highly adaptable and flat hierarchy teams he was tasked to destroy in Iraq.

So what is to be done? And should we blindly accept this logic?

In the first instance, McCrystal proposes something those of us in the military would recognise: resilience. It makes sense; build a resilient individual and he or she can positively respond to uncertainty and the adversity that can bring. Build a resilient organisation and you have an organisation that does not capitulate when the chips are down. For long-suffering Wallabies fans as I am, Richie McCaw, the all-conquering All Blacks leader, offered a similar view of his team’s approach to adversity – prepare for it, and deal with it better than every other team. On balance, this has worked exceptionally well for the All Blacks in recent years.

A second recommendation is to adopt the benefits of small, adaptable, well-connected, ad hoc teams in a large organisation to allow “order to emerge from the bottom-up.” The notion that complexity can be overcome has its genesis in Adam Smith’s 18th century thesis, The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s description of the ‘invisible hand’ that controls a free market economy illustrates McCrystal’s insight:

“in situations defined by high levels of interaction, ingenious solutions can emerge in the absence of any single designer; prices can settle without a central planner; complex operations can be executed without a detailed plan.’ Or, ‘order can emerge from the bottom up.”

Indeed, ASPI’s Alan Ryan argues for the creation and use of “multiagency interconnected” teams to solve the many complex, cross-domain challenges faced by governments. This response recognises the pitfalls of failing to integrate the thinking and outputs of large organisations as McCrystal noted for General Motors. In 2001, GM detected problems with a $2 ignition spring in pre-production vehicles but despite multiple GM-related vehicle accident fatalities later, it took another 12 years for the company to work out that the spring was the cause of the accidents. His point was that GM’s culture of ‘faster, better, cheaper’ and its siloed structure rendered it unable to join the dots on what went wrong at an early stage.

Hopefully, McCrystal’s other piece of advice regarding email – to info copy every potential ad hoc team player to maintain situational awareness – is not also formally adopted. As Major John Bolton and Captain Derek Merkler (US Army) point out in their excellent article on Bureaucracy & Mission Command, many already lament a situation where staff  “end up working for each other, rather than focussing on the commander’s intent at each level.”

But should we accept McCrystal’s logic? As a former boss of mine was fond of saying, context is everything. In a complex environment, a resilient organisation as well-resourced as McCrystal’s Task Force, will respond better to adversity than one defined by efficiency and linear thinking. Even in less complex situations resilient organisations respond better but at what cost? The endless resources available to McCrystal’s specialist Task Force generated the flexibility and awareness he needed to rapidly adapt to complexity; but they are simply not widely available to all – least of all a budget-constrained conventional Army. Moreover, as Bolton and Merkler point out, an organisation’s effectiveness is as much captive to its human resource management policies as it is to its budget.

Caution towards adopting a fully integrated system is also necessary. As McCrystal observes of the mostly young financial players caught up in the GFC, “empowered execution without shared consciousness is dangerous.” Similarly, the expectation of many junior leaders of their senior commanders to grant them wide latitude to make decisions (citing one of Army’s fundamentals of land warfare, ‘mission command’) also misses the point. As this capstone doctrine notes on the successful practice of mission command,

“Regardless, the practicalities of communications, logistics and mass are likely to demand the employment of an operational level headquarters capable of coordinating joint, interagency and coalition effort.”

I ought to point out that I don’t normally read management books. I decided to read this book partially out of professional curiosity given the author and especially because of his colourful background. A third reason was that our Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, endorsed it. Initially, I found myself thinking that General McCrystal’s premise had limited applications. Not everyone deals in complexity. However, I find myself buying into his argument to adopt the benefits of small teams, to emphasise individual and organisational resilience, to foster greater information sharing and therefore trust. Does it matter if your work context isn’t complex? Surely the potential of an empowered, sharing and resilient organisation is preferable to one that strives for efficiency but fails to adapt or interact. Just don’t expect me to act on cc emails…

Team of Teams New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World is freely available from the Defence Library Service for Australian Defence Force members to loan.

About the author

Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Robinson is a graduate of the UK Command and Staff College and the Royal Military College Duntroon. Trained as a mechanical engineer at the Australian Defence Force Academy, he now coordinates infrastructure and training area upgrade projects from the Plans Branch at Headquarters Forces Command and maintains a healthy interest in both world affairs and Army modernisation.


[i] In fairness to Jomini, he also acknowledged that war is not an exact science.

One thought on “Book Review – Team of Teams

  1. Brendan, I enjoyed your review. Good to see a member of the Comorant Club utilizing skills from ACSC! Don’t yet know if I’ll read the book… I hate getting CC’d on EVERYTHING. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of applying one-size fits all production line efficiencies to anything that isn’t a production line. Funny coincidence… but I happen to know Derek Merkler. I sat beside him for a month in our Division Tactical Command Post in lovely Fort Irwin, California.

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