Organization Management in A Disruptive World

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

A reflection on Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement For A Complex World

Why did Task Force, a special military force equipped with an immense, superior trained force, high-level surveillance technologies and global information network, once lose to AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) which had nothing but a poor network or personnel and outdated weaponry? While Task Force was having the most robust communication technology and one of the most well-trained forces in military history, AQI was depending on face-to-face meetings, communicating via letters and smuggling in unreliable foreign fighters. Why did Task Force fail the battle in which they were apparently qualified in all aspects?

The four-star general Stanley McChrystal, the commander of War on Terror in Iraq shared his experience in the early 21st century and changed the way I look at the modern world of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) where constant disruptions require a different organizational management approach, an unfamiliar concept: Team of Teams.

I got this book recommendation from a senior who led one of my company training sessions, and Team of Teams significantly shifted the way I looked at the definition of a good organization.

“The best organization is not the most effective by trying to get the most with less investment of time, effort and money. The best organization is the most adaptive to the constantly shifting environment, flexible enough to be resilient to abrupt twists and turns.”

I will highlight some concepts I found meaningful in the book.

The Principle of Scientific Management by Quaker Federick Winslow Taylor, who had inspired many people into his movement of reductionist efficiency by viewing the system of organization as step-by-step structured and predictable in the 1900s. By breaking down a task into the simplest elements, strictly lessening the amount of time spent at each element and composing a standardized process, Taylor squeezed the inefficiency out of organizations. His ideology has inspired many institutions, companies, and organizations to break down into small teams which are in charge of specific tasks, yet absolutely independent from others. To Taylor, a laborer is hired for a specified task, not necessarily understand the big picture since he is stupid and there are people of a higher level who will look down from higher floors and direct the workflow. Sounds evil, don't you agree? Surprisingly Taylor's ideology of reductionist managerial model was widely taken and used in 80% of organizations existing today.

Lorenz’s Butterfly Affect might be an exaggerated example of the unpredictability of weather; however, it vividly illustrates the complexity of organic phenomena. The butterfly effect depicts a condition where a butterfly fluttering in one place leads to a hurricane elsewhere on the other side of the earth. The idea is that everything is interconnected, and even the smallest change -- a seemingly insignificant entity -- when happening in a just-right combination of other factors in the network, might cause a nonlinear escalation. In other words, a small thing can cause big impacts.

Speaking the War on Terror against AQI, though poorly equipped and scattering around in small groups, AQI had taken benefits of the newly emerging of the information-rich Internet, creating a fast spread of information and a sheer number of interactions that prevent us from making accurate predictions. Due to this fact, the traditional formation of a military organization like Force Task was unable to react fast enough with instantaneous and almost random escalations. The heavily top-down system and highly disciplined management approach were showing weaknesses despite the support of cutting-edge technologies and first-class personnel. Therefore, the new world of relentless disruptions and unpredictability requires a new approach.

The difference between Complicated and Complex is also mentioned as a common misuse of these two words. Complicated problems demand a great effort due to its multi-connectivity, but are ultimately predictability thanks to its limited number of changes and one-direction effect & cause line. Complex problems, however, due to its cross-network connectivity are unpredictable despite our advanced technology of result measurement.

So, what is the new approach?

General Stanley McChrystal promotes a management model in which all members within a team in a VUCA environment must understand the big picture of the team and comprehend the overarching purpose. Trust and purpose are golden keys to structure this kind of flexible and adaptive team of people, entrust every individual to make decisions.

Why Team of Teams?

For an organization like Force Task which was dealing with the most dangerous terrorist group of AQI, daily tasks involve collaboration with multiple intelligence agents like CIA and FBI. This is where the wall of communication appears again. The collaboration of several organizations gives birth to miscommunication, mistrust and slow flow of cross-organization information.

To improve the situation, two core concepts are suggested by the retired commander.

Shared consciousness is to create a system of transparent information sharing. It updates all members with the newest information, deleting the dependency on the environment, accelerating the speed and turning the organization resilient to abrupt changes.

Empowered execution is to create a system of decentralized decision-making authority. It encourages every team members who stay closest to the situation to have access to unprecedented insights and act on his/ her own.

These two concepts apparently are not perfect, and inappropriate uses might threaten the survival of the whole act/ organization. However, given the flexibility and adaptability to the VUCA world of disruptions, the mindful practice of these two principles is significant and should start from the leader level.

McChrystal regards the organization leader as a gardener who nurtures his garden with daily care, creates and maintains a condition for flowers to grow without constantly shaping them. This type of leader is called “Eyes-on, Hands-off” enablers.