Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World – book notes

By | October 28, 2015

In the midst Microsoft’s transformation, in how we work within and between teams and groups, I’ve found this excellent book (suggested by one of our executive), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal. This book relates how the best teams in the U.S. Army were not able to work together as one unit because of the organizational, hierarchical, and decision process that were in place. The general goes in great details in illustrating the history behind the previous military organization and how evolving was a necessity to survive in a complex world.


Below are some notes I marked from the book, with some comments.

We were stronger, more efficient, more robust. But AQI was agile, and resilient. In complex environments, resilience often spells success, while even the most brilliantly engineered fixed solutions are often insufficient or counterproductive.

This is critical to understand and accept. Complex environments are really hard to predict, agility (quick iteration in setting up and pursuing goals, ability to deal with volatility) and resiliency (being able to reconfigure following context changes) are two skills that are essentials to any organizations.

Peter Drucker has a catchy statement: “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right thing.” If you have enough foresight to know with certainty what the “right thing” is in advance, then efficiency is an apt proxy for effectiveness.

In this quote from Peter Drucker, is hidden a pearl. You should build capabilities to your organization to have improved foresight, being efficient on the wrong thing is pointless. Efficiency should not be seen as a managerial holy grail as it negatively impacts both flexibility and resilience.

Team members tacking complex environments must all grasp the teams’ situation and overarching purpose. Only if each of them understands the goals of a mission and the strategic context in which it fits can the team members evaluate the risks on the fly and know how to behave in relation to their team mate. Individual SEALs have to monitor the entirety of their operation just as soccer players have to keep track of the entire field. They must be collectively responsible for the team’s success and understand everything that responsibility entails.

If you ever work in a situation where you are not clear about the strategy and the goals, how can you make good decisions? Sounds too obvious, unfortunately, too often we can interact with people that only focus on their specialized area instead of seeking to understand their role in the uber-mission and uber-strategy. Putting this in place requires a lot of work: share all information with everybody (and don’t silo information per role / team / grade), make sure that everybody can share input on the tactics used to pursue the strategy. Keep clarifying what is the strategy, what we are going after, what the goals are.

We needed to enable a team operating in an interdependent environment to understand the butterfly-effect ramifications of their work and make them aware of the others teams with whom they would have to cooperate in order to achieve strategic – not just tactical – success.

This build on top of the previous comment, to make sure that everyone understands each teams’ prerogative, focus, and specialization.

“System engineering” or “system management” is an approach built on the foundation of “systems thinking”. This approach, contrary to reductionism, believes that one cannot understand a part of the system without having at least a rudimentary understanding of the whole.

Although some people prefer to knows only what is relevant for them, they need to understand that each decision they take will impact other teams. It’s only by making sure that enough people with the appropriate knowledge should make a decision together. Again, the uber-point is to share information as much as possible between individuals and teams.

Effective leadership in the new environment as more akin to gardening than chess. The move-by-move control that seems natural to military operations proved less effective than nurturing the organization – it’s structure, processes, and culture – to enable the subordinate components to function with “smart autonomy”. […] the efforts of every part of the team were tightly linked to a common concept for the fight, but it allowed those forces to be enabled with a constant flow of “shared consciousness” from across the force, and it freed them to execute actions in pursuit of the overall strategy as best they saw fit.

The metaphor comparing leadership to either playing chess or gardening is working solidly. When playing chess, the leader decides of every move, the team execute. When gardening, you empower your team to be efficient. Leadership is not about taking the decisions anymore but enabling everyone to have enough information to make the right decision as quickly as possible. The leader should still be active, “Eyes-on, Hands-off”.


This is one of the best organizational book I’ve read in a long time. The ideas being presented are not revolutionary but setting them up would requires some revolution in most organization. Sharing all information constantly with all teams, empowering people to make decision, removing the friction of silos and hierarchical abstraction, and being transparent with our goals. That’s the future of any successful organization dealing with complex environments.


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