When President and CEO Sarah Phalen first noticed the book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, she passed it on to the rest of the executive team at INB so we could further explore some of the core ideas in the book with each other. Because of the exciting ideas presented, we brought this book to a forum of local executives to lead discussions about it.
Team of Teams, written by General Stanley McChrystal and several colleagues, shows how the challenges they faced in Iraq can be relevant to businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations. When McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2004, he quickly realized conventional military tactics were failing. During his tenure, he discovered the smartest response for those in charge is to give small groups the freedom to experiment while driving everyone to share what they learn across the entire organization – forming a “team of teams.”
McChrystal wrote, “To confront a constantly shifting threat in a complex setting, we have to pursue adaptability.” This statement is one of the book’s key themes: teams that are flexible and resilient are better able to deal with competition that is unstructured and fragmented than those that strive to be efficient.
Team of Teams makes the case that “big data” can help us understand but not predict in an uncertain setting. Even if we have more information about a complex system, we still can’t accurately predict outcomes due to small variations having large impacts. The new competitive environment demands a different approach.
A complex system differs from a complicated one – complicated can be learned, but complex needs flexibility in thinking. Team of Teams best example of showing the difference between leading a team versus giving commands within complex situations is a story about the British Admiral Nelson (who led 27 ships) vs. French Admiral Villeneuve (leading 35 ships) as they fought a naval battle in 1805.
Typically, all naval battles were fought with each side sailing parallel to each other so they could bring as many guns as possible to bear on the enemy. The admirals could send signals with flags up and down the line of ships, since the entire ship was visible.
Nelson took great care with each of his captains to explain what he wanted and how they should act, and for this battle, he had a different tactic: he was going to approach Villeneuve’s line of ships perpendicular to them (forming a T shape). With this approach, the enemy line was disrupted, and the enemy captains were confused because they could not see signals from Villeneuve.
The French fighters were lost without instructions during the fight, whereas Nelson’s captains already knew what was expected of them without communication from their leader. We can still apply that same lesson today; successful teams are not micro-managed.
For anyone leading a group in competition, Team of Teams not only helps in thinking about a new approach in leading and organizing the group in a world that is faster and more complex every day, but it also gives specific ideas on how to think about the individuals in the group and how to help them fit in the new approach.
One of our favorite points in the book was that sometimes leaders make decisions just because they can. In leading the special operations task force, General McChrystal eventually realized that if he trusted his staff and he was not able to add value, he should let them make the decision. This marked a major shift in thinking, where his staff began owning their decisions but also owning the consequences.
As a result of reading the book, we now more often ask, “Are we adding value to this decision?” We know by stepping back we will help increase the bank’s speed of action and get better decisions by our teams at INB. After reading Team of Teams, it is clear that we have to continually re-invent ourselves to address the constantly changing threats so that INB can remain a leader in the community banking industry with quality customer service and innovation.