Teams come in all sizes. Your team may fit within a department, may be a department, or it may be your entire company. The radical focus is difficult to coordinate across large teams, so one way larger organizations can encourage radical focus is to adopt a “team of teams” structure as special operators do. Army Special Forces General Stanley McChrystal, leader of the International Security Assistance Forces and all US forces in Afghanistan 2009 to 2010, solved complexity and lack of focus in that arena by fostering a flexible model where teams could autonomously organize and execute without top-down hand-holding, an experience he wrote about in the excellent work Team of Teams.
This Team of Teams concept speaks to how teams can operate within a network environment without sacrificing flow. In Afghanistan, General McChrystal saw that the centralized approach wasn’t going to work; information was getting bottle-necked. By the time operators were out the door, the intel they relied upon was stale and compromised.
Furthermore, the environment was so dynamic that formally assigned task forces moved too slowly, and didn’t possess the right talent to understand and solve the specific issues. He needed teams from disparate units, who had unique skills to solve new and unfamiliar problems, to come together spontaneously to solve those problems without awaiting orders from above, and then to dissolve back into their parent units. In effect, he asked the spec ops teams and other partners in the war effort to function as a semi-autonomous team of teams. General McChrystal and his team set the unified vision, clarified mission intent, then gave the subordinate teams the authority to get the job done, bringing it to the enemy.
This type of structure works well in today’s accelerating environment, where a fixed hierarchy can’t respond with speed and agility. Like in a digital network, information in this network of teams flowed to where it needed to and got to the operators in the field quickly, where they could then act with speed and momentum against the emergent and dynamic threats. Though the overall strategy in Afghanistan has seen limited success since his time, the spec ops teams under the General performed brilliantly as a result of innovations such as this, which allowed them to thrive in a VUCA environment.
Unlocking a Team of Teams Energy
How an organization orients its systems and structures to create a team of teams energy? Typically a team is viewed as an aggregation of individuals hard-wired to act largely out of self-interest, brought together to work toward a common interest. But on elite teams, self-interest is subsumed into the team’s interest and aimed toward a worthy mission, in alignment with a big vision.
Highly functioning individuals yearn for intangible rewards of a higher order than money, rank, and prestige. An organization that can structure itself to allow for these intrinsic rewards will be rewarded in kind with exceptional performance. What are these intrinsic higher self-rewards that compel a team of teams mindset?
I loved working in the SEAL Teams as a result of the semi-autonomy that the SEALs allowed their officers. They are able to find a fine balance between the rigid structure of the general Navy, with very little room for autonomy and creativity, and allowing enough autonomy and creative decision making that one does not feel constricted or shut down by the organization. Teams and individuals are allowed the room to think for themselves, create new ways of getting things done, and to develop new training and tools to pursue self-mastery for the life of a career. The organization encourages learning to learn on the fly, which necessitates a level of autonomy of thought and action. Elite teams and great teammates die when they are treated as “cogs in the machine.” Autonomy leads to deep job satisfaction and exceptional performance.
You need to allow for just enough autonomy to risk failure. Failure as a necessary “evil,” and a trial and error process keeps momentum accelerating. Avoid a “zero tolerance” mentality such in rigid bureaucracies. Mess-ups are just another way to “not do” something, which ends up developing valuable knowledge and confidence in the individual for the benefit of the organization. As a leader, you can supercharge teams by removing zero-tolerance, rigid rules. Handle the occasional slip-up on a one-off basis. Allow for more autonomy and independent decision making and watch job satisfaction and, consequently, results, soar.
As discussed earlier, a powerful attribute of an elite team or organization is lifelong learning. A steady stream of team training and individual professional development courses are provided. This training allows the teams to master the many hard and soft skills required. This leads the individuals to cultivate a love of learning and to seek self-mastery. The thirst for knowledge and skills becomes a life-long endeavor. The organization also allows the individual’s space to pursue a sub-specialty that they are passionate about, as long as it supports the team’s mission. Thus a teammate can both master the general skills along with the specific skill they need to dominate.
If you are a team leader, allow time and space for individuals to pursue mastery and see a dramatic positive impact on the culture.
Vision and Purpose
Once basic financial and social needs are met, people are motivated most by a sense of purpose. An organization that has a “change the world” purpose is exciting to work for. Google’s purpose is to “organize the world’s information.” That big vision is very motivating for the technically brilliant employees of Google.
What can be more purposeful for a warrior than working for the U.S. Navy SEALs? The opportunity to eliminate the world’s most malevolent terrorists can be very motivating.
Though your organization may not be as culturally powerful as Google or the Navy SEALs, you can develop a “big vision purpose” and get your team behind it? Use the future me visualization with your core team to unlock your organizations’ big vision purpose. What is it you do best? Why does that add value? What is most meaningful about what you do? Ask these questions and don’t settle for any vision that isn’t super clear and inspiring to the entire team. Then enshrine this in action by aligning the organizations’ systems and structures to support and reward movement toward the vision.
Organizations that align to support authentic teams through autonomous decision making, the opportunity for mastery and a big vision purpose perform at stunning levels.