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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Teams of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal

I finished this book in February 2022. I recommend this book 9/10.

This book is about how the most advanced, best trained, and equipped military in the world—and how they had to change their leadership and communication style to compete with the adaptability of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

This book highlights the need for leadership to be willing to break down siloes and lead with trust and openness. You can get a copy here.

My notes and thoughts:

  • There's likely a place in paradise for people who tried hard, but what really matters is succeeding. If that requires you to change, that's your mission.

  • From the programs' start, trainees must travel with a "swim buddy," even if they are just going to the dining hall. Those who travel alone usually receive orders to "get sandy," and someone in the class will be punished, at random, for allowing this one individual to be moving without a swim buddy. "Get a swim buddy" is a jeer leveled at those who see themselves as mavericks. Swim buddies often become lifelong friends.

  • Team members tackling complex environments must all grasp the team's situation and overarching purpose. Only if each of them understands the goal of a mission and the strategic context in which it fits can the team members evaluate risk on the fly and know how to behave in relation to their teammates. Individual SEALs have to monitor the entirety of their operation just as soccer players have to keep track of the entire field, not just their own patch of grass. They must be collectively responsible for the team's success and understand everything that responsibility entails.

  • The physical hardship of BUD/S is a test, not of strength, but of commitment. "We could tell from interviews who would drop," Ruiz says. "It was the ones who were in it for themselves: 'I want to try BUD/S, 'I think I'll enjoy the challenge.' Nobody enjoys BUD/S—it's hell." The successful ones, he explained, "were the guys who said, 'I wanna be on the SEAL teams. I want to fight overseas.' It seems like a small difference, but it means everything."

  • To put a man on the moon, the Apollo program would eventually employ 300,000 individuals working for 20,000 contractors and 200 universities in 80 countries at a cost of $19 billion. The old management model was not built to integrate discovery and development at this scale. As Stephen B. Johnson writes in The Secret of Apollo, "The switch from research to development required strict attention to thousands of details. Properly building and integrating thousands of components was not an academic problem but an organizational issue."

  • Our new physical plant provided structure for our transformation, but we knew it was not enough. A new layout with an old culture can deliver the worst of both worlds: countless managers, eager to adopt the new trend that promises innovation but reluctant to abandon the org chart, have done away with cubicles, only to produce a noisier, more distracting environment that is neither efficient nor effective.

  • The most critical element of our transformation—the heart muscle of the organism we sought to create and the pulse by which it would live or die—was our Operations and Intelligence brief. The O&I, as it was commonly called, is standard military practice: a regular meeting held by the leadership of a given command to integrate everything the command is doing with everything it knows.

  • The critical first step was to share our own information widely and be generous with our own people and resources. From there, we hoped that the human relationships we built through that generosity would carry the day.

  • "Knowledge is power," and we were throwing that power to the wind. Our thinking was that the value of this information and the power that came with it were greater the more it was shared.

  • We needed true, not theoretical, collaboration, transparency, and trust. Putting everyone in the same room was a start. But if we wanted instinctive, second-nature, team-like trust, we would have to go much deeper. The stronger the ties between our teams—as with prisoners—the higher the likelihood we would achieve the level of cooperation we needed.

  • "Working together always works. It always works. Everybody has to be on the team. They have to be interdependent of one another."

  • Eventually, a rule of thumb emerged: "If something supports our effort, as long as it is not immoral or illegal," you could do it. Soon, I found that the question I most asked my force was, "What do you need?" We decentralized until it made us uncomfortable, and it was right there—on the brink of instability—there we found our sweet spot.

  • We wanted our force to exhibit the entrepreneurial mind-set of those British captains, so we nurtured holistic awareness and tried to give everyone a stake in the fight. When we stopped holding them back—when we gave them the order simply to place their ship alongside that of the enemy—they thrived.

  • First, I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem. Paradoxically, at exactly the time when I had the capability to make more decisions, my intuition told me I had to make fewer. At first, it felt awkward to delegate decisions to subordinates that were technically possible for me to make. If I could make a decision, shouldn't I? Wasn't that my job? It could look and feel like I was shirking my responsibilities, a damning indictment for any leader. My role had changed, but leadership was still critical—perhaps more than ever. Creating and maintaining the teamwork conditions we needed—tending the garden—became my primary responsibility.

  • To post brief updates and observations, I used a secure web-based portal accessible to everyone, carefully composing each memo to ensure that it reflected not only my thoughts but also my "voice." I tried to remember "less is more" and stuck to a few key themes. Experience had taught me that nothing was heard until it had been said several times. Only when I heard my own words echoed or paraphrased back to me by subordinates as essential "truths" did I know they had been fully received.

  • "If I told you that you weren't going home until we win—what would you do differently?"

  • I would tell my staff about the "dinosaur's tail": As a leader grows more senior, his bulk and tail become huge, but like the brontosaurus, his brain remains modestly small. When plans are changed, and the huge beast turns, its tail often thoughtlessly knocks over people and things.

  • The Task Force still had ranks, and each member was still assigned a particular team and sub-sub-command, but we all understood that we were now part of a network; when we visualized our own force on the whiteboards, it now took the form of webs and nodes, not tiers and silos.

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