Do We Need a Change in Management Style?

Note: Following up to my current theme about management, I believe the whole theory of management & organization has to shift from one of reductionist (high to low) to empowered execution (flat line). Here's why. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at
Team of Teams

I just finished one of the best books I have ever read; "Team of Teams" by Stanley McChrystal, retired General of the Army and the Theater Commander in Iraq from 2003 to 2007. (Caveat: As I am a self-professed planning and organizational development geek, this book may not be as appealing to you as it is to me.) Although General McChrystal uses his experience as a military commander and the war in Iraq as a backdrop, this is not a book about war. This is a book that presents a strong rationale for the need for change in how any organization is structured to meet the current needs of the 21st century for speed, teamwork, effective communication, and success. 

Scientific Management Theory

In my work, no matter how many timesthat I report to management that internal communication is non-existent to just barely "poor" within their company, it continues to show up as a big red flag as to why organizations and businesses are not reaching their goals. This single factor leads to a universal lack of trust, low morale, high employee turnover at all levels of the organization and no sustainability for any success. Here is the big news - it is not anybody's fault! It can all be attributed to the hierarchy of current management practices and organization; a structure that was a developed over a hundred years ago to meet the emerging needs of mass manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution.

Frederick Winslow Taylor

Really, we can lay the blame entirely at the feet of this gentleman who was largely responsible for the streamlining and standardizing of the emerging manufacturing industry in America.

(From Wikipidia) Frederick Winslow Taylor (March 20, 1856 – March 21, 1915) was an American mechanical engineer who sought to improve industrial efficiency. He was one of the first management consultants. Taylor was one of the intellectual leaders of the Efficiency Movement and his ideas, broadly conceived, were highly influential in the Progressive Era. Taylor summed up his efficiency techniques in his book The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor's pioneering work in applying engineering principles to the work done on the factory floor was instrumental in the creation and development of the branch of engineering that is now known as industrial engineering.

As McChrystal points out in his book, Frederick's ideaswere much needed at that time, as there was little to no standardization in how things were made in America in the late 1800's and by applying his principles for efficiency, industry giants like Henry Ford were able to mass produce automobiles at both an affordable price to the consumer as well as to make money for the Ford Motor Company. In addition, Frederick helped to create a general management structure that is largely the same today as it was it in 1900!

Why fix what isn't broken?

The American military has been no stranger to hierarchical structures, either; if anything, they have epitomized the definition of that word.  This organizational structure worked great for the last hundred years as we engaged in several wars over "real estate," overthrowing despotic lunatics, and supporting our allies.

Then the rules changed.........

As McChrystal points out, that structure worked great in history, all the way up to and including Desert Storm, where two vast armies of roughly equal size lined up on the Iraq/Kuwait border in 1991 and slugged it out. The winner was the one with the most firepower, latest technology, training, best supply chain logistics and, we all know who that was. Based on that, we charged into Iraq in 2003 with a similar approach - we actually called it a "Shock and Awe" attack to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. That worked, a degree. We were successful from the shock and awe POV, but the real problems with that approach occurred as soon as victory was declared or, as George Bush described it, "Mission Accomplished."

Putting our arrogance aside with our intent to bring democracy to Iraq almost overnight, we discovered that, although we had toppled the Hussein regime, we hadn't made a dent in the real work of nation building. Generations of warring religious groups, suddenly had free rein to go after each other now that their common enemy was gone. To do this, they decided to go after a new common enemy! And, given that they didn't have the luxury or the capability of fighting us (or each other) on our terms with amassed troops or supplies, they did it the way we did it in the Revolutionary War from our own history; by hiding behind rocks, trees, civilians, etc. and picking us off ingeniously by exploiting our strength and organizational structure and turning it into a weakness. They moved fast, we moved slow; our decision making process was cumbersome; theirs was fast, we fought with high tech, they used little to no tech, and most importantly, their command and control structure was unlike anything we had ever seen; flat, adaptable and very effective with no apparent hierarchy. And, most importantly, "they kicked our asses for two years," as McChrystal puts it. 

Collective Impact vs. Individual Success

For the answers to his dire situation in Iraq, McChrystal started by looking at highly effective teams; emergency room personnel, Delta Force, Special Operations, SEAL's, firefighters, Rangers, etc. He found some common traits that all exemplified - trust and shared vision, backed up by training, education, communication; repeat incessantly. To achieve that same result on a bigger scale, he also realized two other important factors; teams were optimally sized at no more than 12-15 people and they needed to be able to adapt quickly to an ever-changing environment. He threw out the traditional reductionist management (command and control) structure and flat-lined it to look like the diagram on the right - in essence, a Team of Teams.

No one wins unless we all win

In addition, McChrystal realized that, in order for them to win, there was no one person that could win unless they all won. The first practical thing he did to reinforce the deconstruction of the traditional military hierarchy was to place his entire team in an empty hangar on an abandoned Iraqi air base and he put himself right smack in the middle of it, at a long table, and instituted a policy of full access to him by anybody. Then he threw out the "need to know" axiom common among the traditional military types and and eventually built a team comprised of people from every branch of the government engaged in the war on terror. This included the CIA, FBI, representatives from every branch of the military; in effect anyone, anywhere on the globe involved in intelligence gathering. This group started out small, just those in the hangar, but, as time went on, it grew to almost 2,000 people, linked by technology, meeting once a week to share a common purpose - to beat Al Qaeda at their own game.

And, it worked!

By creating a "Team of Teams" - flat-lining the management structure and providing an environment where decisions could be made through "empowered execution," actions were being taken that were better and faster. The result was they started to get one step ahead of Al Qaeda and essentially, beat them at their own game by taking advantage of the means available to them that Al Qaeda didn't have - technology, better teamwork, and up to the minute intelligence.

A model for the 21st century organization

By now, I am sure you are all thanking me for giving you a concise history of the war in Iraq, but that's not the point. What McCrystal has done is to provide us all with a road map for organizational structure in the 21st century that will work anywhere. Facebook has done it, Google has done it, SpaceX has done it, and countless others have followed suit. Couple this new concept of organizational structure with the emerging mass of 86 million Millennials set to assume control of the workplace, it is the coming evolution for anyone working within any sort of organized structure where work is being done.  

Next Week: Success - Nature vs. Nurture