Is Stan McChrystal Right About Adapting to Win?

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General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (Portfolio, 2015).


Stan McChrystal has written an interesting and important book about organizational change. His argument, told through the experience of reconfiguring the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq from 2003-2009, is that organizations, to be successful, need to create cultures of sustained adaptation. Doing that requires leadership with the vision to foster an organizational ethos that is resilient in response to change, creates trust and common understanding through shared information, empowers decisions and actions at the lowest possible level, inculcates and sustains that culture throughout the organization, and prevents leaders using transparency to micromanage.

The concepts are hardly revolutionary — the approach has for some time been mainstream in business literature — but as Clausewitz said, “everything is simple in warfare, but the simplest thing is difficult.” What makes the book really interesting is McChrystal (and his team) describing how they came to understand the need for this “team of teams” approach during the Iraq war, explaining how they wrenched the organization to a more successful pattern, and the different style of leadership that shifting from a hierarchical organization to the network of teams required of McChrystal.

The metaphor he adopts is the leader as gardener who fosters the environment in which plants grow: Leaders craft the culture of organizations and let empowered individuals take decisions and execute. One of the powerful examples he uses to illustrate this is from Afghanistan. When he realized soldiers weren’t taking initiative, he began asking them “what would you do differently if you couldn’t go home until we won?” It not only opened up for him a pipeline of ideas, it was a way to help the organization understand it had lost its focus on the central purpose and empower lower levels to become more pro-active.

Gautam Mukunda from Harvard Business School wrote one of the most interesting (and positive) reviews of Team of Teams, questioning whether the processes McChrystal recommends are optimal for all organizations. McChrystal clearly believes they are, but many organizations cannot recruit and keep the personnel necessary for his approach to be successful. McChrystal had the advantage of experienced and well-educated special operations and intelligence experts; it illustrates Mukunda’s point that the Army struggles (when it even tries) to scale the McChrystal approach to enterprise level.

The team of teams approach is also mostly silent on the opportunity costs of empowering subordinates. Those costs are real for every organization — as McChrystal well knows. The abrupt end of his military career resulted from the indiscreet behavior of his team in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter (the causa termine were not actually his own statements). McChrystal argues there is no realistic alternative to full transparency and empowerment, and that even if there were, the operational advantages outweigh the downside risks. I’m not so sure. He would probably argue his system accounts for downside risk in crafting the culture, but his own experience with his most trusted people suggests that’s more difficult than Team of Teams admits.

Information is an even greater vulnerability if an organization doesn’t have the luxury of complete loyalty that U.S. military teams take for granted. Leaders dealing with contested authority are more common — even in the military — and are routine in the “collabetition” of temporary teamings that characterize much of cutting edge technology and corporate interaction. While reading the book, I wished that McChrystal had compared his experience in Afghanistan with that of Iraq, since Iraq was the main effort, and had unlimited resources and a dominant U.S. role with few and fully committed partners. How did the Team of Teams concept need to change when applied to Afghanistan, where the loyalty of Pakistan and many Afghan partners were suspect and authority was more distributed through organizations like NATO?

Team of Teams is also a book about the American military. Read in that light, it is an incredibly discouraging tale. The United States Army thinks of itself as a learning organization; it prides itself on getting things right. This easily slides into excusing the fact that they did not have it right in the first place and fails to explore why that was. By McChrystal’s description, the American military clearly didn’t have right its assessment of how enemies would fight it in the 21st century.

The book opens with a description of a dedicated group of soldiers planning and executing an operation in Iraq. It thrums with vitality and tension, all the more so after it’s revealed to be al Qaeda operatives. Their success is the moment of realization that our world-class military is losing. The work of Charles O’Reilly at the Stanford Business School highlights that successful organizations are some of the least adaptive. It is their very success that stands in the way of innovation that they will need to keep being successful. In recent years, the American military has had a dangerous tendency to commend itself as the world’s best and too little willingness to honestly evaluate its failures.

McChrystal describes the team of teams as a new way of doing business, as though al Qaeda were the first outfit to ever use new technology and a stronger adversary’s operational practices to their own advantage. When asked why it took so long for the Army to shift its perspective from a structured, hierarchical way of doing business, McChrystal argues technology only recently enabled the information sharing on which trusted network operations rely. Both the assertion of newness and the answer of technology strike me as wrong.

Joseph Ellis in his biography of George Washington describes Washington repeatedly drawing up plans that his ragtag army was incapable of carrying out. Washington gets saved by empowering talented subordinates (such as Nathaniel Greene and Alexander Hamilton) and improvising. The Comanche mastered the technology of their time — the horse — so effectively they countered the superiority of Army firepower until 1875.  Organizations were able to conduct distributed operations before videoconferencing. Technology is an enabler of adaptation, not the fundamental driver.

I thought the most important idea raised in Team of Teams is that “an organization’s fitness is the product of its compatibility with its environment.” That is a terrific standard. Unfortunately, it is one the American military has not met in our recent wars. I hope Stan McChrystal’s journey in Team of Teams provokes much more rigorous exploration of how to make our military a more adaptive organism.


Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


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