Complicated vs. Complex

At the center of Team of Teams is the distinction between complicated systems and complex systems. This difference might seem trivial, but it is, in fact, an incredibly important shift, requiring us to look again at how we lead. A car engine is complicated. It has a large number of working parts. However, their interactions are predictable: rotating the crankshaft will always cause the pistons to move. A complex system can also have many working parts. The difference is that the interaction of these parts is highly unpredictable. This increase in unpredictability changes the way leaders must lead.

*Personal Note – On page 68 the writers discuss Frederick Winslow Taylor whom 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. The authors look at the methods in which Taylor introduced to the steel manufacturing plants and the challenges they were facing on the battlefield in the war on terror and AQI. 

Dealing with Uncertainty

McChrystal leads the reader through his solution to the problem. From his perspective, to deal with ever-increasing uncertainty large organizations must become:

  • Agile– Able to move quickly and with ease.
  • Adaptable– Able to be modified easily to suit new conditions.
  • Resilient– Able to withstand and recover from difficult events.

These are all qualities typical of small teams, not of large organizations. Worse still, they are characteristics that large organizations struggle to scale up. Yet McChrystal offers a set of solutions. Having adapted American Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to effectively take on Al-Qaida in Iraq, McChrystal passionately believes such ‘small team’ qualities can be achieved at scale. The ways he suggests doing so are simple to understand.

*Personal Note – I particularly like the description shared on Resilience. Illustrated by Scientist Brian Walker and writer David Salt, in their book on the subject define resilience as “The capacity to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure”


Reductionist hierarchical management techniques no longer work because organizations are too large for any one person to make all the decisions. The military and Ford motor company use a new management style where your team operates as a network with a shared consciousness and every member is empowered to execute.

The authors used flight crew scenarios to depict team engagements which introduced a program that the FAA mandated for all flight crews called Crew Resource Management training (CRM) and was described by many attendees as “Charm School”. This training emphasized the importance of delegation. It was observed in multiple airline catastrophes where even the most experienced and trained pilots were making simple mistakes that resulted in the loss of many lives due to their failures to delegate.

Since then, annual fatal accident rates in North America have hovered well below 1 per million airline departures since the turn of the 21st century. MIT professor of statistics and aviation safety  Arnold Barnett determined that passengers had a 1 in a million chance in dying between 1960 and 1969. From 2000 to 2007 that chance dropped to one in twenty million. Leading Barnett to conclude that today “An American child about to board a U.S. aircraft is more likely to grow up to be president than to fail to reach his/her destination.”

Shared Consciousness

The common argument for having this input from above is that the complex interplay between different teams that is inherent in a large organization requires top-down oversight and broad understanding. After all, this ensures everyone is pulling in the right direction and prevents costly mistakes made by juniors.

However, McChrystal suggests another way: shared consciousness.  Ensuring that intent is well understood, and that everyone has a good grasp of the overall picture can prevent these costly mistakes and improve decision making.

Create a shared consciousness in your organization by sharing information building genuine relationships and trust. Once you have shared consciousness focus on empowered execution where anyone in the organization can take action without needing approval as long as they provide all contextual information to leaders. Leaders can then take an eyes on hands off approach to management and instead of executing they can focus on fostering an environment conducive to shared consciousness and empowered execution.

Organizations need to be robust and adaptable. Old reductionist management is robust but not adaptable. Adaptable is less efficient but essential in a complex world.

Of course, shared consciousness is not easy to achieve.  McChrystal describes having to actively fight for it.  However, by abandoning an attitude of ‘need-to-know’ and implementing open command group meetings that anyone in the organization could sit in on, he showed that it can be achieved.

Teams are effective because they trust each other and they have a shared purpose. This is what we call shared consciousness.

Cultivating a Cooperative Culture

Gone are the days of working in isolation. Our teams regularly have to work with groups that can differ from our own. Groups that, due to rivalries and differences in culture, we may find difficult to work with.

Empowered Execution

Once shared consciousness gives your team the knowledge to do what is right you must also empower them to act and give them the authority.

If everyone is empowered to act without approval they will be more careful about doing the right thing. People can submit reports to management keeping them updated so they can intervene as needed. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.

Don’t empower employees to execute without first implementing shared consciousness otherwise they could easily do the wrong thing.

Leaders should be gardeners

Being a leader is not playing a game of chess where you dictate every move. Rather a true leader is a gardener that cultivates, nurtures, and develops. The garden does not require the gardener’s constant presence, but becomes robust, resilient and radiant thanks to the environment created.