Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

  • Published

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Gen Stanley McChrystal, USA, Retired, with Tantun Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell. Portfolio, 2015, 283 pp. 

Gen Stanley McChrystal is a multibook author, having released a memoir, My Share of the Task, in 2013 and most recently, Leaders: Myth and Reality (2018).[1]

The remaining authors are a former student of McChrystal’s and two former Navy Seal officers. Except for Mr. Collins, the authors are warfare veterans. All authors were members of CrossLead, a firm founded by Silverman and colleagues at the time of publication.

Of the four authors, General McChrystal is the most noteworthy. General McChrystal has been honored as a charismatic, dynamic, and inspiring individual. Son of an Army major general, a graduate of West Point, highly decorated, and with postgraduate work, he is an advocate of organizational change facing radically changing environments businesses and the military are encountering today. Since his retirement, General McChrystal has authored several books, presented TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talks on Leadership, is currently a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and cofounder of the McChrystal Group.

Since publication, there are numerous reviews available. Military Officers to Eminent Scholars offered opinions that are extremely positive and uplifting. How then, does this reviewer offer supporting or contrary evidence to the body of knowledge?

The quick answer is no, but a cursory review is offered to acquaint the reader to content and an analysis that might add to the discussion. Read, also, the dynamic reviews by Christopher J. Lamb, PhD, or Col Ken Allard, US Army, retired.[2]

With the inspiring foreword Walter Isaacson contends that McChrystal and his colleagues provide “an indispensible guide to organizational change” (Isaacson, foreword). Organizational change is not new, in fact, there are numerous guides, books, courses, and schools specializing in this subject. Specialized methodology guides and books include Crew Resource Management, Project Management, Matrix Management, Critical Path Management, and so on. Each method promotes answers to productivity, efficiency, and robust management processes under the auspices of structured organizations.

So, what does McChrystal offer us? To the reviewer, the book is a record of how the war against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was won. Some of the grunt work and the overall picture of the methodology are provided. But the methodology, born in the crucible of war, is the crux of the authors’ premise for organizational change. By enlisting all stakeholders, ensuring trust in his subordinates, allocating “top-notch” people to liaison positions outside the combat zone, and implementing an operations and intelligence roundtable of communication, McChrystal’s efforts paid dividends. McChrystal turned a highly-structured military organization with a myriad number of nonmilitary personnel into a flat, one dimensional, all-encompassing engaged union of comingling stakeholders. Of all changes, tying it together with communication was outstanding. Instant contact with any and all teams made the war against AQI winnable.

Reported masterfully, the war against AQI is the spine while the vignettes from memory, history, and case studies are the tissue to propose a new and enduring process for change. The book has five parts: The Proteus Problem; From Many, One; Sharing; Letting Go; and Looking Forward. Each part has a “Recap” or “Points of Interest” from the authors. Included are a detailed Note Section and Index. The notes and index superbly support the authors’ task.

The purposeful use of vignettes and casebook studies strengthens the case for change in structured organizations. While the vignettes from McChrystal’s memory are mostly positive and supportive, they are juxtaposed with past events seemingly lacking a path to teamwork or adaptability. Due to omission, commission, lack of situational awareness, or just plain ignoring vital information lives are lost (even in specialized teams).

These hierarchically structured organizations are the historical progeny of age-old guilds and companies. The authors, however, state they stifle leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, and even risk taking by its personnel. Decisions wait for input from the “top” before action takes place. Information travels down the hierarchy or “chain of command,” rather than being shared amongst those having a stake in the outcome. No leader emerges to make a decision. No creative solution will be put forth. And, finally, “I’m not risking my job.”

McChrystal and colleagues argue structured organizations have to provide opportunities for leaders to emerge, explore creative solutions, and not punish risk taking. Furthermore, invest in subordinates, train constantly in the value of teams, seek ways to put into practice lessons learned, and finally reward continued buy in from all parties. Be a “gardener,” rather than a “master.” These opportunities manifest themselves in teams with the support of other teams on the edges of engagement.

As an industrial engineer, I was surprised by the remarks on Scientific Management. If there is a quarrel with the authors, it is disparaging Scientific Management by Frederick W. Taylor and its purported limitation. Taylor realized changes to every task can save time, produce more, realize surplus (profit), and even eliminate labor sapping procedures. In an early Congressional Hearing,[3] Taylor states: “involves a complete Mental Revolution on the part of the workingman and managers. . . as to their work, toward their fellowman, and to their employees. . . It is focused on the surplus (profit) of the manufacture of product in the best possible way so that it can be shared with all.” Taylor was focused on the overall goal of labor processes, not only the minutiae. This refutes the disciple of Taylor’s that denigrated his work and reported by McChrystal.

Scores of companies have called upon the McChrystal Group. Perhaps Team of Teams will persuade other organizations to look at this concept in pursuit of objectives in today’s environment.

I recommend Team of Teams for C-Suite officers, managers, military officers, and anyone interested in organizational change to read and emulate.

Maj James A. Boyless, USAF, Retired, PhD

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “M. Stanley McCrystal,” accessed 10 August 2019.

[2] PRISM National Defense University 6, no. 3, 2016; and Washington Times, 13 July 2015.

[3] Special Committee of the House of Representative to Investigate Taylor and Other Systems of Shop Management, January 25, 1912, 1387-89.


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."