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Friday, 17 July 2015

Make Your Team Less Hierarchical

Harvard Business Review - https://hbr.org/2015/07/make-your-team-less-hierarchical

The cargo door of an aircraft opens at 25,000 feet. The dark, freezing air rushes in and swirls around the Special Operations Forces (SOF) team that stands on the ramp of the aircraft, ready to jump. Their team leader stares into the darkness through his night vision goggles. He spots what he’s looking for, raises a hand, and then quickly points into the dark. Without hesitation, the team dives silently into the blackness.

Most of us have read about elite teams, seen them depicted in movies, or perhaps been fortunate enough to be part of one. Elite teams win the big games, save lives in emergency rooms, and fight in conflicts around the world. And there was a time when creating highly effective small teams was a sufficient way to set the conditions for success. In the military, for example, winning a war was a matter of scaling with efficiency while ensuring that every fighting unit was superior to the enemy unit it encountered.

The U.S. military built itself around the efficient hierarchy throughout the 20th century. Senior leaders identified how and where to deploy small units, and young leaders focused on leading the best small teams on the battlefield. The structure of the bureaucratic model was designed for efficiency and control — controlling the flow of information between verticals was the ultimate display of power. This leadership model worked especially well for the SOF community. There were complicated threats in the world, but they tended to exist in isolated pockets, so highly effective small teams were a sufficient solution.

But in the post-9/11 fight against Al Qaeda, SOF realized that the complexity of 21st-century problems wouldn’t be solved with a 20th-century approach. The speed of information flow and the interconnectedness of individuals had created an entirely new type of battlefield. Threats that could connect with each other in near real-time were forming networks able to outmaneuver the military’s more powerful, but much slower, bureaucratic model. The barrier to entry for an individual joining these networks was simply a cell phone or a YouTube account. Relying on the capabilities of elite small teams was now an insufficient approach.

SOF’s critical first step was recognizing that our operating model needed to shift. Instead of leading a top-down, highly efficient bureaucracy, we began to lead ourselves as a network. Our mandate was to scale the effectiveness of small, elite teams onto the enterprise level. Instead of many individual leaders running many individual teams, we began to connect ourselves as a broad network of units (or a team of teams, as we liked to call ourselves).




We took the organizational blinders off and admitted that many of our assumptions about information sharing, leadership, and communication would need to change. Where once information was compartmentalized between small groups, now we pushed the boundaries of sharing as far as we possibly could. Where once units walled themselves off from one another, now our operations centers and ground units became a mix of intelligence civilians, special operators, and coalition partners. Where once our communications happened in a point-to-point fashion that mirrored our org chart, now our day began with a video teleconference where thousands from around the world would hear and share the latest information available. After several years of change, we could apply the force of a global enterprise with the speed and agility of a distributed network.

This is the model that any large organization will need in today’s world. A company used to be able to dominate the competition if it focused on creating an effective group of verticals. But in today’s world, leaders using the network model can quickly outpace those who remain focused on winning individual battles.

Importantly, SOF made this shift without touching a single org chart. It was a mental shift, a communication shift, and a leadership shift. It is up to today’s leaders to truly empower their organizations to think, act, and move as a network — it’s a mental shift that starts at the top.
To adopt the network model, your organization must take a few steps:
  1. Create alignment. Does your team truly agree on the strategic vision of the organization? That wasn’t the case for us  — and we were sitting in the middle of a combat zone, where you’d think the answer would be clear. Different teams can have competing visions for the organization, and work at cross-purposes as a result. Until you’re aligned, there’s no point in trying to solve more complex problems — because you won’t be doing so as a networked team of teams.
  2. Drive inclusion and transparency. In a complex world, things move too fast for traditional systems, and challenges are often beyond the scope of just one functional team. The more people you can pull into real communication, the more perspectives and real-time insights you’ll have to attack problems with speed and accuracy.
  3. Lead with empathy. Understanding the motivations and perspectives of those who follow you will make you a more effective leader. The era of top-down, “my way or the highway” leadership is over. Bottom-up, emergent intelligence will garner more creative ideas, and understanding the perspectives of those below you will help your network make better, more informed decisions.
Excellent but siloed small teams are no longer the panacea for all challenges. We must move to a world where all large institutions, from health care to our military apparatus to corporate enterprise, are as nimble and effective as an elite small team. Leading a team of teams is the approach that will win the day in the 21st century.


Chris Fussell served in the Navy SEAL Teams from 1998-2012. He is a partner at McChrystal Group, Senior Fellow for National Security at New America, and co-author with General (retired) Stan McChrystal of the book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.  

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