General Stanley McChrystal wrote Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World to recount how the Joint Special Operation Task Force evolved into a new kind of organization. In 2003, McChrystal came to a startling revelation: they were losing. Even though the US forces were better trained, better resourced, and far more expansive, Al Qaeda was winning. Al Qaeda’s fighters were often poorly trained. The organization had no central command. Communication for Al Qaeda was inefficient, often done in person or through couriers carrying letters. How were they winning?
Al Qaeda was winning because they functioned almost like a living organism rather than a mechanical, assembly factory of an organization with a strict org chart and delineated lines of authority. Al Qaeda had emerged from the confluence of mass information and communication technology of the new era. The world was no longer merely complicated, having a lot of “moving parts” but able be broken down to manageable quantities. Due to the interconnectedness of the world, life was now complex, unable to be managed by one person and unable to be predicted. The sheer amount of connections between people meant that no longer is the world “predictable.” For example, a young man setting himself on fire in protest might set out a wave of violence many countries away because it is filmed on a smartphone and then uploaded to YouTube.
McChrystal realized that his Task Force had to adapt or they would continue to lose. He knew they needed to become less like a top-down authoritarian organization and more like the very network of terrorists they opposed. They needed to become a team of teams. McChrystal came to realize that shared consciousness was indispensable for defeating Al Qaeda. The whole organization needed to share a common mission and purpose. Not only that, but they also needed to think as one. Since life is too complex for any one person to manage now, the whole team together needs its collective consciousness to be united.
McChrystal began cultivating shared consciousness through information sharing and radical transparency. Rather than restricting information on a “need to know” basis, if the whole organization was to begin thinking alike, then the whole organization needs to know what’s going on. They need a picture of the whole. Only when someone has a picture of the whole can they see how their contribution fits in and why it’s important. Leaders must also not be narrow in how they conceive of the work but keep the whole picture in front of them.
Decentralized Authority, Empowered Execution
Since life has also sped up, teams to be decentralize authority. Those who are “on the front lines” need to the empowerment and authority to make decisions in the moment. Pushing everything “up the chain of command” slowed down the Task Force, wasting valuable time to make raids. But decentralized authority only really makes sense if the team has a shared consciousness. Otherwise, chaos would result.