The latest in our series that uses the ‘book review’ format as a springboard into a wider conversation about the world of work—and how to do it better.
One Mission by Chris Fussell
It’s become fashionable to rail against hierarchy and to assume that people, once energised by their mission, can organise themselves into structures which are flat—at least in intent. But as with the flat-earthers, facts get in the way. Not only do we each have different cognitive capacities, we have different modes of thinking about complexity and the time horizon we can comfortably operate at. The essential question is: How do you get the speed that comes from allowing autonomous action, but maintain coordination and control?
You can’t simply wish away bureaucracies; they fulfil too vital a purpose. Someone has to make decisions, and the power to do so rests within a nested hierarchy. Whether you like them or not, hierarchies are a feature of nature itself and, rather than think of them as always being malevolent and tyrannical, most often they are based on competence and necessity. To avoid the chaos that attends anarchy, we need rules of engagement, lines of accountability and matching levels of authority.
Until I read General Stanley McChrystal’s ground-breaking book, Team of Teams, I felt that every new fad proposed by the supposed gurus of organisational design just didn’t pass muster against the rigour developed by Dr Elliott Jaques with his Stratified Systems Theory and associated book Requisite Organisation. Besides his theory about the three-way correlation between cognitive ability, time-horizon of work and complexity, he also developed a means by which management accountability could be exercised both functionally and cross-functionally.
The means of addressing the accountability hierarchies were contained in the idea of TARRs and TIRRs. A TARR is a Task Assigning Role Relationship in which a manager can assign work to a subordinate by virtue of their position in the overall management accountability hierarchy—they are in the same silo. A TIRR is a Task Initiating Role Relationship in which a manager in a ‘collateral’ function can have differing degrees of authority over resources in another silo by virtue of declared rules. The conception of these relationships is contained in the tables below.
Task Assigning Role Relationships (TARR)
Task Initiating Role Relationships (TIRRs)
The trouble with this schema is that whilst it provides a necessary condition for understanding how an overall accountability hierarchy might function effectively—all the way from the front-line worker, through all hierarchical layers and functional silos, up to the unifying role of the CEO—it cannot move fast enough to accommodate the tempo of our modern competitive environments.
Chris Fussell was the aide-de-camp to General McChrystal during the counter-insurgency war in Iraq, a role which he describes as equivalent to a chief-of-staff in private enterprise. His book, One Mission, follows on from where McChrystal’s Team of Teams leaves off. I knew when I first read McChrystal that there was something profound in his ideas. Here was an organisation—the Joint Operations Command of all special forces in Iraq—reinventing how to get the best of bureaucratic command and control to work with the speed and adaptability of a networked organisation. They had made virtue of the necessity of moving faster than their Al Qaeda in Iraq enemy whilst bringing to bear the fearsome organised power available to the coalition forces.
Two observations stayed with me after reading Team of Teams: the degree to which Taylorism and its bureaucratic tropes had been perfected in the US military and how radical transparency and subsidiarity (devolving decision making powers to the lowest level competent to make those decisions) were used to re-energise it.
In One Mission, Fussell provides a good first cut of how a team of teams actually operates and how to go about building one. With easy-to-follow chapters, each major section has a case study to illustrate how the principles learned on the battlefield can be applied across a wide variety of industries—from software (Intuit) to merchandise (Under Armour) and from public services (Medstar) to financial services (Eastdil Secured).
In the context of the war in Iraq, McChrystal’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had to integrate the highly tribalised special forces, each with their fierce loyalty to their unit—be they Green Berets, Rangers, Navy SEALs, Delta Force and others. In addition, they had to integrate their activities with the CIA, the State Department, the FBI, all branches of the US Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and a host of other national and international entities and agencies. That they were able to achieve one mission under these circumstances proved to me that the lessons to be learned had to be relevant to any large complex organisation trying to find a new paradigm for managerial leadership in this digital age.
Building alignment through a sense of connection to the mission, echoing my own understanding of Senge’s idea of a ‘shared vision’, was the first order of business. This mission found its expression in the simple equation of what Fussell describes as their aligning narrative—the story each of the disparate teams tells themselves to transcend the tightly held, but more narrowly constructed narrative of their home unit:
Credibility = Proven Competence + Integrity + Relationships
This simple-sounding formulation of the aligning vision is repeated throughout the book and acts as a powerful anchor for everything built around it. Regardless of whom you are dealing with—be it Al Qaeda in Iraq or the President of the United States—you get to be credible by proving your competence, being true to your word and constantly cultivating strong relationships.
In developing his theme of the hybrid organisation—which is to maintain the best of what a necessary bureaucratic structure has to offer with the agility and connectedness of a network—Fussell introduces the idea of an ‘information pump’. Information is always a critical resource in any enterprise, and goal accomplishment is often tied to how fast and efficient is its flow. He quotes Duncan Watts, a network theorist, in answering the puzzle of what a manager actually produces:
The answer, from an information-processing point of view, is that a manager’s principal task is not production at all, but coordination, to serve as an information pump between the individuals whose task is production.
The rest of the book is ultimately about how to debottleneck the flow of information through an organisation so that people can take empowered action with a shared consciousness of any given situation. He starts with the introduction of the idea of people who act as ‘boundary spanners’ between their organisational or functional silo, spanning the divide to adjacent functions or even far-off organisations who all share the same mission. These boundary spanners are not usually identifiable in the hierarchy described by the org chart, but are those ‘go to’ people everyone knows as the ones who know how things actually work.
Priming the information pumps
A critical element of the team of teams idea is to ensure that the cadence of communications runs at a pace at least equal to the rate at which the external environment is changing. In the case of the war in Iraq, this meant daily. And here’s the truly staggering change in thinking—these daily 90-minute video connections called Operations and Intelligence (O&I) forums would have as many as seven thousand people on them. How, I wondered, could you actually fight a war when the majority of the people fighting it were tied up in a one-and-a-half-hour meeting every day? And, perhaps even more remarkably, all the information was shared on the video-conference with no holds barred. I was astounded by the transformation that must have occurred in such a huge military organisation where the ‘need to know’ mantra would have been bred deeply into the bones.
How, I wondered, could you actually fight a war
when the majority of the people fighting it were tied up
in a one-and-a-half-hour meeting every day?
Those meetings removed the information pumps as the bottleneck to a shared consciousness of the whole theatre of war in Iraq. I found the phrase ‘shared consciousness’ unusual for a military organisation, associating it more with revolutionary political environments. The point is, though, that once different operating units understood the whole, they could act in a way that served the greatest possible good for their mission. This modus operandi meant that spending 90 minutes across the entire network of stakeholders to establish a shared consciousness left 22.5 hours every day for empowered execution. How many hours a day, I was left wondering, are wasted in the more normal work organisation trying to get the information pumps working at a rate capable of delivering even a fraction of the shared consciousness the team of teams approach delivers?
An O&I is a virtual space wherein an organisation’s leadership can create, with the required regularity, conditions for the organic interaction of all of its teams, and reiterate an aligning narrative to the assembled organisation. It is a regular reminder of purpose and an opportunity to reconnect with the larger tribe.
Fussell goes on to describe in some detail the idea of ‘decision space’ and its importance in defining for commanders what they could and could not do in the periods of empowered execution between the O&I events. This clarity around decision space meant that real autonomy could be exercised during the empowered execution phase within a team or across the whole organisation, without the need to refer all the way back up the hierarchy and down again. With the team of teams in place, the increase in the number of missions being run was staggering, leaping from ten raids per month in the early days to more than three hundred by 2006. But having to exercise autonomy was not so easy:
Real empowerment, when supported with the correct access to information and the necessary authority to make decisions, can be a lonely place. Properly empowered leaders and teams no longer have the bureaucratic excuse matrix to fall back upon, a luxury most will not realise they depend on until it’s gone.
Another critical piece in the puzzle was the appointment of liaisons. This might seem like a quite normal activity to undertake when spanning a large organisation or having to represent your home organisation in a key stakeholder’s organisation. It’s akin to what ambassadors do for the countries they represent. But ambassadors are career posts. The difference in a team of teams is that the liaisons were drawn from the very best ‘active duty’ folk in each unit. A tough call to ask any leader to give up their best and brightest to an ambassadorial role.
Unless liaisons are selected from amongst candidates equipped to seamlessly represent your senior leadership, their utility is limited, and they may be counter-productive.
Liaisons are different from boundary spanners. The latter remain in their home unit and are valued for what they know about ‘how things get done around here’. Liaisons, though, are selected by the highest level of leadership to represent the home organisation in a key stakeholder’s organisation. Their role is to credibly convey to each party what the thinking is of the other so that all can function without any of the critical nuances being lost in translation.
The whole system is summarised in the diagram below, which provides a remarkably simple conceptualisation of a revolution in the way we conceive of how we lead and manage bureaucracies and networks. You start with a common purpose—such as destroy Al Qaeda in Iraq, double EBIT within five years or become number 1 or 2 in any market you serve.
These goals operate at the strategic, operational and tactical levels at any given moment in time. At time t1 there are all the meetings and rituals devoted to developing shared consciousness. The time between t1 and t2 is for empowered execution. At time t2, it is time again to reconvene and develop a shared consciousness around what has just transpired and how you are going to address it. During the period of empowered execution, the decision space is set out (the large arrow), with clear guidance on the necessary conditions required for you to act using your own judgement and discretion—what you do and what you don’t do.
In summary, I find the whole idea of a team of teams the most interesting innovation in managerial leadership since Elliott Jaques developed stratified systems theory and published Requisite Organization. The courage required to embrace such a radical departure from our existing norms would make most CEOs I know run a mile. But I am certain that what McChrystal led in the heat of battle—and what Fussell has written about in One Mission—represents the start of something completely new in the field of organisational design and effectiveness.
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