The changing nature of teams

I have not often written on the issue of structure and find it opportune to do so after being inspired by the work of General Stanley McChrystal and his co-authors in a book titled Team of Teams. Yes, it does have a military link, however, not in the context of another dramatic war story but rather as a process of discovery and reinvention of the very nature of teams and structure, in order to remain relevant and effective. It tackles new rules of engagement for a complex world in a convincing fashion.

Revisiting history

While heavily influenced by the American involvement in the Middle East conflict, and Iraq in particular, the authors intersperse regularly with business-structure and team-composition discussion, going back as far as the influential work of Frederick Taylor on “ Scientific Management” in 1874 through the more-contemporary work of Professor Douglas McGregor in the 1960s around the “Theory X” and “Theory Y” approach to human resources, highlighting the evolution of modern management and the very nature of how we have organised ourselves — both in business and in the matter of military structures.

Our history points fundamentally to a command-and-control frame of thinking and operating: hierarchies, span of control, a complete focus on efficiency and the inevitable creation of silos and teams that have forgotten how to collaborate.

The limitations of this approach to structure are startlingly evident as McChrystal unpacks the reality of conflict in a modern and digitally connected world, acknowledging that the Joint Special Operations Task Force was simply being outmanoeuvred by a highly agile, networked enemy in the form of Al-Qaeda who, in a country such as Iraq, could be any one of 24m people who had a mobile phone and internet access to gain a basic understanding of industrial chemicals and bomb-making. A dramatically different operating environment in which the old structure was no longer working.

The order of things

And so, too, in business we so often see and experience the same limitations. Command-and-control structures have created organisations with massive back-office capability, systems, procedures and any amount of imaginable red tape, supposedly in pursuit of governance and compliance, that completely suffocate the ability to deliver what matters most — customer service.

Staff at the frontline are not empowered to make customer-centric decisions and deliver expected brand experience, let alone customer delight. Rather, they are preoccupied (and mandated) with serving the internal system in a top-down structure and ensuring that all the backend boxes have been ticked, often with very onerous processes, while the customer waits their turn and has to simply tolerate the service (or lack thereof). I am being deliberately dramatic, but it is hardly an exaggeration if you briefly transpose yourself into your own customer experience in any one of our major financial institutions in this country — real service and customer excellence have become a myth in the quagmire of financial systems.

There is hope

McChrystal describes the reinvention of special forces in order to become effective, rather than merely efficient — a focus upon doing the right things. In a highly simplified version of accounts, teams were reconfigured and the emphasis was placed on shared purpose, high levels of trust, adaptability and an increase in shared consciousness that created a team of teams. Far less emphasis upon command and control, and a greater degree of interdependence, capability of speed and ultimately empowered execution in pursuit of the mission. The enabling of individuals to make decisions and act in the direction of the cause seems to lie at the heart of this.

While they don’t make comparisons to the field of sport in the book, I am personally inclined to make the inference. Think of high-performance teams at the peak of their game, whether your preference is football, rugby, cricket, netball or any team sport for that matter. Individual excellence is liberated as part of a combined team effort — highly goal-directed and with a clear performance mandate, the collective energy is harnessed in pursuit of the greater purpose. To pick rugby as an example right now, one only has to look at the All Blacks as both a brand and a high-performance team on the brink of making history again. It doesn’t require discussion, it’s that clear.

Free to serve

While governance, legal requirements, regulatory compliance and simple matters of obeying the law are a clear need in business and should never be compromised, our current business models are no proxy to guarantee that organisational behaviour is totally under control as things stand; go back to Enron, think more recently of VW or ponder the endemic climate of corruption in South Africa and we have a case for change. Rather than deepen the levels of control, command and order, perhaps it is time to build purpose-led organisations, where leadership sets a direction and then gets out of the way, empowering people to deliver what was promised in the first place.

THis article was originally featured on