[Book Notes] Team of Teams

“Book Notes” are a way to synthesize my thoughts on a book before setting it aside. I like to read, but frankly I forget the details of a particular book over time. Hopefully this helps. Enjoy!

Team of Teams is part management guide, part history lesson, and part military memoir. General Stanley McChrystal’s experience leading the Joint Task Force is the backdrop for how to transform a rigid, stratified organization into an adaptable team of teams.

While I found the jumps between memoir and history to be a bit long, I learned a lot from this book. In particular I enjoyed Chapters 10 and 11, which dove into the role of leadership in the team of teams model.

If I had to summarize this book simply, it would be:

  • Trust -> Transparency -> Collaboration -> Shared Context -> Empowering Individuals (and then back to “trust” again).
  • A leader’s role is to cultivate this cycle, rather than be the top-down puppeteer.

Here are some more takeaways.


  • The book begins with the historical foundation behind current management structures. The traditional top-down org structure has its roots in assembly lines and manufacturing, where the work was mechanical and people were interchangeable. This held true even as the work moved beyond factories.
  • The assembly line approach is great for complicated systems but not for complex systems.

Complicated vs Complex

What is the difference between “complicated” and “complex”?

Things that are complicated may have many parts, but those parts are joined, one to the next, in relatively simple ways. Complexity, on the other hand, occurs when the number of interactions between components increases dramatically.

…complicated problems required great effort, but ultimately yielded to prediction. Complexity means that, in spite of our increased abilities to track and measure, the world has become, in many ways, vastly less predictable.

The world is becoming increasingly complex. Somewhat paradoxically, the instantaneous communication ushered by the Internet increases that complexity by overwhelming us with information (one would assume more information = greater clarity).

Speed and interdependence together mean that any given action in any given time frame is now linked to vastly more potential outcomes than the same action a century or even a few decades ago… The technological changes of recent decades have led to a more interdependent and fast-paced world. This creates a state of complexity.

This unpredictability is fundamentally incompatible with reductionist managerial models based around planning and prediction. The new environment demands a new approach.

Shared Context

Robustness and resilience help navigate this new environment.

Robustness is achieved by strengthening parts of the system; resilience is the result of linking elements that allow them to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage.

Purpose affirms trust, trust affirms purpose, and together they forge individuals into a working team.

NASA embodied this during the Apollo program.

…in a domain characterized by interdependence and unknowns, contextual understanding is key; whatever efficiency is gained through silos is outweighed by the costs of ‘interface failures.’

Sharing (not siloing) information across the org is crucial to establish a shared contextual understanding.

The Joint Task Force used an embedding program to foster collaboration and sharing.

Our goal was twofold. First, we wanted to get a better sense of how the war looked from our partners’ perspectives to enhance our understanding of the fight… Second, we hoped that if the liaisons we sent contributed real value to our partners’ operations, it would lay a foundation for the trusting relationships we needed to develop between the nodes of our network.

Empowering Individuals

Once shared context is established, decision making can be sped up by empowering folks to make decisions.

Both the speed AND quality of decisions improve, because they are invested in the outcome, and they have a better understanding of the issue.


When individuals are empowered to make decisions, what is the role of leaders? A lot, it turns out. Old views of leadership are that of a chess player controlling all the pieces. Team of Teams views leaders as gardeners crafting culture.

In the old model, subordinates provided information and leaders disseminated commands. We reversed it: we had our leaders provide information so that subordinates, armed with context, understanding, and connectivity, could take the initiative and make decisions.

I was most effective when I supervised processes — from intelligence operations to the prioritization of resources — ensuring that we avoided the silos or bureaucracy that doomed agility, rather than making individual operational decisions.

More than directing, leaders must exhibit personal transparency. This is the new ideal. As the world becomes more complex, the importance of leaders will only increase. Even quantum leaps in artificial intelligence are unlikely to provide the personal will, moral courage, and compassion that good leaders offer. Persuading teams to network with other teams will always be difficult, but this is a culture that can be planted and, if maintained, can flourish. It just requires a gardener: a human, and sometimes all-too-human, leader displaying the willingness to accept great responsibility remains central to making an ecosystem viable.

An aside

Finally a random thought on Boeing. Team of Teams highlights Alan Mulally’s transformation of Boeing as an example of establishing shared context. Alan Mulally and his leadership at Boeing and Ford come up a lot in management resources, most notably in the book American Icon.

But I’ve had trouble squaring Alan Mulally’s Boeing with the recent issues surrounding Boeing’s 737 Max. This Forbes article from the author of American Icon dives into this question. It is also a cautionary tale.

To paraphrase Dr. Dre on Kendrick Lamar’s Wesley’s Theory: “Anyone can get it, the hard part is keeping it.

Engineer @ Google, Author: CORS in Action

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store