Back to blog listings

How a team of teams can create the adaptability and culture to succeed in a VUCA environment

22 Apr 2024

A coachee of mine recently recommended a book, Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal. The author describes various organisations’ responses to succeeding in a VUCA environment. The solution was to create organisations that combined a web of responsive, interconnected teams that worked with extreme transparency and decentralised decision-making authority.

McChrystal’s recommendations tie in with several of Lequin’s experiences running change programmes, which are discussed below.

The problem

  • The world is vastly less predictable than it was even 20 years ago. 

  • This unpredictability is fundamentally incompatible with reductionist managerial models based on planning and prediction. 

  • Prediction is not the only way to confront threats - developing resilience and learning to reconfigure (to confront the unknown) is a much more effective way to respond to a complex environment. 

  • Since the pursuit of efficiency can limit flexibility and resilience, organisations must shift the focus from highly efficient execution of known, repeatable processes at scale, to resilient, unending, adaptability. 

The solution: a ‘team of teams’

  • Command structures are rooted in reductionist prediction, and are very good at executing planned procedures efficiently. 

  • Teams are less efficient, but much more adaptable. 

  • The connectivity of trust and purpose imbues teams with an ability to solve problems.
  • Their solutions often emerge as the bottom-up result of interactions, rather than from top-down orders. 

  • Many of the traits that make small teams effective (trust and purpose) also make it incredibly difficult to scale those qualities across a whole organisation. 

  • The solution is to think of a “team of teams” — an organisation within which the relationships between constituent teams resembles those between individuals on a single team.
  • By replacing traditional hierarchy with networks this can organically reconfigure an organisation with agility and resilience. 

  • Focus should be less on tactics, skills and technology, and more on culture and how you work. 

How to break silos & join teams up - introduce ‘systems thinking’

  • Teams that had traditionally resided in separate silos become fused to one another via trust and purpose. 

  • Complex problems need systems thinking to find solutions. Because of the interdependence of the operating environment, all parts would need members to understand the entire, interconnected system, not just the individual boxes on the org chart. 

  • Harnessing the capability of the entire geographically dispersed organisation means complete transparency of information sharing. 

  • Moving from a traditional organisation to a systems approach will require a culture change that does not come easily. It needs a disciplined effort to create shared consciousness. 

  • Creating transparency and information sharing requires not only a redesign of the physical activities, but also a rethinking of almost every procedure.
  • Daily briefings lie at the core of transformation:
  1. pumping information out about the entire scope of operations to all team members
  2. giving everyone a chance to contribute.
  • Using embedding and liaison programmes to create strong lateral ties between business units (and partner organisations). 

Together, purpose and trust completed the establishment of shared consciousness, something that is vital to success in a complex world. 

From command-and-control to letting go - from chess master to gardener 

  • Traditionally, organisations have implemented as much control over subordinates as technology physically allowed.
  • New technologies offer unprecedented opportunities to gather information and direct operations, but because of the speed necessary to remain competitive, centralisation of power now comes at great cost.
  • Effective adaptation to emerging threats and opportunities requires the disciplined practice of ‘empowered execution’. Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively. (If you’ve ever seen A Bridge Too Far, Robert Redford’s character, Major Julian Cook, no doubt wished the British, like the Germans, were empowered to make decisions on what was in front of them rather than wait for orders from high command for with Nijmegen bridge completely unguarded, British tanks refused to move over until the order was received by which time the Germans rushed up their reserves.) 

  • Although we know the world has changed, leaders and leadership development reflect an outdated model, expecting unrealistic levels of knowledge forcing them into ineffective attempts to micro-manage. 

  • Move from leading like a chess master, controlling each move of the organisation, to a gardener, enabling rather than directing.
  • A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “eyes-on, hands-off” enabler, who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organisation operates. 

From hyper efficiency to transparency and adaptability

  • The end goal is a transparent, organic entity. (As apposed to a hyper-efficient machine.)

  • Technology can be a challenge and a tool for success. But it is culture change that makes the difference. 

  • In effect, adaptability comes from a yin-yang symmetry of:

  1. Shared consciousness, achieved through strict, centralised forums for communication and extreme transparency, and;
  2. Empowered execution, which involved the decentralisation of managerial authority.

What key principles are required to develop an adaptable culture like the team of teams, and for a successful change programme?

To build this adaptable, team of teams, from Lequin’s experience and from our research, you need to adhere by 7 principles:

  1. It's a change in behaviour that drives culture (not the other way round)
  2. Behaviours sustain processes (not the other way round)
  3. A small number of ‘non-negotiable’ behaviours must be identified - one of these behaviours is a 'systems thinking' mindset
  4. These non-negotiables must be role-modelled and demonstrated by change champions and 'highly influential employees' (who often need to be identified!) to create social tipping points. And these non-negotiables are best spread through informal networks
  5. Change often works best through networks - but it must be championed from the top
  6. The leader and management role is to support high influencers and change champions (see point 4) and take a eyes-on, hands-off approach 
  7. Story telling is a great way to spread positive change ideas

Lequin's change programmes 

In the change programmes Lequin have run, we’ve worked with leaders and managers to identify the non-negotiables behaviours, the highly influential individuals and groups, and the stories that are to be told. And we’ve then worked to train and coach leaders, managers, change champions and the highly infleuntials to support the organisation to drive the change.

A key part of the programmes Lequin run is the use of systems coaching to get leaders, managers and teams thinking about the organisation as an organic system, and about the impact that often unseen, subconcious behaviours and processes send out as both negative and positive ripples throughout a business. 

Read a case study of a recent programme for George. 

Written by Peter Willis, co-founder of Lequin Leadership Development. 

Source: Team of Teams, New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Add your comment