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To Foster Workplace Collaboration in the 21st Century, Heed the General

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During the Iraq War, General Stanley McChrystal turned al-Qaida’s “team of teams” strategy against it. Like a swarm of bees, a team of teams forms around its mission, dissolves and then reforms again. Take a page from McChrystal, and you’ll discover just how much ground your small team can cover.

Knowing that your decision-making processes align with those of Zappos and Alphabet is flattering. Realizing you share the same management style as al-Qaida? That’s disconcerting — until you learn that American military forces in Iraq did, too.

As General Stanley McChrystal revealed in “Team of Teams,” a book I discovered through an HR trends report, al-Qaida proved to be tougher to defeat than suspected. Like swarms of bees, its teams completed missions, dissolved and then reformed again. Although they had fewer resources, they upped their efficiency by bucking the traditional chain-of-command model. So McChrystal did likewise, ultimately batting back al-Qaida in the region.

Before I read “Team of Teams,” I’d created a similar system among my staff. Although we’ve never faced a life-or-death struggle, our small team must do more with less to stay atop changing regulations across the country and globe.

To create additional capacity, I scrapped our hierarchical structure in favor of a network of teams, just like McChrystal’s troops in Iraq. This structural shift has turned us into an organization capable of outmaneuvering larger competitors through sheer efficiency and a shared consciousness.

A ‘Team of Teams’ transformation

Before we became a “team of teams,” important issues regularly stopped at my desk, bottlenecking progress. I realized the process was unsustainable, so I empowered my team to make and implement decisions without me. On their own, members of my team began meeting in groups to address problems, later notifying me of results.

Like Innovative Employee Solutions, most small and mid-sized businesses have more challenges than they have time or teams to face. But few of them have plans in place to pick up the pace. According to CA Technologies, just 12 percent of businesses have implemented agility improvement initiatives. With cross-functional teams, SMB leaders can boost productivity and increase collaboration.

Following McChrystal’s advice has another key benefit: new opportunities for employee growth. Seventy percent of surveyed workers are dissatisfied with their company’s career development efforts, citing it as the top reason to resign. But in teams — which can be created without massive funds for education and training — individuals who aren’t official managers or supervisors can practice leadership skills including delegation, negotiation, and influencing others.

If McChrystal’s approach resonates with you, take these four steps toward a nimbler, more team-driven workplace.

1. Identify existing cross-functional teams.

You might already have some cross-functional teams addressing strategic initiatives. We have a data breach team, for example, that reviews our plan for such incidents annually, conducts drills, and meets to discuss suspected breaches, which can happen to small companies if they can happen to sophisticated corporations such as Equifax and Target.

With this small but mighty team, we learned how greatly a “team of teams” approach can extend our abilities. Put your own existing cross-functional teams under the microscope to gather data and determine which company problems additional teams could tackle.

2. Learn about the culture and operations of current teams.

After identifying internal teams, dig into their operations. When and why were they formed? How often do they meet? How do they make decisions? What is their reporting process? How do they resolve challenges? The insights you gather will help you set up future teams for success.

At Zappos, CEO Tony Hsieh announced a move to what he termed “holacracy” – a “team of teams” management style – via email and without previous discussion. Unfortunately, the abrupt change frustrated Zappos employees, many of whom left the organization. Jumping blindly into a new management structure is a recipe for chaos, not collaboration.

3. Secure buy-in and solicit volunteers.

Before switching to a “team of teams” management style, secure buy-in from leadership and everyday employees. Provide an overview of the new mission, and allow employees to volunteer to join teams. For such a radical change to succeed, the whole company must be on board. 

We prepared to introduce the shift by first presenting a business case to leadership. We used teams already in place as case studies and created a name and logo for the initiative. Afterward, we unveiled the “team of teams” approach at an all-staff meeting.

4. Seek feedback and monitor performance.

The only path to improvement is through regular feedback. Take complaints seriously but in stride. Openly speak with teams about their accomplishments and sticking points. Track productivity metrics, like “jobs completed,” and relay them to the leadership team. 

Tracking progress toward goals makes them more likely to come to fruition, according to a long-term analysis by the American Psychological Association. The analysis discovered that people who monitored progress toward a personal objective increased their likelihood of attaining that objective.

You needn’t adopt a military mindset to realize the benefits of a “team of teams” approach. In fact, your teams might already be in place; you simply need to acknowledge and empower them. Take a page from McChrystal, and you’ll discover just how much ground your small team can cover.

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