Mike Tyson famously said “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth”, and this quote has been on my mind recently as I’ve been reading General Stanley McChrystal’s book “Team of Teams“.
In General McChrystal’s case, the metaphorical “punch in the mouth” was the surprisingly successful effort of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to fight a guerilla war against the much larger, more structured and more disciplined US military forces.
He couldn’t understand it. His Joint Special Operations Task Force was an elite group with the best tools, the best training and the best discipline in the world… so how could a relatively small group of insurgents with no clear organizational hierarchy continue to frustrate the efforts of his task force?
Too much planning
Well, the Task Force thought that if it gathered enough data, analyzed that data well enough, made a really good plan, and executed that plan well… then they would succeed.
However, they were operating in a chaotic environment, where local dynamics and events were constantly changing in unpredictable ways – with the result that plans were of very limited value.
In other words, the Command and Control hierarchy of the US military was actually proving to be a hindrance. It was very effective in situations where it was possible to make a plan, but in a chaotic environment, plans weren’t very helpful.
Team of Teams
General McChrystal realized that he instead needed to re-organize his task force into small teams, where each team understood the overall objective, but had the knowledge and authority to react well to situations as they unfolded.
This revised approach to management (or rather, lack of management) required two things:
- Shared Consciousness – In a world where the leader is making all the decisions, only the leader needs all the information. But in a world where everyone is making important decisions, you need to do a really good job of sharing all relevant information with people.
- Empowered Execution – Once the individual team members have all the relevant information, they are empowered to take action without seeking approval. Most people take this responsibility seriously and use it wisely.
Coincidentally, I’ve also been reading a book called Reinventing Organizations which takes a more philosophical/sociological approach to the question of organizational structure, but actually reaches a similar conclusion – that the best way for people to be effective and motivated in an organization is for teams to operate autonomously with a common goal.
I’m a pretty bad manager
I’ve struggled for a long time with the question of whether I’m actually any good at managing people. I’m pretty good at leading (setting a vision, defining a culture) and I’m pretty good at coaching (listening sympathetically, asking questions, offering advice), but I’ve struggled for years with the whole accountability piece.
If someone’s brand new to the team, then I can do the whole training/micro-management thing as they get started. But once we get through that phase, I tend to switch to a pretty hands-off approach – “this is our goal, let me know if you have any problems”.
I’ve always felt that there should be a middle ground where I could monitor people’s progress and hold them accountable to our agreed goals and deadlines… but I have always struggled with that.
But maybe that’s okay?
It’s always been a little surprising to me that the teams I’ve managed have been so effective despite my keeping them accountable – but after reading these books I’m wondering if my own weakness has actually been a blessing in disguise. Maybe, if you hire good people, give them a clear goal and a supportive environment, then they actually perform better if they don’t have an annoying boss breathing down their necks.
People like to feel trusted, to understand their purpose, to have choices, and they like the opportunity to achieve mastery of their roles. So in our own workplaces, if we can create a culture that enables that, and lay out a vision for what success looks like – as individuals and as a team – then good people will rise to the occasion.