Book Review – Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

I picked up Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World* because I really enjoyed the message he shared when writing My Share of the Task: A Memoir. I was curious how he pulled it together and what lessons he had to share. More importantly, I was looking for ideas I could use for my small team and institution. I was not disappointed. This book helped to flesh out some points he made in his first book. Team of Teams focused on his operations in Iraq and the interworkings of countless agencies. I would be curious how the lessons could be applied for a business. Personally, I enjoyed the book; however, I think some would be put off on the heavy focus on military operations.

In many ways, Team of Teams is a case study. McChrystal systematically outlined what had occurred in a linear fashion and how they continuously adjusted operations to meet the complexity of the environment. The book is 290 pages long and arranged in twelve chapters spread across five parts. The parts include:

  • The Proteus Problem
  • From Many, One
  • Sharing
  • Letting Go
  • Looking Ahead

The Proteus Problem

“The models of organizational success that dominated the twentieth century have their roots in the industrial revolution and, simply put, the world has changed.” (McChrystal, 2015, p. 20).

In this four-chapter section, McChrystal laid out the purpose of his book. He explained that technology has significantly changed the world and showed through this case study how a business may/must adapt to the change.

According to McChrystal, the fight against Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi was different than engagements the US military had previously encountered. Zarqawi was using technology in a way that created a level of complexity that was difficult to fight against using conventional means. McChrystal and his team had to radically change its operations to meet and counter this threat. They had to adapt to a threat that was faster than they had encountered in previous engagements.

In his book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kevin Kelly speaks at great length about the impact that technology has on the speed of change. I also made a note in Team of Teams speaking of the interconnectedness of the world discussed in The Inevitable.

Throughout Team of Teams, McChrystal wrote about how the US military and the supporting agencies were extremely well trained; however, they needed to rapidly assume roles and ways of doing business that they had not been trained for. He described how they had become so efficient. In great part, it was due to Frederick Taylor. Taylor had turned industry into a science and significantly improved operations. Taylor put the industrial revolution into overdrive. As McChrystal pointed out, the exactness that Taylor called for works well in a complicated environment but it does not work in a complex environment—it is too slow. This was the challenge that McChrystal was experiencing.

“Though we know far more about everything in it, the world has in many respects become less predictable.” (McChrystal, 2015, p. 54).

While writing the book, McChrystal does a very good job pulling in research to support his points. Some of the support is historical while other illustrations are theoretical. Another feature of the book that I liked was the recap section found at the end of each chapter. There was usually three to four lessons learned in each chapter.

From Many, One

One the more challenging problems that McChrystal had to face, a problem that many businesses face, is getting their diverse silos of operators to work together as one team. He used the flights of United Flight 173 and US Airways Flight 1549 as examples of the difference between working as a team and working as individuals.

McChrystal was operating with a wonderful group of teams, e.g., SEALS, Special Forces, Rangers, etc. The problem is that if you were not part of their team, you were suspect. McChrystal had to do a lot to break through this wall and level of suspicion. Add to the mix the intelligence community, e.g., FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. It was a long continuous battle. McChrystal talked about the process and philosophy that led to this dilemma.

He had to get them to change from “doing things right” to “doing the right thing.” (McChrystal, 2015, p. 107). He discussed how the aviation industry went from Flight 173 to Flight 1549. He had to create a system that would scale, which meant that operating in silos would not work. The teams would have to know the roles of the other teams as they would know the roles of individuals on their team.


Another paradigm shift came in the sharing of information. Valuable time was lost because teams would not share essential information between teams in a timely manner. To change the method of thinking, McChrystal had to change operations. In one way he managed to accomplish this was through daily meetings with all agencies. Information was being openly shared on these virtual secure networks. Teams began to see what their role was in the bigger picture. McChrystal built an open operations center where sharing became the norm.

At my place of work, we have an open operations environment where the entire team can provide input to a problem when needed. McChrystall also indicated that he took all calls on the speakerphone so that information could be readily shared. This is something I have adopted.

Letting Go

In the Letting Go section, McChrystal shared how he removed himself as a bottleneck to operations and push authorization to conduct a raid to those with operational information. This resulted in moving from conducting 18 raids in a month to over 300 raids per month. Basically, efficiency rose significantly. I really appreciated the story about Commodore Perry and his visit to Japan.  Leaders have to empower their employees and teams to do the right things.

As I noted, this was a case study of combat operations in Iraq. It was operations in a complex environment with a multi-coalition of independent teams. I believe there are a number of great lessons to pull out of the pages, but I do not think it is a clear road map for operating. As a vet, I appreciate the lessons shared. If you are interested in business, military operations, or productivity, I think you will find Team of Teams interesting.

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