From Crisis to Change to High Performance – 6 Principles

“If you do not change direction you may end up where you are heading.”                                           

-Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher and poet.

Somewhere in the middle of the Iraqi desert, 2004: A co-ordination of elite military task forces, some of the most highly trained, equipped, disciplined, experienced, and high-performance teams of their kind ever put together (collectively known as the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC Task Force), were being beaten by a supposedly inferior insurgent group of fighters known as Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI). They were less-resourced, less trained, and less experienced than their foes by miles. Yet the insurgent groups were able to regularly foil and beat the elite soldiers despite the seemingly impossible odds. Something was different, and the traditional military organization, with its long, successful, proven operating models were getting outfoxed.

General Stanley McCrystal, the task force commander, realized that a shift had occurred. Despite the processes, systems, and structures (not dissimilar to Taylor’s theories of scientific management) they had in place which had proven unbeatable on countless missions, they were now operating in an environment which was quicker-paced, more interconnected, and wholly unpredictable. They were losing.  

It dawned on McCrystal that to win, they had to change and to change both radically and quickly. They decided to uproot military tradition and precedent and develop a new approach to the complex environment in which they were operating. That required them to go from a command structure to command of teams, and then to a team-of-teams structure (also known as multi-teams systems), and become a fast adapting, agile, resilient version of the network they were facing.

By utilizing this approach, they were able to build a ‘team of teams’ or multi-teams system (MTS) approach – a novel type, according to McCrystal, an “organization within which the relationships between constituent teams resembled those between individuals on a single team: teams that had traditionally resided in separate silos would now have to become fused to one another via trust and purpose”.

An integrated systems approach was still required, but it also meant the adoption of clear transparent communication (not a traditional practice in secretive military operations, even amongst sister units) and the encouragement of shared consciousness. Due in part to the fact that the teams were both geographically dispersed and culturally diverse, (team members from various nations and ethnic backgrounds), it was a tall order to fill. It would require all of them to be vulnerable, a feeling not common amongst those of this caliber. And the risk was high. However, they also realized that the safety and security – and success – of their teams depended on it.

To develop these capabilities, it would require a paradigm shift of culture change never before witnessed in the operating environment of war. Silos were broken down, and a new level of collaboration and alliances were established and nurtured. This enabled them to establish fluid, resilient, adaptive, and interdependent High-Performance teams (HPTs), who were led by senior leaders with high emotional intelligence.

One of the final pieces which allowed this strategy to be executed in the field was to empower them as self-managing teams and give them the authority to make decisions as the operations unfolded. Over time, they forged fresh mental models, allowing the best of the best to continue to experience success.  As collective mental models of processing information, knowledge, and their environment improved, a new level of synergy was achieved, which enabled them to ultimately get ahead of their adversaries.

More recently, in an interview with McKinsey, General James Mattis (former Secretary of Defense), further elaborated on the dangers of senior leaders getting involved in tactical details and decisions, rather than strategy, especially during a crisis.  Keeping decision making strictly at the highest levels has the effect of simultaneously making strategy an afterthought and slowing down execution.

Figure 1: Team of Teams Evolution Model (Source credit: McCrystal Group)

What does this battlefield story illustrate about how we can go from crisis, to change, to high performance (or High-Performance Teams) in today’s globally interconnected world?

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.”

     – George S. Patton

As we begin the process of emerging from a global pandemic, much of the world is realizing that former paradigms of working and attacking complex issues are no longer useful. Those paradigms have been turned on their head. If we continued in the same manner, we would only edge closer to where we were headed previously – and to defeat. We may believe we are successfully leading a High-Performance Team, using operating models which have proven effective in traditional environments, then get hit with a nasty dose of reality – the operating model does not provide value to our teams or our clients the same way it once did.

Due to the complex, networked, rapidly evolving environment we now live and work in, efficiency is no longer enough to go from great to excellent. Senior leadership will be required to depend more on self-organized, self-managing, and self-lead teams which are globally distributed (i.e. virtual) and must work interdependently to attain mutually shared goals.  If these teams are just starting to work interdependently with one another, there will be a tendency to follow the same processes and models, preventing the ultimate goal of mutually shared cognition – a common understanding of their environments, issues/challenges, processes, and proposed solutions.

By utilizing six general principles, authentic strategic leaders can help bridge this gap.

6 Principles:

1) Establish Trust, Culture, and Purpose first:

Regardless of the prestige, status, or amounts people are paid, they will not align with or contribute selflessly to their teams unless an environment of trust, shared culture, and purpose are known and established from the beginning of the relationship. This has been observationally shown not only in critical team operations but in many academic studies.

2) Challenge assumptions, previous models, and precedent:

Often, we may be successful in one area despite unseen flaws in actions over time and come to a point where we realize certain factors which made us successful previously will no longer have the same outcome. Our mental and operating models can become dated, and previous systems and processes must be changed and reconfigured to address new types of challenges. This may require the implementation of an interdependent, interconnected, multi-team systems approach – its performance outcome equivalent to the sum of its parts.

3) Set the direction, focused objectives, and accountabilities:

Once we reconfigure our operating models and systems for multi-team working and self-managing teams, it is up to the senior leaders to set the direction, establish unambiguous, specific objectives and targets, and ensure each member of the teams understands what they are responsible and accountable for. Without this direction from leadership, team members will not know what to focus on. Without focus, teams cannot achieve their performance potential.

4) Eliminate roadblocks, provide support, then get out of the way:

It is of no use to give your team an objective, make them accountable, and expect them to deliver results when there are obvious internal and external factors which are blocking their paths to excellence. One critical role for leaders is to identify and eliminate any constraints which prevent them from delivering. What we omit from the performance loop is almost always just as important as what we include in it.

5) Communicate, share knowledge, and empower your front lines to execute the strategy:

Inadequate communication amongst individuals, teams, and organizations is consistently identified as the root cause of many failed strategies. We cannot assume our team members have been shared critical operational knowledge, which they rely on to execute the strategic and tactical objectives. Once that knowledge is communicated adequately – and across all teams involved in operations – empower your front line and unleash team leaders to execute without interference unless absolutely necessary.

6) Measure/monitor, learn, and improve the cycle:

Sustained high performance would not be possible without becoming a learning team. For a team to continuously learn, constant monitoring of the operational systems, processes, and actions is continuously required to adjust the plan, and improve on it in real-time. Sharpening this cycle of input, output, and improvement is a critical differentiator for High-Performance Teams versus regular teams or groups. Keeping this cycle moving and improving it will become ever more critical in a globally distributed multi-teams environment.

We no longer live in the same world we did last year, or even six months ago. When former or current strategies do not get the job done anymore, authentic leadership (with the right emotional intelligence) must recognize that the context and environment around them have changed to such a degree that it may be unrecognizable. A convergence of new social and dynamic factors which have disrupted our previous team performance levels must be answered with equally novel thinking, systems, and approaches, even those that have not yet been proven, and often with limited facts to analyze.

Understand that the working (operating) context we now find ourselves in requires novel thinking at a strategic level, right alongside innovative implementation and execution at a tactical level. In this new theater of virtually distributed expertise, those who cannot adapt may find themselves left behind and outmanoeuvred by a fast-acting, resilient, interconnected opposing force.  

Alternatively, just as the JSOC task force was able to do against the dynamic, complex, ever-evolving challenges they faced in a foreign environment, those who do recognize the new world and quickly act accordingly, may just find that they are able to go from chaos and crisis, to change, to high performance.

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