Designing Innovation & Agility with a Team of Teams

One of the most interesting books written in the last few years is Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal.  The book explores organizational dynamics in the military and how they can best be applied to corporations.  The main concept within the book is that a small, well-trained team, with a clear mission, superior communication, and mutual trust can defeat a larger force that is less agile.  In the military, these concepts are demonstrated through the activities and success of Navy Seals, Army Green Berets, and other special forces commands.  Prior to the book being written I went through my own experience surrounding the effectiveness of teams and aligned my whole company around this principle. 

In early 2005 I was the Chief Operating Officer of a well-respected consulting firm.  The firm had been recognized with many awards and had contracts with some Fortune 100 companies.  It was structured in a traditional format and segmented by functional area.  It had a project management department, a technology department, a programming department, a marketing department, etc.  Each department was led by a Vice President who was entrusted to manage the work and develop the people within their respective silo. 

The organizational structure served us well as we grew, but once we hit a certain number of employees we seemed to stagnate.  We would try to sell our way through it and the work would suffer.  We would try to hire our way through and turnover would outpace the onboarding of new members.   We added levels to our organizational chart, but that just added overhead and resulted in less work being completed.   No matter what we did customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction declined. 

Having tried almost every idea imaginable, I started to investigate the challenge from the customers perspective.  I noticed that for us to deliver a project for the customer, it was imperative that each of our departments work in a harmonious fashion.  Suddenly, I started to think of our company as a NFL football team.  In order to score a touchdown (deliver a project), all of the players had to execute on their assignment.  As I explored the sports team analogy I noticed something extraordinary – most plays are not executed without issue.  During the game the other team is constantly trying to derail the players success.  The best teams know how to adjust when something interferes with their play.  If a lineman gets knocked down, the quarterback scrambles, the receivers adjust, and the ball is still thrown.  If teams did not adjust when presented with obstacles, they would never score a touchdown.   

With this new-found knowledge, I started to explore the interconnection of our teams.  What were the outside influences that made their jobs more difficult, how should they adjust, how could I put a process in place to manage it, and what could I do to incentivize success.  I found that the variables were endless and that a process could not be developed to overcome the multitude of issues.  I needed to create a team that could understand when an issue was happing, understand how it would impact the play, and adjust to ensure the success of the team.  Surprisingly the functional structure that we had, encouraged the exact opposite outcomes and was hindering our growth.

After this discovery I immediately started on plans to turn the company on its side.  I would transition our staff away from the functional silos and into cross functional delivery teams.  The teams would be aligned around the mission of delivering a client project, instead of enhancing a functional skill.  The teams would be incentivized based on customer feedback and adherence to budget rather than industry awards and individual achievement.  I created a team of teams that would deliver for our customers.

As we transitioned to our new structure, I became aware of some details that we needed to address.  First, I would need to implement some cross training.  When individuals were focused on their individual function, they did not care about how their work impacted that of others.  Now that they were aligned as a team, they wanted to know how their work fit into the project and how they could make their teammates work easier.  Second, I needed to align the team around a leader.  Although project management was discounted under the old structure, they quickly became the center of the team because they controlled the plan and budget.  Third, I needed to determine an optimum size for the team.   The team had to be big enough to have all the skills necessary to deliver for a customer, but had to be small enough so that the team could create a personal connection.  Through a period of trial and error I found that teams worked best when they were between 10 to 18 people.  If the teams were any smaller they did not have enough resources to scale, if they were larger they lost the team dynamic.

As I transitioned the company to a team based structure I noticed that our work became more efficient, client satisfaction increased, and employee retention improved.  We were able to scale past our stagnation point and quickly doubled the size of our company.  I kept the teams to limited sizes and as we grew, I spawned new teams from our peak performers.  I also leveraged the team structure to easily open an office in another city.

What I had discovered through this reorganization was exactly what General McChrystal had presented as a concept –  a team of teams creates a scalable and effective business model.  It seems that as organizations grow, communication becomes difficult, people become less connected, and focus on accomplishing a mission becomes fragmented.  Individuals are less likely to try new approaches and become creatures of habit.  This repetitive assembly line type position becomes unchallenging and individuals disengage.  Changing the organization to small teams allows for a level of trial and error.  If something does not work, team mates quickly adjust to ensure that the mission can be accomplished.  As innovation is successful, the team can adopt the positive changes into their standard procedures. 

For information on how to implement agile teams and innovation within your organization contact Stonehill at 727.641.6145 or