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Highlights From Our Live Q&A With Gen. Stanley McChrystal, David Silverman, And Chris Fussell

On leadership, chaos, and empowering far-flung teams.

Fast Company editor-in-chief Robert Safian recently sat down with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell, authors of the book Team of Teams: New Rules Of Engagement For A Complex World, to discuss how organizations can become more effective by eliminating traditional hierarchies and empowering employees at all levels to make decisions.

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“In today’s age of flux, the old organizational systems are under duress,” says Safian. “We need more a flexible, agile framework, and Team of Teams offers a compelling perspective that combines emotional, human motivations and practical, operational realities.”

Check out highlights from the chat below, or read the full transcript here.

On Today’s Challenges

Chris Fussell: “These ideas started by recognizing the ineffectiveness of the military system in the information age. The Defense Department is prone to all of the ‘traditional bureaucratic rules,’ which is the same thing you’ll find in most traditional government systems. It’s critical that leaders recognize that the system no longer works—and we can’t remain beholden to the old way of business.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal: “We found that in the increasingly complex and far faster environment (see how quickly ISIS has arisen and matured) that connecting even dispersed individuals and small teams into a larger Team of Teams was essential. Competition faced by most companies is no longer only from established firms–it comes fast and furious from startups and from far-flung locations around the world. Accelerated by technology, media, and markets, the deliberate pace once effective is now often overwhelmed.”


On Leadership

David Silverman: “Today’s leader must foster an environment that allows people to be successful. No longer can they be the decision maker exclusively. They must be the master communicator and facilitator.”

McChrystal: “Traditional models often viewed the leader much as we might a chess master who controls 16 chess pieces against an opponent who does the same. But what if your opponent is not a single chess master, but instead are 16 chess pieces that each think for themselves and communicate between themselves constantly—with the freedom to act? Suddenly the chess master will be utterly incapable of dealing with a networked foe. You need to use your position to create an environment where your chess pieces are informed, in constant dialogue with each other, and are not only empowered—but are expected—to act.”

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Fussell: “For many of us in the Special Operations world, it was seeing the first step being taken by our senior leadership that was critical. In thousands-large communication forums, we saw a willingness for leaders to be honest about what they did and didn’t know, then also support a system where junior folks could present the realities as they were… not a polished version. There was a lot of empathy in the system, which many find counterintuitive. This started with Stan McChrystal, but spread quickly throughout the organization. Once this becomes the organizational norm of any enterprise, it begins to grow organically, but senior leaders must take the first step.”


On Shared Consciousness

Silverman: “Shared consciousness is the emergent intelligence that is created across a networked organization when you have a lot of transparent interactions on a consistent basis. What it does is create the critical feedback that is necessary to allow an organization and individuals to consistently and accurately correct their respective actions and decisions, so they can constantly be doing the right thing at the right time.”

Fussell: “Shared consciousness was the ultimate goal of the organization. How do we ensure that thousands of people around the world have access to the right information and an interconnected view of the problem? We did this by creating robust communication forums that included, literally, thousands of people on live video teleconference every day. That became the heartbeat of creating shared consciousness, and driving effective actions.”

McChrystal: “It is more than simply decentralizing decision-making. If you push authority (and responsibility) for decisions down to lower levels, but don’t accompany that with all the contextual understanding, you’ve set your teams and junior leaders unfairly up for failure. You can’t expect people to make the right decisions unless given the tools. But when you do pass both the contextual understanding down, and accompany that with the freedom to decide and act, you find the decisions made closer to the action (or closer to the customer) can be faster, more precise, and nuanced where necessary. In combat I found that given the tools, junior leaders made extraordinary judgments under great pressure–but only when I created an environment that sets them up for success.”

On Chaos

McChrystal: “For those who are uncomfortable with chaos and uncertainty, life is going to get really hard. You can create an insulated world in which the inputs are limited and processes predictable, but just don’t expect to grow a firm, dominate a market, successfully help kids navigate to the education they need, or govern effectively. The world has changed, and it isn’t going to slow down or simplify.”

Fussell: “To those who don’t like chaos, I say… it’s no longer up to you. It’s a guiding principle of the information age–as the external world is so much faster and interconnected than it’s ever been. If you’re more comfortable in the traditional, predictable bureaucratic system, you can fight the change, but you’re doing so at your own peril.”

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