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US Special Forces in Iraq

Team of Teams and design thinking: succeeding in complexity

Imagine you’re a U.S. Special Forces soldier in Iraq. You’re the best of the best, better equipped and more highly trained than any other soldier in the world. But, inexplicably, you’re losing.

Al Qaeda, a ragtag, poorly trained and unstructured force is outclassing you. No matter how hard you strike them, they are able to regenerate and reappear from unexpected directions. How can this be happening?

This was the situation faced by General Stanley McChrystal when he took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2003. Al Qaeda was overwhelming the best-equipped and best-trained military in the world. Something had to change.

Design thinking working as a social technology in small teams
Design thinking working as a social technology in small teams
In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, McChrystal, with David Silverman, Tantum Collins and Chris Fussell, describes how he and his staff learned from the enemy, reorganised the Task Force and began winning.  New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Al Qaeda, unconstrained by centuries of tradition, were able to exploit modern technologies and act in a networked and adaptive way. McChrystal’s forces had to overcome the barriers of its hierarchical structure, break learned behaviours and emulate this flexibility.

“Team of Teams” explains how these lessons may be applied to any organisation seeking to succeed in the modern, fast-paced world. The networking and adaptability of small teams are essential in times of complexity and rapid change.

Many of McChrystal’s conclusions are familiar to design thinkers. How can we apply a US Army general’s lesson to design in complex social systems?

Efficiency: the rule of the twentieth century

Management theory is dominated by ideas which are over 100 years old. Taylorism and Scientific Management, which sought to improve worker productivity in the 1920s, guide much conventional management wisdom. Max Weber’s model of bureaucracy, which focusses on qualifications, specialisation, hierarchy and careerism, is the basis of structure in many bureaucratic organisations.

Traditional organisations are guided by these theories and characterised by hierarchy and structure. Management is focussed on delivering efficiency in specialised silos within these logical frameworks. We see this concept at work in the Australian Public Service, with little time available for staff to communicate across teams and divisions. It’s a case of heads down, delivering.

The twenty-first century: efficiency is not enough

Today’s world, however, is characterised by rapid change and web-like interdependencies. Modern organisations are exposed to a range of global effects, from severe weather events and terrorism, to rapid changes in financial markets and new technologies. McChrystal’s experience with Al Qaeda in Iraq was just one example of a complex environment of the twenty-first century.

In this context, being efficient is not enough. We need to become agile and adaptable, adopting real-time innovation and problem-solving abilities. Modern organisations needs to be networked, not specialised, and sacrifice segmented efficiency for overall effectiveness.

Team of Teams

McChrystal saw that individual teams within his force acted with speed, agility and flexibility. But once his command organisation become involved, things slowed down and become more deliberate. To break down this effect, he needed to take the characteristics of small teams and apply them to the wider organisation.

A small team has a commonly understood purpose. Team members trust that others will do their part to achieve this mutual goal. A shared consciousness allows for real-time alignment and adjustment of activities. Members can act quickly, without needing permission.

McChrystal made organisational changes to allow the larger group to adopt these characteristics: common purpose, trust, shared consciousness and empowered execution. Each team within the Task Force acted as an individual would in the larger organisation team. This ‘team of teams’ achieved the agility of a small team with the resources of the whole organisation.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an approach to challenges that emphasises broad stakeholder engagement, empathy and co-creation. It puts aside immediate, seemingly obvious solutions in favour of wide understanding and innovative possibilities.

“Team of Teams” has got us excited here at ThinkPlace, as it resonates strongly with the principles of co-design.

How design thinking supports a team of teams

A design approach has the features that McChrystal identified in small teams. It engenders a common purpose, by bringing together involved parties, and encouraging cooperation to address a specific challenge. Design team members are charged with working together to develop viable solutions. Their first goal is to explore and agree on their purpose.

Design thinking improves mutual trust. By encouraging empathy and accepting the broadest range of perspectives, design thinking improves the quality of conversations and relationships. These relationships build trust between the different groups in an organisation.

Physical spaces and established processes can hamper the development of a shared consciousness within an organisation. A design approach breaks down these barriers, by bringing people together to a common space and replacing business rules with a unifying design process. 

Design teams are by nature non-hierarchical. All perspectives are valued and all team members work towards same goal, contributing their relative strengths to the activity. They are empowered to deliver solutions to their particular design challenge.

As identified by Jeanne Liedtka, design thinking is a social technology, transferring knowledge into practical outcomes. It increases adaptiveness and breaks down silo thinking. It removes the barriers of hierarchy and specialisation, increasing a shared understanding and common purpose. It engenders trust.

A co-design project creates a temporary space where traditional boundaries dissolve, viewpoints are shared, and members from across an organisation start to build a share purpose and context. While our preference is for co-design methods to be ongoing and embedded, even a one-off design project can leave a lasting effect. And the more fixed and hierarchical the organisation, the greater the effect.

Design thinking: one tool helping succeed in the modern world

Co-design capability within an organisation can centre particular topics around small teams, each networked with other small teams working other issues. In this way, we can work more like a ‘team of teams’ and perform better in this increasingly fast-paced and complex world. 

Design thinking improves an organisation’s connectivity and adaptability. An organisation that has adopted a design approach to challenges is better able to sense changes in its environment, respond more quickly to them and, ultimately, succeed.


Main image credit: The U.S. Army, under a Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 licence.

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