Collaboration Meets Complexity: Review and Lessons from “Team of Teams”

Since reading Jonathan Sullivan’s free eBook, “17 Books Every Catholic Leader Should Read,” I’ve been extra-motivated to take a second look at many of the non-church-related leadership and management books I’ve encountered over the years and ask, what does this say to us as church leaders? Because I teach leadership (for the Army, in a public university) it’s all too easy for me to quickly glimpse over opportunities for integration between my work and life as a Christian, and so I’m (to use Sullivan’s phrase) aspiring to shape my imagination by seeking to be ever-more integrative in this regard.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, I picked out Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by General (Retired) Stanley McChrystal (+Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell).

The Main Point

McChrystal and his team argue that in today’s rapidly evolving, complex world, organizers will be most successful when leaders give small groups the freedom to experiment, while cultivating shared consciousness, information, and awareness across the entire organization.

Recommended Reading for Catholic Leaders? Maybe

Because I served in Afghanistan and Iraq during some of the time periods that McChrystal draws examples from, I found the backdrop-of-foreign-policy aspects of the book quite engaging. However, while the organizational leadership and management ideas in this book are innovative, challenging, and certainly useful for many in ministry, I think the high proportion of detailed examples from military operations, history, and business could be a bit overwhelming and/or distracting for those looking for more of a pure focus on organizational effectiveness (i.e. Patrick Lencioni‘s books) or anecdotes with a broader appeal (i.e. Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line, which made Sullivan’s 17 Books list). I wouldn’t give this book a general recommendation as a leadership read, unless you’re also a person who also enjoys historical and foreign policy reading as well. However, this book would also be a good fit if you’ve read a few more generic leadership/management books and are looking for something a bit different to give some concrete techniques and tactics to the broad idea of collaboration.

Mixed recommendation for reading aside, what were some of the leadership and management lessons uniquely presented in Team of Teams and especially relevant to pastoral ministry?

Take-Away #1 — A Team of Teams Fosters Collaboration

First, let’s get to the basic definition of a “team of teams.” A team of teams is a way of thinking of organizational structure. Typical organizations (i.e. parishes, ministries, etc.) often think of their organizational structure as something like this:

CommandOrgChart
Illustrations by Relajaelcoco, via FastCompany

We might call this a “command” or “hierarchical” organizational structure (not to be confused with the theological meaning of hierarchy as sacred order). In an organization that operates this way, the primary relationships, pathways of concern, shared visions, and communications are between subordinates and supervisors. This might be a relationship of employment or a volunteer-relationship, depending on your parish/ministry setting. The problem with an organization that operates this way is that it can create silos and prevent the necessary inter-connectivity and “shared consciousness” between different parts of the organization–i.e. between the evangelization committee and the Knights of Columbus in a parish.

TeamOrg

TeamofTeams

It’s not about everyone knowing everyone else, but knowing someone on every other team–no silos, no implied rivalry or competition for the pastor’s attention, no judgement on the worth of another volunteer leader’s focus in ministry, etc.

It’s also not anarchy. As McChrystal writes:

“The Task Force still had ranks and each member was still assigned a particular team and sub-sub-command, but we all understood that we were not part of a network; when we visualized our own force on the whiteboards, it took the form of webs and nodes, not tiers and silos” (251).

Take-Away #2 — Stop Blaming and Changing all the Wrong Things

Leadership requires change. Why? Because to lead is to have a vision–a vision of a future different than the present. To move towards this vision, an organization must change. But oftentimes organizations (ministries and churches included!) start by changing all the wrong things. Tactics, technology, programs, processes, curricula…you name it. But, ultimately these changes won’t have the desired impact unless there’s a cultural change within the organization when it comes to the “approach to management” (32).

Reflecting on the Joint Task Force he led, McChrystal explains:

“The Task Force had built systems that were very good at doing things right, but too inflexible to do the right thing” (81).

Hmm. This fits a lot parishes/ministries–tried and true systems and processes that do what they were designed to do very effectively, but too inflexible to change to meet our new and current circumstances. As Fr. James Mallon observed in Divine Renovation, almost everything about the sacramental system/religious education program in his parish was an effective system, but effective for a different era, for different conditions.

You can have a good system that does the wrong thing. Or, a good system that’s doing the right thing right now, but can’t possibly adapt fast enough to retain value.

There’s a challenge in making these kind of big internal changes when it comes to how we manage or organizational culture. McChrystal writes:

“There’s a temptation for all of us to blame failures on factors outside our control: ‘the enemy was ten feet tall,’ ‘we weren’t treated fairly,’ or ‘it was an impossible task to begin with.’ There is also comfort in ‘doubling down’ on proven processes, regardless of their efficacy. Few of us are criticized if we faithfully do what has worked many times before. But feeling comfortable or dodging criticism should not be our measure of success” (8).

We see this a lot in church leadership. Implicitly or explicitly blaming secular culture, parents who won’t bring children to faith formation, diocesan policies, Biblical literacy of parish adults, etc. While there is a healthy place for acknowledging that we can’t change the setting we minister in when it comes to cultural forces or the environment, this shouldn’t be an excuse that distracts us from adapting as leaders and managers in ministry.

Take-Away #3 — Collaboration is a Day-to-Day Reality

Team of Teams offers a mini case study on US Airways Flight 1549 (Captain “Sully” Sullenberger landing unpowered plane in Hudson River…) After the event, analysts concluded that while the “crew’s technical training had been completely irrelevant to the solution they achieved…it was their interactive adaptability…that proved crucial.” “US Airways 1549 was saved not by one mind, but by the ability of the captain, the first officer, and the flight crew to come together and pull toward a common goal” “quickly” “almost intuitively in a close-knit fashion” since “because of time constraints, they could not discuss every part of the decision process” (111).

As Br. Loughlan Sofield and Sr. Carroll Juliano note in Collaboration: Uniting Our Gifts in Ministry, it’s common in Catholic ministry for “collaboration” to be pushed during pastoral planning or major decision-making, but then all but forgotten in the day-to-day reality of ministry.

To work together quickly and intuitively in a close-knit fashion–this is the real fruit of collaboration. But it can’t be pulled out for an emergency if it doesn’t exist in the day-to-day. McChyrstal describes how daily office operations changed to build this shared consciousness, for example:

  • using “cc” line of e-mails liberally “whenever it seemed that even the second- or third-order consequence of the operation discussed might impact them” (163)
  • taking lots of calls on speakerphone–even when it made others uncomfortable or surprised them (163)

Are we able to almost instinctively work closely together in day-to-day ministry? Do I understand what’s going on with other teams/departments? There are signs of collaboration.

Take-Away #3 — Leader as Gardener

McChrystal describes his uncomfortable transition from a self-image of “heroic leader” to “humble gardener” (225).

He writes:

As a leader, “I needed to shift my focus fro moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem. Paradoxically, at exactly the time when I had the capability to make more decisions, my intuition told me I had to make fewer. At first it felt awkward to delegate decisions to subordinates that were technically possible for me to make “(226).

To be a leader doesn’t mean you must make every decision and seek to wield more and more authority–powerful leadership also comes from enabling others. A multiplier effect. [Again, I was amazed at how relevant these concepts were to collaboration in ministry!]

McChrystal explains:

“If the garden is well organized and adequately maintained, and the vegetables are promptly harvested when ripe, the product is pretty impressive. The gardener creates an environment in which the plants can flourish. The work done up front, and vigilant maintenance, allow the plants to grow individually, all at the same time…I began to view effective leadership in the new environment as more akin to gardening than chess…nurturing the organization..to enable the subordinate components to function with ‘smart autonomy’…as in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting than on consistent maintenance. Watering, weeding, and protecting plants from rabbits and disease are essential for success. The gardener cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes, squash, or beans–she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so…Creating and maintaining the teamwork conditions we needed–tending the garden–became my primary responsibility…I found that only the senior leader could drive the operating rhythm, transparency, and cross-functional cooperation we needed. I could shape the culture and demand the ongoing conversation that shared consciousness required” (225-226).

This is where the rubber meets the road in many church organizations–only the senior leader can set the tone to make a collaborative organizational culture a reality. [Which brings us back to #2…stop blaming and change the right things…]

Take-Away #4 — Trust and Common Purpose. Trust First.

This diagram comes at the end of Team of Teams. For it to make sense, order matters.

Source: GoogleBooks preview (p. 245)
Source: GoogleBooks preview (p. 245)

It starts in the center–with trust and common purpose. This reminds me of Patrick Lencioni’s emphasis on trust as the foundation of organizational health. If leaders and teams can’t trust each other in ministry, then that’s the first step, period. Out of a healthy organization comes (looking to the right side of the diagram) empowered execution–when individuals know that their leaders trust them, provide the resources, guidance, and freedom to do good (and occasionally fail!)–and shared consciousness–knowing what’s important beyond one’s own team. An organization that operates with these two characteristics has demonstrated adaptability. And, adaptability is what enables an organization to act with the speed and multi-dimensional approaches necessary for today’s complex challenges.

As I reflect on this, I see a connection to how many parishes/ministries have approached the New Evangelization–treating it as a program or static “problem” that can be analyzed and planned well in advance and executed by a small group of individuals. But, the call for a New Evangelization is certainly evidence of complexity in today’s cultural and religious environment. In many cases, a “team of teams” approach is greatly needed in order to break down silos, improve the speed of change, and re-build the trust that all missionary disciples must have to truly be free to labor most fully and fruitfully in the vineyard.

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