The corporate magic of networked teams and high transparency


Originally published in American City Business Journals

By Shafqat Islam

Corporate leaders often pride themselves in their capacity for pattern recognition. But somehow, even as tech startups are remaking entire industries, many management teams remain slow to meet the fight.

How is that even possible?

As a group, CEOs cling to hierarchical, top-down structures. Information is hoarded at the top and divisions work in silos.

In short, it’s bureaucratic, and often why big companies cannot move quickly.

It’s the kind of “command-and-control” system of leadership that we often associate with the traditional military. Soldiers just follow orders, and information is given out on a need-to-know basis.

So it may seem strange that in an effort to create a more dynamic culture, I make every member of my executive team read a book by a four-star U.S. general, and I recommend it to anyone else who wants to become a better leader.

“Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World,” by retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, is much more than a military memoir; it’s an indispensable guide to the radical organizational change that all businesses should embrace.

In short, it’s the story of a quantifiably better leadership approach in fast-moving, complex and ambiguous environments.

Running a modern business is obviously a very different challenge than rooting out insurgents in Baghdad. But when you think about it, the military has been forced to adapt from conventional strategies and tactics to guerilla warfare as the modern battlefield changed.

In business, we say “adapt or die” as a figure of speech. For the military, that’s a very literal proposition.

After Gen. McChrystal faced such challenges personally — when he led the special operations forces that hunted down and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, for instance — he began to recognize the military needed to completely remake its approach to face this much less-conventional enemy.

He went on to create a quantifiably better and more dynamic leadership style.

That’s why the book has become a lodestar for me as a company builder trying to foster a culture of trust, speed, teamwork and transparency.

The first lesson from “Team of Teams” is the need to push decision-making to the edge of your organization. For many leaders, that might seem like a recipe for disaster: “Wait, you want us to let junior people make big decisions?”

It does seem counterintuitive at first, but think of it in a different way. Who really knows the most about your business — the workers on the front lines or executives in the boardroom several steps removed?

Here’s how it worked out for McChrystal, who ran the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq from 2003 to 2008. When he arrived in Iraq, the U.S. military was on its back foot, struggling to launch effective missions due to slow, centralized decision-making.

After realizing that the existing processes needed to be abolished rather than improved, he implemented a “Team of Teams” approach that entrusted decision-making to commanders and soldiers on the ground. After all, who had a better handle on the local conditions and prospects for success — generals hundreds of miles away from the action, or soldiers who were risking their lives every day on the front line?

The effect of this radical change was a massive increase in the number of U.S raids from one per day previously to dozens per day. McChrystal went from approving every raid to ceding all raid decisions to his troops.

The “Team of Teams” approach also resulted in quicker decisions. Rather than waiting for a decision from the top that may have been based on outdated intelligence, raid teams were able to make their own well-informed calls on the spot.

The second radical takeaway for business leaders from the book is the practice of shared consciousness. That is what happens as a result of high transparency and visibility. Without a steady flow of accurate information, teams won’t be able to fuse together into a network and make good decisions based on a common purpose.

For McCrystal, that meant throwing open a daily planning call that had been limited to the top brass so it included around 7,500 personnel globally. He regarded this as perhaps his single most important change because it freed up officers from passing information down the ranks and resulted in faster, better decision-making.

In a corporate setting, the lesson is that there is no such thing as too much communication. At NewsCred, we share board decks and financials and have special days for teams to communicate what they are working on. I also send a weekly email to the whole company with whatever is on my mind.

This builds a culture of shared consciousness that allows all employees, no matter how junior, to make decisions without always needing top-down approval.

How do McCrystal’s principles apply in our field of content marketing? As marketers we are feeling the winds of technological change more than most, making it even more crucial to embrace the transformation that breaks down silos and speeds decision-making. Content teams have a big opportunity to orchestrate content across silos and teams to create a unified customer experience.

Decentralizing decision-making by empowering people with information and authority can make a good organization even better.

Shafqat Islam is the CEO of Newscred