Military inspiration for the world we could create

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A book on military strategy may not seem like an obvious place to find a model for the future of humanity, but I found Team of Teams tremendously inspiring in terms of the world we could create.

When General Stanley McChrystal arrived in Iraq in 2003 as the newly appointed commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, he found that al-Qaeda were running circles around the task force, despite being massively outgunned in terms of numbers, equipment, and training. To put it in biblical/American terms, the Davids were whipping Goliath’s ass. This realisation led to a radical restructuring of the way the task force operated, in order to become more nimble and responsive to fast-evolving situations in real time.

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Stan McChrystal

The story told in Team of Teams makes an interesting complement to two other books I have read recently — Coping With Chaos and Finding Our Way (which I reviewed in this blog), and one that I read a while ago, Reinventing Organisations.

Coming from very different directions, all these books arrive at the same conclusion: in this increasingly complex (versus merely complicated) world, hierarchical power structures simply don’t work any more. No single human brain can cope with the sheer amount of data that is available, nor the “wickedness” of our challenges — with “wicked” referring to a problem that has multiple causes, multiple solutions, involves multiple stakeholders, and is constantly evolving, so is never truly “solved”.

[See also the sidebar on the 10 features of wicked problems in the Harvard Business Review, and my blog post on Wicked and Wise, by Alan Watkins and Ken Wilber.]

If you still hold a mental model of the military world as being based on hierarchy, command-and-control dynamics, and blind obedience to orders, you may be surprised to find Team of Teams uses phrases like emergence, shared consciousness, trust, common purpose, and empowered execution. Like many organisations facing unprecedented situations, the Task Force found it needed to decentralise authority and decision-making in order to overcome a scrappy but highly motivated terrorist network. It needed to stop behaving like an org chart and start behaving like a single organism, sharing information freely across what had once been siloed units. It had to sacrifice MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) efficiency in favour of messy effectiveness.

I find myself fascinated by this new modus. It seems clear to me that this is the direction we are heading, and that it is a good thing. Top-down hierarchies may have worked in the simpler world of the nineteenth or even twentieth centuries, but the pace of change and the volume of available data have increased exponentially. The COVID crisis caught many governments flat-footed, especially those of the larger nations, with the result that smaller, more localised authorities (city mayors, state governments etc) responded more quickly and assumed more power. More organisations are going “teal” (see Reinventing Organisations and/or check out this lecture by its author, Frederic Laloux), devolving authority to small, self-organising teams.

As Margaret Wheatley puts it in Finding Our Way:

The future may be here, but it is not yet evenly distributed. There are still many systems where information flows don’t provide essential feedback to sub-units on a timely basis, or at all.

For example, the systemic failures that led to the 2008 sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the resulting global financial crisis have not yet been resolved, because the feedback loops didn’t work. Governments bailed out the banks, and the perpetrators of the crisis still took home outsized bonuses. They received no meaningful feedback that their strategies had failed, and worse still, had caused massive hardship for many people. They didn’t see that hardship, so it wasn’t real to them. There is every danger they would do the same thing again.

Another example would be climate change, in which all of us in the developed world are perpetrators. But mostly the consequences of our choices are hidden from us. We don’t see forests being cleared to make way for cattle. We don’t see the lengthy supply chains that bring us food and products. We don’t see the methane emitted by the food we toss into landfill. And most of us don’t see the melting Arctic, or the sea level rise affecting small island nations. Again, we lack meaningful feedback that might motivate us to make different choices.

In the Joint Operations Centre at their bunker at Balad, McChrystal’s task force could see on an array of screens what was happening all across the region in real time. Daily O&I (Operations and Intelligence) briefings lasted an hour and a half, and were mandatory for the seven thousand personnel across the region, enabling them to share crucial information and best practice.

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What would it be like if we had a similar command centre for our world, or even for our own individual world? What would it be like if we had trustworthy, unfiltered, real-time information about the consequences of our actions, individually and collectively, against key metrics? For many people, their key metric of success is how many “likes” they just got on Facebook or Instagram, but what could the world be like if we had access to real-time metrics that actually mattered? What if ignorance could no longer be an excuse?

And what would it be like if we were able to truly embrace the power of the internet to create a world in which humanity could respond like a unified organism, with shared consciousness and emergent intelligence?

Ah, but then we would have to have a shared concept of what “success” looks like to us. It is more straightforward in a military context. There is an “enemy” who must be overcome, disrupted, disempowered, killed. Success can be measured in terms of strikes, captives, key figures removed or neutralised. But as humanity, we haven’t really decided what we are optimising for.

What would be the chief criterion against which we would evaluate the success or failure of the human enterprise?Our longevity as a species? Our sum total of wellbeing and happiness? The love and bonds of trust we generate? Or… a race to see which one of us can acquire the most toys before he (on current models of success, it would be 99% likely to be a “he”) dies?

Our ideal course would be simple, but not easy.

  1. Decide what we are trying to achieve.
  2. Decide what metric best suits the goal.
  3. Measure it, and share it with every human to create a virtuous feedback loop of motivation and reward towards our shared objective.

Can we do it? Can humanity unite around a common purpose, and become a team of teams?

[Full disclosure: I know Stan McChrystal slightly — we are both Senior Fellows at Yale’s Jackson Institute, and have also crossed paths at the Renaissance Weekend conference in the US — but our personal acquaintance has not coloured my perspective on his book, which I genuinely endorse as a valuable text for anybody interested in leadership for the 21st century.]

Other Stuff:

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I have been granted the license to run TEDxStroudWomen on 29th November, which we are hopeful can take place as a normal TEDx with a live audience. We are inviting aspiring speakers to apply via our website. You don’t have to live in Stroud, nor be a woman, to speak, but you will need to go through our selection process — details here. Our theme, very much in keeping with shared consciousness, is “emergence”. Please note that we will be running a series of fortnightly workshops to prepare our speakers, meaning that you should be within a commutable radius of Stroud, UK. If you have aspirations to be a TEDx speaker, please do apply, and/or forward this to someone you know who you think would be a great fit for our theme.

Written by

Former management consultant who stepped out of the ordinary to row oceans solo. Currently writing at https://www.thegiftsofsolitude.com/ and www.rozsavage.com

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