How General McChrystal Captures the Magic of Small Teams at Scale



In today’s fast-moving society, the greatest leaders are those who discard bureaucratic business models in favor of a networked “team of teams,” empowered to make decisions quickly by breaking down communication silos between departments and positions.

This is retired United States Army General Stanley McChrystal’s philosophy, who dedicated more than thirty-four years of service to the U.S. military. His final, and perhaps most notable assignment, was as the commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 until he retired in 2010.

Throughout his tenure, General McChrystal worked to develop scalable management practices that enabled the U.S. Army to embody this “team of teams,” which possessed the necessary agility and flexibility to fight in a modern, technologically advanced war environment and beat back Al Qaeda.

Five years into civilian life, General McChrystal applies the leadership skills he learned during his time in the Army to the business world as co-founder of the McChrystal Group, a leadership and management consultancy firm.

We recently had the great honor of speaking to General McChrystal before he came to our headquarters in New York for a keynote discussion on leadership and team building.

This special event was moderated by Scott Kirkpatrick, the President and COO of General Assembly, who spent time as an officer in the United States Coast Guard.

You discarded conventional wisdom and remade the Joint Special Operations Task Force when you took command in 2003. What were the key elements of this new structure? Why do you think it was so successful?

The military has a tradition of bureaucracy and hierarchy—that works in an environment when the threat is a known enemy that you can plan against. When I took command of the Joint Operations Task Force, we weren’t facing off against the German army or even a traditional terrorist organization. Terrorist organizations used to take hostages and make demands; they had a clear leadership structure. But with the advent of Al Qaeda and developments in technology, everything changed. The group was an amorphous, constantly shifting network.

Suddenly an organization where information has to make its way up the chain of command and decisions have to trickle down was too slow—command-and-control hierarchy just wasn’t working for us.

To defeat an enemy like Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), we had to beat them at their own game—the phrase it takes a network to defeat a network became our mantra. We created radical transparency through widespread information sharing and pushed decision-making down to the lowest levels. Silos between operators and intelligence analysts were knocked down in an attempt to create a team that could harness the minds of every individual. Ultimately, we were successful because we put a tremendous effort into rebuilding our organization into a networked team of teams that could adapt to the dynamics of the battlefield.

Can you tell me more about your “Team of Teams” methodology? How does it translate beyond the battlefield to massive corporations and burgeoning startups alike?

The idea behind a team of teams is to capture magic of small teams at scale, creating an enterprise-wide network that has the power of a large organization but the agility of a smaller team.

Small teams are powerful—trust, a single shared purpose, and experience working together gives its members intuitive understanding and reflexive adaptability. Most companies have adaptive small teams operating within a larger hierarchy. Individual teams might be incredibly adaptable at their level, but the silos between the teams and that the organization at large cannot scale those traits.

In Iraq in 2004, we had world-class, high-performing teams that could adapt to any situation. But stacking our small teams together didn’t add up to one big, excellent team—it made our organization siloed and unwieldy. Our goal wasn’t to create one massive team, it was to create a team of teams.

This concept translates beyond the battlefield and is applicable to both established corporations and startups alike. For large companies, the work has to focus on breaking down silos between geographically dispersed teams and connecting efforts to achieve overall success on company-wide strategies. There are lessons for the burgeoning startup as well. Every startup begins as excellent small team— the trick is building in the right processes and communication discipline to ensure that you maintain that as you grow, becoming a larger team of teams instead of a slow-moving corporate bureaucracy.

What inspired you to create the McChrystal Group and what is your primary mission as an organization?

When my colleagues and I retired from the military, we put a lot of thought into our experiences fighting networked terrorism, the major lessons we learned, and the parallels we were seeing in the changing business environment.

Technology has dramatically altered both corporate America and the battlefield. Threats and challenges come in from all over, moving at the speed of information and disrupting traditional organizational models. The world we now live in is one in which command-and-control hierarchy is simply unable to keep up. A networked team of teams predicated on constantly sharing information and empowering those below to act is the only way to succeed.

We founded our consulting firm, McChrystal Group, in 2011 in order to bring these lessons we learned to the business sector. Our firm’s mission is to improve the performance of organizations in the dynamic and complex environment of the 21st century.

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