Gen. Stanley McChrystal: How to Scale the Power of Small Teams

Gen. Stanley McChrystal: How to Scale the Power of Small Teams
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Thick cotton ropes landed with a soft thud on the flat brown roof. Within seconds, commandos slid from MH-60 helicopters and immediately moved to secure the target building. Doors were breached, exits covered -- with no shots fired. In less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, a blindfolded terrorist leader was led from the building to a waiting vehicle.

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The force had done this before -- many times. The operation reflected the effortless fluidity and natural synergy of a small team that had grown cohesive through shared values and experiences. Its members felt they could do almost anything.

But of course they couldn’t. When technicians analyzed and exploited the terrorist’s computer, they didn’t recognize the intelligence value of selected files, and opportunities to roll up the enemy network were lost. Interrogators unfamiliar with the terrorist’s family connections also failed -- in this case to focus on the man's brother, who was an even more senior leader in the terrorist cell.

Ultimately, the amazing competence of the small team’s action was diminished in value because the command was unable to effectively integrate that competence into the operation of the larger organization. 

Successful startups are not unlike such small, focused military operations. Like their military counterparts, startup team members develop a oneness and ease of communication, from working so intensely toward a common goal, that is difficult to replicate across an organization of thousands.

Flexibility, speed and innate collaboration are the decisive advantages of the startup. But very few startup founders dream of leading a small team forever; instead, leaders often have visions of their small companies exploding in size, making lots of money and possibly changing the world.

Herein lies the challenge: While individual teams seem capable of accomplishing great feats, larger organizations often seem clunky and ineffective. In our New York Times best-selling book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, we dissect what makes small teams great and how we can scale these capabilities across enterprises, creating an adaptable "team of teams" whose members truly work together.

Our experiences fighting against Al Qaeda in Iraq, beginning in 2004, inspired our quest to capture the magic of small teams. Back then, we found ourselves facing an enemy that was untrained and lacking in resources. But somehow we were losing to a dispersed network of terrorists. How was it that the world's most elite small teams, capable of overcoming any challenge put in front of them, were collectively losing?

The answer was that our larger organization was composed of thousands of individuals and wasn’t nearly as nimble as a single Navy SEAL squad of 20 operators. While our individual teams could handle anything, collectively the bureaucratic, hierarchical organization behind them was inflexible and couldn’t keep up with the new realities of our dynamic operating environment.

We realized we had to transform the way we operated, or we would lose. Through trial and error, we found that the increasing complexity of our fast-paced, networked world required changing the surrounding culture and processes to emphasize adaptability over efficiency. By linking teams through technology; organizationwide communication platforms; a disciplined operating rhythm; and hands-off leadership, we were able to achieve the shared awareness and ability to quickly act that is normally limited to small teams at the enterprise level. 

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In short, scaling the power of small teams is just as important to a growing startup as it was to us back in 2004. Most rapidly growing startups already naturally exhibit many of the traits that make a team of teams successful: organizationwide communication, the empowerment of individuals and the ability to quickly adapt. While startups have the opportunity to build a strong foundation for adaptability as they scale, we had the more difficult task of transforming our existing organization -- essentially rebuilding the plane while we were flying it.

The challenge for startups lies not in breaking down silos or in speeding up execution, but in not allowing silos to be built in the first place. Deliberately maintaining culture, agility and effectiveness as you scale is something that is easier said than done (as evidenced by the graveyard of failed startups that have scaled too quickly, leaving disjointed operations, low morale and increased bureaucracy, as the side effects of scaling gone wrong).

Here are some suggestions for scaling your small team:

  • Codify what made you great, so you don’t lose your small team culture as you expand. Making thoughtful choices to put in processes will lay a foundation for effective growth and sustained adaptability over the long term.
  • Realize that rapid growth requires a monumental change in both operations and leadership.
  • Recognize that you can’t operate with 500 people the same way you did with 20. Processes and layers of organization need to be introduced to limit chaos. But it is critical that these changes be made thoughtfully and not limit the innovation and collaboration that made you successful in the first place.
  • Implement communication across all levels of the organization to take place daily, in a transparent and inclusive manner. Individuals should still be empowered to act quickly within their space.
  • Make sure that the leadership of your growing startup constantly adapts.

As the leader of a startup, you initially may have found it essential to be involved in every decision, as you directed the way forward for your company. But as you grow, it’s impossible to maintain this level of control. The role of the leader should shift from making all of the decisions to empowering others and focusing on maintaining culture and the connections among teams.

The very nature of a startup gives everyone a voice, a sense of empowerment and a drive to innovate and work together. Introducing layers of bureaucracy as you grow dulls these innate qualities. If leaders of startups want to be successful in today’s rapidly changing world, they need to devote themselves to maintaining their naturally adaptive "team of teams" structure as the organization grows.

Take it from us: It’s a lot harder to make an organization of thousands more nimble than it is to organically grow a small team into a large yet flexible network. So, as the leader of a startup, you should make sure to tend your garden, creating a strong foundation on which your flexible company can grow.

Related: 25 Ways to Lead, Inspire and Motivate Your Team to Greatness