From the front line to the development team

We have already seen in a previous post how military history can provide valuable lessons for today’s business leaders. The Economist magazine provides a more contemporary application of how lessons learnt on the front line have applicability in the business world.

Stanley McChrystal used to lead the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq which captured Saddam Hussein and killed al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq. He now runs a consultancy company advising companies on decision-making. His mantra is to devolve decision making to teams of more junior staff. This works only if these teams are given all the information required to make the right decision. McChrystal argues that in complex, fast-moving environments, this can result in faster, more responsive, and ultimately more effective businesses.

Corporate insurgency: Management lessons from an American general | The Economist

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL’S voice is hoarse as he addresses a packed arena in Helsinki. His audience, mostly businessmen in dark suits, is rapt. The American former general tells thrilling battlefield stories of leading the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, which captured Saddam Hussein and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s local chief.

Of course, this is nothing new students of agile management methods. After all, empowered self-organising teams are the key building blocks tenet of all agile approaches. Both military special forces and software development organisations seem to have both come to the same conclusion as how to organise for success. This is not coincidental. Tech companies and military organisations are adapting to be able to react to fast-moving and unpredictable environments.

The team, and networks of teams of teams are the bedrock of the approach advocated by McChrystal and his team. The key concepts rotate around creating a community of “shared consciousness” around which the distributed teams can align on and act as a guiding principle even if decisions are decentralised.

In his approach, the key driving factors for creating successful teams of teams are:

  1. Get clear upfront on the performance challenge
  2. Beware the leader without real commitment to change
  3. To build a better network culture, start with the networks and culture you have
  4. Build trust with leader behaviour and transparent processes
  5. Break silos with cross-boundary engagement and value
  6. Appreciate the multiple strata of cultural change
  7. Embrace incrementalism as required


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