teams, organisations, and the like

The history of human organisations are often divided into phases, and many of us are experiencing a phase-change. Even though we have classifications and categories, the world as we know it contains all the phases in some area or group. People have the capacity to regress to primal and crude behaviour, or emerge as modern and sophisticated members of groups.

Violence and power based organisations, or rather groups and bands dictated most of human history. Militaristic, hierarchical and rule-based institutions governed most of our recorded history. Capitalistic, performance and accountability based organisations rose during and after the industrial revolution. Work of masses needed management.

Employer engagement and culture-first type of organisations are the goal for businesses these days. The next phase gives rise to a more fluid arrangement, where roles and positions come and go. People self-manage, self-repair and plan their work themselves. Only a higher purpose and culture affect their hopefully informed decisions.

In the midst of more academic and theoretically-minded folk, these phases are colour coded red - amber - orange - green - teal.

contemporary military history #

There is an awesome book on contemporary military history, called “Team of Teams” by Stanley A. McChrystal. It contemplates the transformation of one US military branch (JSOTF) from a hierarchical and traditional organisation into a modern and non-hierarchical team of teams.

This need arose from a somewhat surprising need to counteract a non-hierarchically functioning and adaptative organisation that is Al-Qaeda. The terrorist cells operated without central command and were completely self-organised and self-planning. A higher purpose directed the organisation. A company culture of, of sorts.

JSOTF could not keep up with the terrorists, as the hierarchy and decision making exceeded any valid reaction times. General McChrystal then proceeded to impose extreme transparency and distributed command structures. He moved decision making down the chain of command by trusting the operators on the ground to act based on their more contextual and instinctive knowledge.

I’ll point out another book dealing with similar subjects, in similar time and space, called Extreme Ownership. The book, written by Leif Babin ja Jocko Willink, presents some more individually applicable stories and principles. I find it a great addition to Team of Teams, not only for personal development, but for leaders and team players. It focuses less on the enemy and more on how to deal with our own attitudes and performance within difficult circumstances or with challenging people.

ownership and self-actualisation #

Dismantling the hierarchy and providing individuals with decision-making authorship will encourage them to take ownership of the results. People who design their own plans and manage themselves cannot blame others for their mistakes as much. They are more likely to give extra effort to actualise their targets.

Some can carry more responsibilities, some less. The downside is, that having too many obligations can get more stressful than a mere following of orders. The opposite is also true, and we each have a personal balance. The amount of externally assignable blame is inversely proportionate to the number of personal responsibilities.

The ideal situation is that individuals and teams organise themselves. The organisation only provides the support, as in security, tools, and the required material needed by the teams to follow through their mission. The leadership should be like gardeners, and their goals only to make the teams and individuals blossom.

purpose and culture leading to antifragility #

When an organisation has a strong culture and radiates purpose, it’s parts can become autonomous. Then, they no longer need top-down instructions. Self-managing parts of an organisation can learn from others’ mistakes. But the individual teams do not need to suffer from company-wide debacles.

Stressors like mistakes, resignations or economic downturns need not be debilitating. The teams can overcome hardships by supporting each other and the overarching entity. An antifragile organisation will benefit from a local crisis by learning and growing stronger. This is where transparency across teams is essential. An industry-wide crisis’ effect on an organisation with fast and distributed decision making and without hierarchical management, is lesser than it’s rivals.

Purpose and culture need not necessarily be written down or advertised. Explicitly declaring them can even have a diminishing effect. Most of culture and purpose is tacit, and each member of an organisation should be able to generate a somewhat similar specification if asked.

complexity and transparency #

McChrystal makes a case in differences between complicated and complex. Complicated things have simple inputs and outputs, no matter what magic happens between them. These can be reduced to simple, repetitive and mechanistic jobs, and are eventually replaced by machines. But complexity is growing and spreading. Inputs and outputs are numerous, and they change.

The human advantage, the competitive edge, is still in complex pattern recognition and creativity. Maximum transparency is needed to remove obstacles from interfering with pattern recognition and information flow. Hierarchy and bureaucracy slow down information transfer and often block the emergence of vital ideas.

Information flood and its processing will slow down individual work. The assumption is, that the work done because of the available information is smarter, faster, and most importantly, the right work.

egos #

The colours mentioned earlier are well described in an opus called
Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux. Many of its examples are like those from Team of Teams. The book is also surprisingly philosophical, as it deals with issues emerging when a new type of organisation is adopted. The holy grail of the book is reaching a “teal” phase, where everything is self-organising, and no permanent hierarchies or roles exist. Employees are self-actualised and motivated.

This change requires some individual distancing from the ego. Relinquishing control and position - or the future promise of them - may create too vague of a career path for some. The goal becomes both self-improvement and company-wide improvement, instead of bettering our own positions inside the company. This has the effect removing some unwanted internal struggles, but also some of the traditionally clearer and more actionable personal goals.

People are forced to re-evaluate their purpose, wants and needs. To me, the teal mindset has overlapping ideas with stoicism, one of the so-called practical philosophies. We are encouraged to contemplate our roles and intrinsic needs instead of what our positions look to an outsider. In a flat organisation, we must focus less on ourselves, and more on the whole. Most responsibilities lie within the company or team, but perhaps paradoxically, taking ownership or our own and sometimes for others’ mistakes will increase the well-being for all.

As a company increases in size, the formations of teams or other structures become necessary. As one’s position and meaning in an organisation can be vague as it is, the growing headcount can diminish their sense of significance. In too large teams, different people with different egos can overpower others, leaving them with a diluted feeling of power, responsibility and purpose. Empowerment is difficult to achieve without a real sense of belonging and participation.

theory and application #

What Reinventing Organisations explores on theoretical and some practical level, Team of Teams processes in its own unique and slightly more exciting level. Most of what Team of Teams handles on a higher level; Extreme Ownership handles on a personal and team plane. These books overlap nicely and therefore provide a progression from theory to practice, and guidance from organisational to individual levels.

Going from red to yellow to amber to green to deal is not simple. Teal perspectives can get perhaps too theoretical and often difficult to implement. Teal enthusiasts tend to live in an academic bubble, with confusing or obscure advice on how to transition from lesser stages. Therefore, the teal ideals can seem perplexing and frustrate the people in the midst of their struggles.

It is hard to tell when a teal stage is reached. It consists a set of ideas more vague and prone to interpretation than the more traditional organisational ones. The way towards a new type of organisations will become easier as the older structures dissolve. Resistance is deeply rooted, as is the case with any change affecting the most important parts of our lives. But if military organisations in the midst of war can change their organisational and hierarchical structures, so can we.

Reinventing Organizations
Team of Teams
Extreme Ownership
Ego is the Enemy


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