Creating Shared Consciousness

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s prescription for today’s complex world


While writing his memoir, My Share of the Task, Gen. Stanley McChrystal realized the most interesting part of the story was the transformation of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) during the war in Iraq.

“We fundamentally changed the way we operated and the culture of the organization,” McChrystal said.

He set out to discover whether the lessons learned at JSOC were unique to the military or if they reflected a universal change that could be applied to government and business. This concept formed the basis for McChrystal’s second book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.

McChrystal will give a keynote address at 12 p.m. June 23 during the GEOINT 2015 Symposium in Washington, D.C., to share with attendees the primary messages in his latest book.

McChrystal, a retired, four-star general, is the former commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan and the former commander of JSOC. He is known for developing and implementing the current counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and for creating a comprehensive counter-terrorism organization that revolutionized the interagency operating culture.

Why Build a “Team of Teams”

For the last 150 years organizations have been built around the concept of efficiency, with a culture of clear-cut processes and organizational charts designed to produce ordered discipline and predictability.

But in Iraq, McChrystal saw that all change when the opposition began leveraging 21st Century technology such as cellphones and computers in simple yet unpredictable ways.

“And that’s what we’re seeing right now with ISIS,” he added. “ISIS, which shouldn’t be nearly as effective as it is, is reaching 100 million people a day with their media efforts. It gives them the ability to exponentially leverage what amount of effectiveness they have.”

Today, speed and interconnectedness are changing the world and the way everyone works—or should be working—toward their respective missions, whether in military, government organizations, or business.

“When [speed and interconnectedness] come together you get instead of a complicated world a complex world,” he said. “And a complex world touches us more directly and the essential quality of complexity is an inability to predict. It’s not hard to predict, it’s impossible to predict.”

Basing organizations around efficiency when the requirements are unknown is a “fool’s errand.” In traditional hierarchies where decisions are made at the top then passed down, a decision is often ineffective by the time it is implemented because the situation has changed.

“What we found in JSOC is we had to enable our subordinate elements to act with smart autonomy because the situation was changing so fast, was so nuanced, that they had to be given the ability to do so … When they did they got remarkably better effects,” McChrystal said.

He calls this method “shared consciousness,” in which a level of transparency is created across an organization to deliver “contextual understanding.” This often requires personnel across an organization to have access to information that was previously only available to seniors.

How to Build a “Team of Teams”

“A team of teams is really those things you do to connect small teams to create the same synergy between teams that you have within a small team,” McChrystal said.

A team of teams is built by using the concepts of radical transparency and shared consciousness to not only empower, but also require subordinates to act with autonomy.

McChrystal shared an anecdote from 2007 in which he met a young female analyst who said to him: “Last night we killed [a Taliban leader] in Afghanistan.”

“The key thing was she said ‘we,’” McChrystal said. “The analyst felt very involved, and just as much an owner of that activity as the people on the ground. And that was critical. That sense of ownership is what makes people part of a team.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan served as a “burning platform” or “forcing function” to drive better synergy, but McChrystal said he can now see organizations going back into their corners.

With a son who is a young civilian analyst in defense intelligence, McChrystal encourages young professionals to help break down traditional intelligence structures—to rethink the org chart, the cubicle, and the rigid chain of command.

“If this generation just accepts [those things] we will be right where we have been,” he said. “We need this next generation to have the expectation that it’s going to be completely different. It’s doable and I saw it in place in Iraq and Afghanistan for a period. But changing [culture] back in D.C. and in other areas permanently is going to take the next generation taking ownership of it.”

Photo Courtesy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal


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