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Why Reductionist Management is no longer the way to lead.

I’ve recently finished a book called Team of Teams. One would imagine that a book written by a US General would not necessarily provide insights into agility and innovation. I’m proud to say I was wrong. Really wrong.

General Stanley McChrystal was the commander of the US Joint Special Operations Task Force, created to address the growing threat of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It soon became obvious to him that despite having the most advanced technology, funding, fighters, and intelligence, they were losing the battle. And that happened because their old ways of operating, although precise like a Swiss clock mechanism, was not adapted to the complex and ever-changing environment they were operating in. Sounds familiar?

Sounds familiar?

Most of today’s companies pride themselves on being disruptive. That translates into an ever-changing business environment that shifts from complicated to complex, just as in the case of the JSOT lead by McChrystal.

But what does this have to do with management?

Most of today’s managerial systems and methodologies can be traced back to the Industrial Age and are based on a relatively similar concept: breaking down complicated systems (with many moving parts) into linear and measurable relationships. While reductionist management systems rely on this specific concept, today’s organizations, which operate in a networked world are often dealing with complex systems, where a small change in on component can create a non-predictable, non-linear impact on many components which then affect even more components.

The bottom line is that complex systems and environments, ecosystems and global financial systems are fundamentally unpredictable.

To overcome these challenges and unpredictability, and to be able to lead into success, companies should focus their attention on shifting the management paradigm. The attention should be split from solely planning and discipline, to incorporate innovation and agility. I know these might sound like buzzwords you keep hearing and seeing on a daily basis but bear with me.

McChrystal teaches us that companies need to match their organizational structure to the environment they’re operating in. To make that happen one needs to develop the ability to be able to respond fluidly to complex environments, thus two other buzzword skills need to be developed: adaptability & resilience. Companies need to learn to expect the unexpected and to be connected in such a way that will allow them to rapidly reconfigure themselves to be able to efficiently respond to new opportunities (and threats).

What are the key pillars identified by McChrystal?

In reconfiguring his approach to come out as a winner, McChrystal identified two main pillars that he needed to focus on: Shared Consciousness and Empowered Execution.

Shared Consciousness

Shared consciousness mainly translates into the ability of team members and teams to trust each other and to serve a shared purpose, which ideally is the same as the company’s purpose. But in order to do so, companies need to share their objectives and purpose with their employees first, especially in an environment where the change in leadership style is just starting.

To put it simply:

- employees need to have a systemic understanding of the big picture and how their work is relevant (or interdependent):

- connectivity, information sharing, and relationships should be more horizontal than vertical, enabling both teams and team members to be able to build relationships that strengthen and foster collaboration and efficiency;

Empowered Execution

It’s no novelty, but in order for a team of teams to be able to exist, leaders must be willing to let go and share power. Many leaders believe that by simply delegating they are empowering their reports, but the reality is that they must go a step further and encourage and nurture decision-making skills at all levels. That enables the organization to be able to make quick decisions that can have a meaningful impact in a complex environment.

So how does this all add up?

McChrystal paints a beautiful picture of the analogy that makes the most sense: leaders should strive to be less of a chess master and more of a gardener.

A chess master moves the pieces on the table, thus making most if not all of the decisions.

A gardener is rather focused on nurturing the environment in which the pieces can thrive.

Which leads me to my final question: what type of leader are you? Are you a chess master or a gardener?