The days of orders coming down from an ivory tower of executive management are over. If you want to succeed in the Information Age, it’s time to give your employees more information (and the freedom to do something about it).

The book Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal is the story of his time in the US Joint Special Operations Task Force. When he arrived in 2003, old-fashioned ideas about hierarchy and rank made it hard to react to real-time situations. To fight a new enemy, they needed flexibility. Decades of tradition created a military designed to fight 20th century threats like state militaries. Guerrillas and terrorists were another story. 

Their new enemy was amorphous. As soon as they took out one leader, another would take his place. Before everyone knew the operation was a success, the enemy was planning its next move. Unlike the Task Force, the enemy didn’t have a defined hierarchy. There was a number one, a number two, and hundreds of number threes. If one piece fell out, another one quickly replaced it. The enemy’s attacks were also disorganized. They occurred at random, and it was difficult to see something coming.

If an issue arose, the people closest to the problem didn’t have the tools or the authorization to take action. They had to wait on orders from their superiors. Furthermore, they had to work with an incomplete patchwork of information from various intelligence agencies. Each agency had its own ideas about who should know what. Because of this, they hid valuable intelligence from people who could use it, all in the name of security.

Trickle-Down Management

Though the “trickle down” approach to management worked well through the 20th century, it broke down in the face of rapid change. When a tweet can start a revolution, speed often matters more than planning. As the saying goes, a good plan today is usually better than a perfect plan tomorrow.

By the time they had solid information, a solid plan, and authorization from the right people, their window had often passed. On paper, the Task Force was superior to their enemy in every way, but the enemy had one major advantage: agility. The Task Force was too slow. 20th century ideas about management was the reason why.

These days, seconds matter. 21st century organizations need to be flexible. They need to be free to move at the speed of new information. Of course, one can only react to new information if they’re aware of that information. The old way dictates that only decision makers need access to information, but that simply won’t do. Without proper context, even the best minds make bad calls.

McChrystal proposed a different approach. He restructured the Task Force to empower every member with tools, information, and the ability to take action when they saw fit.

Access and Agency

To be more flexible, employees need three things: communication, information, and the freedom to take action. McChrystal found inspiration in the way teams of soldiers were able to react to unforeseen challenges. In the raid on Osama Bin Laden, one of their helicopters famously crashed. The team was able to react without hesitation, and the operation was a success. McChrystal observed that teams work because of, well, teamwork. Each member of the team knew the capabilities and limitations of every other member. They cared about each other, and the team’s success was more important than any one individual. Furthermore, they communicated well. Members of the team shared updates in real time, and everyone had a sense of everyone else. Now, this approach is easy to roll out to a team of 12 people, but what if you have 12,000?

To replicate this flexibility within the organization, McChrystal restructured it into “teams of teams.” He couldn’t make everyone know everyone else, but he wanted to bring people closer. If one person from every team could know one person on every other team, the organization could operate like more than the sum of its parts.

Almost as important were changes to the way people shared information. He broke down the information silos that kept key information out of people’s hands. Going against tradition, McChrystal established a system that pooled intelligence for everyone’s benefit. Better information made for better decisions. Furthermore, it prevented the problem of multiple departments working on the same problem in silos. They could work together. By sharing intelligence, teams could make better, more informed decisions.

So What Does This Mean for You?

In short, start sharing more information with your employees. With more information, they have more context and a better sense of the organization at large. They can know how a decision will affect other departments, not just their own. Once they have a better picture of the company, you can start giving them the freedom to act on it. When you can handle smaller decisions “on the ground,” management surrenders some control. However, they also free themselves to focus on the bigger picture.

The Problem with Sharing

Sharing information isn’t always easy. In a company with dozens of people, traditional strategies of information sharing break down. You could call more meetings, but that cuts into time spent on actual work. Hiring more data analysts could give you a better picture of the company, but that’s pricey, and not always feasible. You could send more emails, or publish a newsletter, but those aren’t timely, and people ignore them. Sending data reports to all your employees is an option, but it’s not fair to expect a factory worker to analyze complicated statistics. Fortunately, there is another way.

Share Information with Automated Reporting

Automated reporting creates a system where information finds its way to people with minimal effort. Not only that, it comes in a form that’s easy to understand. For more technical folks, or those closer to the data, it’s easy to make reports more interactive and advanced. Without tools like these in place, you can tell people they can make their own calls, but their decisions will only be as good as what they know. The real value of automated reporting comes when everyone, not just executives, are able to interface with your data.

How to Change Everything

There’s no doubt that McChrystal’s style of management requires a massive shift in how businesses run. That said, it has the potential to change the way you do business. Even if you’re not willing to dive into the deep end, there are lessons to learn from McChrystal’s approach. Better information leads to better decisions.

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