One of the best business books I’ve read in recent time is General McChrystal’s team of teams. I’ll have to write a post on it later, but the general theme is that it calls into question the traditional model of a “command and control” sales leader. It questions whether the fearless leader making all the decisions for a larger organization is feasible in the high complexity environment of modern business.
This isn’t a new concept, as in the product management and engineering world, people have been talking about the value of being agile for a long time.
Are startups complex?
McChrystal makes the case that the world evolved from being complicated to being complex. Complex situations are so intertwined that it’s not all that easy to see cause and effect, which causes the typical command and control structure to break down. So the real question is this: Is building a sales machine for a tech startup complex?
Yes, yes, yes, yes. Bad things happen when people assume that scaling sales teams is simple. It’s not just a matter of setting a target and paying sales people if they hit it. I wish it were that easy, but the reality is that running multiple teams in parallel, cold calling into a wide geographic area, selling a new product, is not something you can easily understand without getting into the weeds. Over the years I’ve learned that front line sales people learn more about the business than any of the leaders do, and the leaders are typically the last to understand what’s happening. That is because of the complexity!
The myth of centralized power
So what if startups are complex, why can’t a strong leader like Leo in Wolf of Wall Street sell his way through the complexity?
First, selling stock is a know product in a know market, there’s not much extra learning that needs to be done there. For most new companies, they’re still trying to get feedback from the market as they expand, they’re still learning. The concept of a strong central leader degrades as the distance between that leader and the front lines increases.
The larger the teams gets, the more challenges they tackle the harder it is to keep up. At this point, the typical strong centralized leader would then face the next challenge, which is to empower other leaders within the org to make decisions. This is not everyone’s natural instinct, and giving up that perception of power is very hard for most leaders to do. Entrepreneurs also face this challenge as their teams expand beyond the scope of their initial expertise, and they’re forced to trust others to keep growing.
Teams, the basic building block
After making the case that the old industrialized world’s version of leadership no longer works, General McChrystal makes the case for what does seem to be working. Teams. It’s the basic building block, and in many fast growing companies it’s the one things that works most consistently. If you put together a team of 10-ish people and put them in a high pressure situation where they’re pursuing the same goal, they tend to bond together. They eventually build trust and are able to get more things done than simply the sum of their parts.
I’d recommend reading Team of Teams to understand where the team component fits it, but then I’d also recommend learning more about Tuckman’s stages of team building. This help you better understand where your teams are in their maturity.
Does it only work for small teams?
So if things are working well on the team level, does this mean that only small companies can succeed? So this is where the title of the book comes into play. General McChrystal makes the case that the goal is to stretch the benefits of a single team to the entire organization my making the company a team of teams. The real power lies in getting those teams to work together.
I think this will be the most difficult piece of advice to put into action. Even if an organization starts thinking beyond the basic building block of one single team, the next step seems to be the departmental level. For example, on a sales team you may have multiple teams of SRS, so getting them to work together well is a challenge. The next step would be to get those SDRs to work well with the AE, and then the step after that would be to get them to work well with marketing or product.
I haven’t put 100% of this into practice myself, so this will have to be an ongoing topic. The main point is that the book Team of Teams calls out some shortcomings of leadership that are painfully visible in many fast growing tech companies and sales teams. I think his shift to the decentralized leader is the right one, and I’m hoping to learn from the BTM community how to better connect teams to other teams to start seeing the benefits of this new way of thinking.