Leadership to unlock team creativity, not destroy it

Though teams have proliferated across organizations, almost without exception this has happened within the confines of broader reductionist structures.General Stanley McChrystal

In a single sentence, McChrystal captures why there is such a disconnect between the buzz about teamwork and the actual daily functioning of most churches and organizations. His book Team of Teams is the best book on organizational management I have read in years, because it understands something deeper about the corporate trend toward collaboration that began in the 80s and 90s.

I have been a fan of the concept of teams since I experienced it firsthand while part of a worship design team at a large church the late 1990s. While on that team, each of us read a book called Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis that presented a set of case studies of what the author called “Great Groups” – famous teams of collaborative workers who were able to achieve more than the sum of their individual parts. From these stories, Bennis culled a set of characteristics for how to achieve more by working in flat, collaborative environments.

Through the 2000s, while teaching and consulting churches on how to design worship in collaborative, team-based environments, and later writing a book on the subject called Taking Flight with Creativity: Worship Design Teams That Work, my business partner Jason Moore and I used Bennis’ book as a primary source.

After a decade of team advocacy, though, I got really frustrated.

Often, pastors and church leaders would say they valued team-based work, but be unable to build true teams. What was preventing people from succeeding in teams?

McChrystal’s book addresses many of the hidden dynamics that prevent true collaboration. With a hat tip to my colleague Chuck Roberts for the book recommendation, here are several things I learned:


1. Most contemporary management is still heavily influenced by a philosophy of leadership that values efficiency.

Frederick Winslow Taylor is one of the least recognized, most influential figures in American history. Taylor was the premier business consultant of the early 20th century. He was known as the “Optimizer.”

Prior to Taylor, most craftsman were artisans. They maintained their own tools, their own methods, and they interacted directly with the customer, making each work a custom piece tailored to the needs of the customer. Efficiency and productivity were secondary concerns.

Taylor applied scientific research to management. He believed there was one best way to do things. He broke down production into a series of tasks and assigned ideal times to complete each task. With a focus on efficiency, Taylor was able to exponentially grow the rate of manufacturing in America.

Taylor despised a worker’s free association – their attempt to establish horizontal bonds between other workers and customers – because it created too many potential divergencies from the overall plan and reduced efficiency. In Taylor’s world, workers had no awareness or incentive toward organizational goals. The lower you go in the org chart, to Taylor, the smaller the scope of the worker’s role.


2. The flattened, digital world needs a philosophy of leadership that values fluidity, responsiveness, and adaptability.

There were certainly benefits to Taylor’s work – his emphasis on efficiency was crucial to the ability of the United States to create and deploy armies to defeat the Axis powers in World War II.

But things have changed. Though McChrystal fails to acknowledge it, in his world it began with Vietnam, when the US Army lost to an enemy it should have dominated. This has continued in the recent conflicts against terrorism. As McChrystal writes, “organizational fitness can’t be assessed in a vacuum, but as a product of compatibility with its environment.” He also notes that “different ideas have different solutions on different days.” Gone is the monolithic, one-size-fits-all approach. Adaptability based on the objective is crucial.

Or, as I would say from a communicator’s view, it’s not just about the storyteller anymore, but the storyreceiver.


3. In spite of the buzz, the trend toward collaborative teamwork has so far not been able to sufficiently overcome a philosophy of Efficiency.

To increase the ability to respond to our new environment, many organizations claim a team-based approach. But the reality of it stinks. Here is a set of diagrams to illustrate:

team of teams charts

In most organizations, teams exist but are confined by an unrecognized organizational value for maximum efficiency, which emphasizes a centralized leadership style that establishes systems for people to execute. They’re confined by a “command of teams.”

When a leader insists on a command and control style, teams will never be able to overcome the silos that prevent their creativity from spreading across an organization.

What is needed is a “team of teams,” which is not just an environment in which teams are allowed to operate within silos but an organization in which teams function across the entire organization.


4. Team-based leadership doesn’t reduce workers to people who execute tasks. It elevates workers to leaders who grow a vision.

Taylor was an “X theory” manager. He believed people were basically lazy, and to increase efficiency, you needed to reduce their role and influence on the organization.

A healthy team environment is the opposite. Team members across the organization, from the lowest to the highest, all grasp the situation and overarching purpose. It’s based on “Y theory,” which believes that workers, when empowered to do what they are gifted to do, are intrinsically motivated.

Team-based leadership cultivates entrepreneurial leaders, not simply people who are skilled at executing commands.

McChrystal tells the story of war hero Horatio Nelson. Rather than insisting on a centralized, hierarchical leadership of the kind that most commanders employed, Nelson encouraged individual the captains of the warships in his fleet to act on their own initiative once melee began in conflict. He crafted a culture that rewarded initiative and critical thinking, as opposed to simple execution of commands, and because of this Nelson was able to overcome a much superior force. He won not for his ability to make crucial decisions in the heat of battle but because of his ability to create a winning culture long before the battle began.


5. A leader of a team of teams is a gardener, not a chess master.

The basic fundamental shift is a move from the control of the information, or management based on the “need to know,” to transparency as an organizational value. In a command and control environment, the leader is a chess master, the only one who sees the global picture.

But chess masters move too slow for the 21st century, and are incapable of gathering sufficient knowledge to see the whole picture. They must rely on others.

In a team of teams, everyone has to see the entirety of the system in order for the plan to work. In this environment, the leader is a gardener, whose primary purpose is not to move every piece but to create the ecosystem in which other leaders can grow.


What happens when an organization functions as a Team of Teams

My favorite chapter of the book is the illustration of what it looks like when done right.

Not coincidentally, it’s about NASA, a favorite story of mine and a key part of my book on creativity.

The author quotes Robert Seamans: “The Apollo project is generally considered one of the greatest technological endeavors in the history of mankind. But in order to achieve this, a managerial effort, no less prodigious in the technological one, was required.”

At the time of Kennedy’s vision to go to the moon, articulated in the fall of 1962, NASA “was a constellation of teams conducting largely independent work farmed out by administrators.” These independent groups were very effective at exploratory work, but trouble erupted when disparate teams had to be integrated into a single project.

Anyone who is ever tried to get an entire organization to go in the same direction at the same time can appreciate this problem.

NASA’s early attempts to integrate their research teams failed, and leadership had doubts about the feasibility of Kennedy’s vision. But they made a crucial change.

They switched the focus of the organization from research to development. And they changed the management style from a “need to know” approach to widely broadcasting information.

NASA brought in George Mueller to build the managerial foundation of the Apollo program. His vision for NASA was that of a single, interconnected mind – a company-wide nervous system. He threw out old org charts and required managers and engineers to communicate daily. Long before the Internet, NASA created a culture of instantaneous communication and transparency of knowledge. Mueller created an environment in which what is right mattered, not who is right.

Instead of “need to know,” there were only two states: in and out. Those who were “in” had to understand and embrace the entire Apollo project. What Mueller created is now known as “systems management.” It believes that one cannot understand a part of the system without having at least a rudimentary understanding of the entire system.

This leadership style emphasizes a common purpose, transparency of information, and an insistence that everyone sees not just their part but the entire whole.

As McChrystal writes, NASA proved that this can be achieved not just in small teams but in large organizations, if the organizations are willing to commit to the disciplined, deliberate sharing of information.

As you can imagine, this takes work, which is why most organizations don’t do it, and why NASA itself eventually lost its ability to do it.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).