In October 2003, just after I took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in the Middle East, I inspected the intelligence facilities at our small base at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). As I walked around asking questions and getting a sense of the operation, I opened the door to a supply closet. Inside was a four-foot-high mound of plastic bags and burlap sacks—evidence bags that our forward teams had been flying back. The bags were all piled up, unopened. It turned out that when one of our forward-operating SEAL or Army Special Forces teams captured intelligence during a raid, they tossed everything—documents, CDs, computers, cell phones—into sandbags, trash bags, or whatever they had, typically tying a tag or affixing a Post-it note of explanation. Then they would throw those bags onto choppers returning to Baghdad, alongside mail, unneeded equipment, or even important detainees. The bags would not arrive for hours, and the scribbled Post-its, many of which got lost on the way, never provided sufficient context for the rear-operating intel team to do its job. The supervisor of the facility explained that, lacking dedicated translators, he used the interrogators’ translators during their spare time, and there wasn’t much spare time. Like ripe fruit left in the sun, intelligence spoils quickly. By the time the bags were opened, most of it was worthless: AQI cells would have moved or changed their plans. A map to Saddam Hussein’s hiding spot could have lain among the documents and we wouldn’t have known. The operators, adept at their own roles but having little understanding of the nuts and bolts of intel analysis, could not anticipate what sorts of explanations would be meaningful, what sort of context was relevant, or which material had to be turned around instantly and which could wait. To many, the intel teams were simply a black box that gobbled up their hard-won data and spat out belated and disappointing analyses. They did not know the analysts personally and saw them as removed and territorial. The operators preferred to hold on to captured materials to give their less-expert, underresourced, but familiar team member trained in analysis a couple days with it in the hope that the small fraction of material he or she had time to comb through would yield insights of value. On the intel side, analysts were frustrated by the poor quality of materials and the delays in receiving them. And without exposure to the gritty details of raids, they had little sense of what the operators needed. To them, every cell phone or dirty piece of paper they received was just another assignment handed down by a manager. Many saw operators as arrogant and ignorant of intelligence analysis: tools for breaking down doors who had no appreciation for the intelligence war. In their opinion, the operators were fighting the wrong fight; the operators had the same view of the analysts. That evening, I stood at a whiteboard with a colleague to discuss the problem. I drew an hourglass figure to depict the organizational distance and relationship between the teams, the forward operating teams at the top of the glass and our rear analysis teams on the bottom. I placed my hand over the bottom half of the hourglass and asked, “Would removing this half affect the forward team at all?” The answer was no. Both were working as diligently as they knew how, but they were connected only through a choke point. To fix the choke point, we needed to fix the management system and organizational culture that created it. As soon as we looked at our organization through the lens of the team structure—searching for weaknesses in horizontal connectivity   rather   than   new   possibilities   for top-down planning—similar choke points became visible between all our individual teams. We referred to them as “blinks.” Stratification and silos were hardwired throughout the Task Force. Although all our units resided on the same compound, most lived within their “kind,” some used different gyms, units controlled access to their planning areas, and each tribe had its own brand of standoffish superiority complex. Resources were shared reluctantly. Our forces lived a proximate but largely parallel existence. Until we fixed the blinks we would not be fully effective. As we sat in our makeshift command center in Balad, reading reports of AQI bombings, we realized that our goal was not the creation of one massive team. We needed to create a team of teams. On a single team, every individual needs to know every other individual in order to build trust, and they need to maintain comprehensive awareness at all times in order to maintain common purpose—easy with a group of twenty-five, doable with a group of fifty, tricky above one hundred, and definitely impossible across a task force of seven thousand. But on a team of teams, every individual does not have to have a relationship with every other individual; instead, the relationships between the constituent teams need to resemble those between individuals on a given team: we needed the SEALs to trust Army Special Forces, and for them to trust the CIA, and for them all to be bound by a sense of common purpose: winning the war, rather than outperforming the other unit. And that could be effectively accomplished through representation. We didn’t need every member of the Task Force to know everyone else; we just needed everyone to know someone on every team, so that when they thought about, or had to work with, the unit that bunked next door or their intelligence counterparts in D.C., they envisioned a friendly face rather than a competitive rival. We didn’t need everybody to follow every single operation in real time (something just as impossible as building lifelong friendships with seven thousand people). We needed to enable a team operating in an interdependent environment to understand the butterfly-effect ramifications of their work and make them aware of the other teams with whom they would have to cooperate in order to achieve strategic—not just tactical—success.

On a team of teams, every individual does not have to have a relationship with every other individual; instead, the relationships between the teams need to resemble those between individuals on a given team.

One of our most controversial moves was our embedding program, an exchange system in which we would take an individual from one team and assign him to a different part of our force for six months. Lieutenant Commander Conway’s* reception was chilly. I’d secured grudging permission from the country team in the U.S. embassy in an unstable Middle Eastern country to place a single Task Force liaison with them to help coordinate the wider effort against Al Qaeda, but there were clear, understandable reservations when the battle-hardened SEAL officer appeared. Worries ranged from compromise of sensitive intelligence to concerns over Task Force combat forces appearing on the scene. Some were as mundane as the competition for physical space in the embassy, others   more deeply rooted   in the wide gulf between   organizational cultures. Most qualms were as unfounded as they were natural, but all were real obstacles. We’d chosen Conway carefully. He was a walking mass of extroverted energy, habitually upbeat and helpful. In his previous tour he’d worn body armor and night vision goggles to go toe-to-toe with Al Qaeda fighters in Anbar Province, but his new mission required him to be accepted by his new colleagues. Where Iraq had forced Conway to risk his life, now he decided he had to subordinate his ego. At his new post, he was initially granted no access to intelligence and given nothing to do, so Conway volunteered to take out the trash. Each afternoon he went office to office gathering refuse and carrying it to the dumpster. When he found out that one embassy colleague loved Chick-fil-A sandwiches, Conway arranged for the next Task Force delivery to include several in its contents. A man the U.S. government had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to train as a SEAL was, for three months, a glorified garbage man and fast food delivery boy. But when the situation heated up in the country’s capital and the ambassador came to Conway and asked whether he knew anything about force protection and dealing with the growing Al Qaeda threat, our man was exactly where he needed to be. “I do,” he said. “That’s what I’m trained in. And I can do you one better—let me make a call.” Soon, the entire weight of the Task Force enterprise was at the disposal of the interagency team at the embassy. As our liaison officer (LNO), Conway was there to serve the collective mission—from trash to terrorism. The Task Force’s relationship with that country grew tighter nearly instantaneously. A new node in our net- work came online and began to thrive. Steadily, in large part as a result of internal embedding and LNOs, we began to overcome internal competition and barriers to cooperation. Bonds of trust began to form. People from different tribes began to see increasingly familiar faces. Even strangers were now, by extension, part of a familiar and trusted unit entity, and received the benefit of the doubt. This realization of team traits at scale, the transformation into a team of teams, was exactly what we needed. Adapted from Team Of Teams: New Rules Of Engagement For A Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal (U.S. Army, retired) with Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©McChrystal Group LLC, 2015.