REVIEW: Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World – Forward Observer Shop

REVIEW: Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
Stanley McChrystal, Collins, Silverman, Fussell
304 pages
Portfolio Publishers, 2015


I’m writing this review after reading Team of Teams for the second time.  Yes, it’s that good.  Two things about this book initially spoke to me: first, that the former commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) wrote a book about how to lead an effective and successful organization, and second, that the book details navigating very complex problems in a hostile environment.  Sounds like SHTF recommend reading to me.

Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal led JSOC in Iraq during the bloodiest years for US Forces in that conflict.  (JSOC is the command element for Tier One units like SEAL Team Six, Delta Force, and other elite fighters.)  That a former commander is writing a book about leading very sensitive operations that eventually dismantled Al-Qaeda in Iraq makes it worth picking up off the shelf.  And that the book explains leadership and organization tactics to win in complex environments makes it well worth reading.

One recurring theme of this book is adapting to changing environments.  Gen. McChrystal (and his co-authors) explain the difference between complicated and complex environments.  The JSOC that arrived in Iraq in the early 2000s was not built to defeat irregular, cellular insurgent organizations.  In other words, it was prepared to fight a complicated adversary, not a complex one.  And so JSOC had to adapt as an organization to meet those challenges.  That process began with intelligence gathering to identify the organizational structure and capabilities of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  This book is full of insights not just into how to build a mission, but how to structure an organization to accomplish that mission.

Gen. McChrystal likens this organizational change to rebuilding an aircraft in mid-flight.  He was in Baghdad in the middle of a war and had to rebuild his aircraft to deal with unexpected conditions.  Perhaps the most significant takeaway from this book is the basis for my fear that many community security teams and preparedness groups won’t be able to adapt to changes in their operating environments.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Jack Welch, a former CEO at General Electric and business visionary.  He explains, “When change on the outside happens faster than change on the inside, the end is in sight.”  Specifically, Welch is talking about managing one of the largest corporations in America.  Unless they planned ahead into the future and were able to anticipate changes in their customer needs and competition’s products, their consumer electronics would be stuck in a previous decade and the company would risk failure.  If our adaptations can’t keep pace with our changing environments, then there’s a good chance that we’re going to lose.

Another recurring theme is the importance of intelligence.  Gen. McChrystal introduces us to what he calls “shared consciousness”.  The fight against Al-Qaeda was global, and it required an enterprise that spanned dozens of units operating on several continents.  For instance, intelligence developed in Afghanistan might lead to a raid on a compound in Yemen.  A laptop or cell phone discovered in that compound, or a detainee who provided intelligence information, might lead to an operation in Iraq.  Between the miles and personnel, information fell through the cracks; which necessitated that all intelligence personnel be able to do their work with a common operating picture.  In the business world, it’s called synergy — all employees, to include executives, sales and customer service employees, working together in one direction.  In JSOC, it was no different.  “Shared consciousness” ensured that information gaps were identified and covered; that vital information discovered in Afghanistan that was relevant to a place thousands of miles away made it to its destination.  Coordinating that flow of information was vital to the fight against al-Qaeda on several continents, and the fight wouldn’t have been won without a leader implementing those communications strategies.

From an community security and SHTF Intelligence perspective, we’re likely to fall into the same trap of losing important information, especially if our environments are complex and fast-paced.  If we don’t develop a strategy for coordinating the flow of vital information to the people who need it the most, then we’re operating at a significant informational disadvantage.  Just like JSOC was better able to coordinate targeting information across continents, so too must our community security groups be able to pass on relevant information.

Gen. McChrystal also explained in Team of Teams the need to identify our limiting factors.  Sometimes our vulnerabilities and limitations negatively affect our organization just as much as actions from an adversary.  We don’t do ourselves any favors if we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, and it’s a problem made even worse when we’re doing it unconsciously.  If we have short comings or skills we need to develop, then the time to improve them is now.  Unless you make a deliberate effort to identify your weaknesses, or limiting factors, then you’re more likely to learn about them at an inopportune time.

And just like special operations forces rehearse their surgical raids down to minor details, we must also rehearse our tasks and responsibilities regarding intelligence and security.  Gen. McChrystal calls them “bloody drills and bloodless battles” while he makes the point that, figuratively, getting bloody in training may prevent getting bloody in a battle.  If we’re not conducting exercises and testing our capabilities, even in a mock scenario, then we remain untested for an actual SHTF event.

There is a real wealth of learning points in Team of Teams.  For anyone hung up on Gen. McChrystal’s policies or outlook on government, I highly recommend getting over them long enough to read this book.  From someone who’s been teaching community-level intelligence gathering for years, this book opened up my eyes to a broad range of new strategies when it comes to organizational learning and implementing more successful intelligence tradecraft.  Additionally, I came away with a whole new view of the importance of efficiency.  A community security team or prepper group is small.  Many hats need to be worn, so we have to be ruthlessly efficient in order to compete.  If we’re inefficient, then we run the risk of failure.

This book really has given me a much greater appreciation for leading organizations, and has provided invaluable insights into the work of intelligence gathering and analysis.  I give it 5 out of 5 stars because I don’t know how to make this book any better, other than expanding it by another 300 pages.  I’m a prolific reader of non-fiction and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on the topic of organization and leadership.

To hear audio versions of my thoughts about Team of Teams, be sure to check out Forward Observer Podcast Episode 038  and Episode 047.

(It had been pointed out to me that there are three other names on this book, as if that made its contents any less relevant or insightful.  Two of this book’s co-authors are former Navy SEAL officers who led teams in combat.  Additionally, much of this book is written from a first-hand perspective, as McChrystal describes his thought processes regarding his operational vision, command culture, and re-organization of JSOC while fighting in Iraq.  McChrystal at the very least has made significant contributions to this book, even if he didn’t write all 300 pages by himself.)


Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. Sam, you DO know that McChrystal is an active gun-control advocate working with Gabby Giffords’s husband Mark Kelly to take away your readers’ gun rights? Here’s an article from Stars and Stripes about it but you can find plenty of other open source intel about this issue all over the Internet.
    You do realize that the people reading your review of McChrystal’s book view the man as a traitor to the United States? You do know this about McChrystal, right?
    “Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal highlighted one side of the debate in the New York Times, writing that veterans should amplify lawmaker efforts to pass legislation aimed at more stringent background checks, including restrictions on felons, domestic abusers and individuals who have been subject to terror investigations by the FBI.”

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