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Business lessons from Iraq: How to create a dynamic team

September 9, 2015, 4:30 PM UTC

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What do you look for in the ideal business partner?” is by Chris Fussell, chief growth officer at McChrystal Group.

The information age has ushered in a networked and interdependent world, one in which challenges and opportunities appear and disappear faster than traditional organizational models can manage. Having the right partners in place is essential, but more important still is the presence of trust and common purpose within the partnership. This is what catalyzes high-performing individuals into effective teams, and effective teams into adaptable, fast-moving and ultimately, winning organizations.

How are such partnerships cultivated? Well, anyone who has been a part of a successful small team—whether on a soccer field, in a string quartet, or in my case, as part of the U.S. military’s Special Operations community—knows the magic of team dynamics. There is a shared consciousness and focus on a common goal that allows each member to confidently advance the cause in a fluid and empowered manner, without hesitation or second-guessing. It’s the blind pass on the basketball court, as players can sense where their teammate will be. It’s the seamless exchange of observations and actions in the operating room, where life and death sits on the balance. It’s the reading of your teammate’s actions on the battlefield, knowing what their next move will be with a simple glance.

Teams like this create appropriate responses to real-time developments at a speed that far outpaces any single leader’s ability to analyze data, decide next steps and distribute guidance. A dynamic team cannot rely solely on orders; they must be able to read each others’ every move so they can act as parts of a coordinated whole. But to truly scale and create a culture of shared consciousness at the enterprise level, it is not enough to have great partners for small teams. Large organizations in today’s interconnected world must see themselves as a “team of teams” if they truly want to excel.

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I experienced this firsthand as a SEAL officer in the Special Operations Task Force under General (retired) Stan McChrystal, as he led the organization through a multi-year transition from traditional, top-down leadership to becoming a hybrid structure—retaining the strength and stability of a hierarchy while allowing sub-networks within the system to constantly restructure themselves based on the demands of the environment. However, interconnecting the special operations units, we soon realized, was only step one of the equation. To match the networked-nature of Al Qaeda and its global affiliates, we needed to significantly expand and deepen our partnerships with other elite teams and organizations that were addressing parts of the same problem. Developing true partnerships with key external organizations like the CIA, FBI, Department of State, conventional military units and many others would be critical component of our collective success.

We all came to the mission with a single overarching goal, but each team possessed different views of how to accomplish it and narrow interpretations of their role in the fight. Each of these organizations were fighting their own fights in their own silos. And while each individual team could point to successes, the collective failing state of the war effort was undeniable. Organizations that had traditionally measured themselves by their own batting average were suddenly faced with the reality that, unless we truly partnered, we would all go home with high batting averages while having lost the game. The interconnected battlefield had changed the rules—and it was our responsibility to adapt.

See also: The quickest way to sabotage your new business

Sound familiar? Now that I’m back from the war and in the business of consulting, I often hear from corporate leaders struggling with similar issues: aligning the organization on its vision; working across silos to execute strategy; and ultimately, winning the fight as a single, unified team.

The good news is that we were able to develop a solution and defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq through a “team of teams” approach, which can also be applied in business today. We recognized that our siloed mentality undermined our ability to act and react with maximum effectiveness, so we set about to fix it. The need for this change was driven by one factor that we’re all experiencing together: the transition into the information age. As a result, the basic systems and process that drove communication and decision-making in the industrial age needed to adapt to the interconnectedness of the 21st century. We were able to drive this change under real-time conditions on the battlefield, and have seen this work in the business context, as well. The change, without doubt, is happening. It’s simply a matter of which organizations choose to adapt…and which will cease to exist.

Read all responses to the Leadership Insider question: What do you look for in the ideal business partner?

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