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A Belated Review of Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams

A Belated Review of Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams

Every month since last November, we’ve hosted an afternoon session of The Red Teamer’s Book Club. Last month we discussed Team of Teams by General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal with Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell. As seems now to be typical, the conversation during the session ranged widely, sometimes addressing red teaming directly and other times branching into related topics.

The overall reaction to the book was very positive. What follows is my review, although it was certainly informed by the book club discussion.      

Here’s my conclusion up front: I very much enjoyed the book; every red teamer should read it. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but first I’ll share my main reservation.       

For roughly the first half of the book, I regretted selecting it for the book club. It was another slow drive through the “complexity for managers” neighborhood. More than once I wanted to pull Kevin Kelly’s 1995 book Out of Control off the shelf and read it instead. Yes, I definitely found some points of interest in the first half of Team of Teams—the account of Taylorism was solid, for example—but for the most part, I felt like the authors needed to do more "showing" using McChrystal's experience and less "telling" using sometimes dated cases. Indeed, what kept me going were the interspersed snippets of McChrystal’s Iraq experiences.       

About halfway through, the pattern reversed; McChrystal’s Iraq experiences jumped into the driver’s seat, and the discussion of management principles slipped into the back. Interestingly enough, this injected the management principles with much more intuitive weight. Here’s my cursory summary of the key principles:

  • Managers who focus on efficiency at the expense of adaptability will tend to lose when facing a networked competitor or adversary.

  • To achieve adaptability, managers must facilitate knowledge sharing and resist the temptation to micromanage staff and make all decisions.

Implementing these principles requires a specific type of leader: someone who is both generous and unpretentious. By all accounts, General McChrystal was precisely this type of leader and was able to put these principles into action, incrementally but fully. As a result, his Task Force began the race lagging behind Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and finished it well in the lead.       

Before I closed the book, I wrote two terms on the final page: knowledge management (KM) and Auftragstaktik. Neither term appears in the book, but in my mind they provide a three-word digest of the Team of Teams strategy.

Knowledge management is a multithreaded approach to generating knowledge and sharing it throughout an enterprise. Frapaollo characterizes KM as “Leveraging collective wisdom to increase responsiveness and innovation.” (cited in Dalkar 2005, 5) This is exactly what McChrystal and his team did. In fact, I plan to use Team of Teams as a case study in my KM courses.       

Auftragstaktik is a latter-day German term associated with a General Staff command philosophy that began to unfold in the 19th century. You can find it defined in various ways, but here are two that I think are particularly relevant:

Often Auftragstaktik is misunderstood as a technique to issue orders, while in fact it is a command philosophy. The basic concept of Auftragstaktik means that there is direction by the superior but no tight control. (Muth 2011, 173.)

[Auftragstaktik] was more than a method of giving orders, actually more akin to a habit of thought. . . . Usually the commander would provide only a single statement about the operation . . . the job of working out the details was left wholly to the subordinate commander without supervision.... It was simply taken for granted that everyone would exercise initiative to get the mission accomplished. (Battelle, 1979, 6)

These definitions are insufficient to communicate the concept fully, but they give you the general idea. (We’ll be discussing Auftragstaktik during the April book club, so we’ll be able to explore it more then.)       

Auftragstaktik is rooted in trust and effective communication, two aspects of Team of Teams that the authors repeatedly emphasized. From my point of view, KM and Auftragstaktik neatly circumscribe the management strategy and resulting organization that McChrystal described in his book.       

Together the two concepts also characterize the type of organization I believe facilitates effective red teaming. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the Team of Teams organization is an essential condition for successful red teaming; without it, we’re just spinning our wheels. Think about red teaming within the traditional organization, where top-down management and bureaucratic constraints apply constant pressure to the brakes. We’ve all experienced it. Then read Team and Teams and ask yourself where you’d rather work. Dilbert resonates with us because we’ve all lived it. (And to varying degrees, most of us have red teamed for the Pointy-Haired Boss.)

Let me close with a caution. While I wholly agree with the authors that the Team of Teams strategy offers tremendous advantages, the book is definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution-in-a-box; the examples it shares are both contextual and perishable. Dynamic adversaries and competitors learn and adapt. What worked in 2010 may not work today, and what worked against competitor X may not work against competitor Y.       

Remember as well that we’re not exposed to counterexamples. Does the Team of Teams strategy apply equally to different types of adversaries? Does it they apply when an adversary is capable of penetrating your communications system? Does it apply against an adversary who understands shi, plays a long game, and engages in effective stratagem and deception? I can’t answer those questions beyond saying that you must understand your context when rebooting your command philosophy. Get it wrong, and you'll be stuck tinkering in the garage; get it right, and you'll be watching your adversaries recede in your rear-view mirror.


Battelle Columbus Laboratories, "Translation of Taped Conversation with Lieutenant General Heinz Gaedcke, 12 April 1979," Nov. 1979.

Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World. 1995. New York: Basic Books.

Dalkar, Kimiz. Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice, First ed. 2005. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

McChrystal, Stanley. Team of Teams. 2015. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

Muth, Jörg. Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901–1940, and the Consequences for World War II. 2011. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press.

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