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Whirling Chief

Designing Your Organization Around a Singular Mission

As I hinted in my previous Whirling Chief post, How to Humanize the Workplace In An Era of Machines, there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when machines can predict the best organization design and structures to meet current market dynamics. Just think about how ride-sharing services could soon be operated by driverless cars. There are countless other examples. For now, we humans not only still have a place in the car, we are still in the driver’s seat.

With this coming shift in mind, it’s no surprise to Whirling Chief readers that traditional views of organizational development, organization design, and change management have struggled to keep pace with the increasingly rapid change facing organizations in the current marketplace. One of Whirling Chief’s own premises is that now is the time to end leadership and management practices from the industrial revolution.  Not only can those practices suck the life and energy out of people at work, they simply can’t keep up. Think about it – does your organization consistently keep up with changes happening with the speed of a flash mob? Why or why not?

Chris Fussell’s latest book, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, is a prescription for using the “Team of Teams” approach to tear down silos, improve collaboration, and avoid turf wars. Team of Teams was a predecessor book to One Mission, written by General Stanley McChrystal, that outlined many of the concepts on which Fussell elaborates, and for which Fussell develops prescriptions, in One Mission. One Mission looks at what is changing in the flatter, faster, less predictable world around us – globalization, the increasing pace of technological innovation, demographic shifts. He dives into dominant, traditional management and organization structure models – from Max Weber’s theories of bureaucracy to Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory to Peter Drucker’s management by objectives, all of which have in varying degrees come under fire in recent years for taking the soul out of organizations. Short of advocating for throwing Weber, Taylor, and Drucker out with the bathwater, Fussell stops to ask what is useful about the application of their theories in contemporary organizations, and what might have been useful about them for a time but no longer applies. He also takes a look at emerging models, asking why some organic, highly-networked initiatives succeed and others fail.

The result of his analysis is an organization design and management approach that uses emerging models based on organic networks to at once support and temper more traditional models based on bureaucracies – and vice versa. The refreshing thing for me about One Mission is how honestly Fussell portrays the relative strengths and limitations of various approaches without advocating any one of them alone. He doesn’t so much advocate for incremental change or revolution. He simply advocates for taking the best parts of these approaches and combining them in new ways, a powerful combination with some remarkable success stories and cases.

As Fussell recently told me, “The problem with mission and values statements is that they’re bumper stickers, they’re static. And nobody would typically disagree with them. But at McChrystal Group we talk about an aligning narrative based on information sharing and the protection of key relationships.” One Mission highlights how mission and values statements often enable vertical alignment in an organization while ignoring horizontal alignment.  Horizontal alignment is just as critical as vertical alignment to an organization’s success in achieving its goals, yet is often not present. The aligning narrative is the glue holding everything together, and it is spread like contagion among influencers and what Fussell calls “boundary spanners:

“The idea of strategic alignment is not new; for many years bureaucratic organizations running on a traditional model have worked to make sure their teams are strategically aligned. However, in most cases, this alignment comes from the top; our experience has shown the traditional top-down approach to vertical alignment can actually mask horizontal misalignment and further fuel narrative divide among teams”

I love a few things about One Mission. First, as a former US Marine myself I appreciate how it challenges the stereotypes that many people have of military leadership as simply leaders barking orders and mindless automatons blindly following. Remember that Fussell is a former US Navy Seal commander and General Stanley McChrystal’s aide-de-camp in Afghanistan, and their collective work in corporations and other organizations stems from their learning in the asymmetric, rapidly changing battlefields of the 21st Century. These are no mindless automatons – their arguments are deeply rooted, cross-disciplinary, and rich. And they tackle even the truths in the stereotypes – that parts of the bureaucratic structure for a long time hindered effective response to more nimble, flatter, and adaptive competitors.

Second, and more importantly, Fussell’s prescriptions enable the humanizing of the workplace in new and exciting ways. One Mission homes in on the relationships that enable horizontal alignment as well as vertical alignment in organizations and drive the achievement of the aligning narrative.

“The nature of relationships is such that is difficult for an organization’s strategic leadership to dictate which boundary spanners should connect with one another. You can’t expect a solid line superior to force meaningful interpersonal relationships between individuals.”

And, as Fussell recently recounted on Wharton Business Radio’s Leadership in Action, the trust between individuals is an important enabler of empowering people to do their best work without getting in each other’s way:

“You don’t just build trust and walk away, you rebuild trust every single day.”

These human aspects are the grittier, harder-to-get at aspects of leadership, but I’m glad Fussell is talking about them, and I hope others will join the conversation and continue to build on his and McChrystal’s important work.


  • 20 November 2017
Tyler Parris

By Tyler Parris

Tyler Parris is a Hudson-certified executive and career coach, former corporate chief of staff, and author of Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization. His career has spanned operations management at Intellectual Ventures, program management at Advaiya, Inc., technical editing at Microsoft, and computer networking in...


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