Businesses Have Dinosaur Brains

When General Stanley McChrystal served as Commanding General for the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan in 2003, he helped to redefine how our military would adapt to a new type of enemy and conflict. While there were historical lessons they could apply, just imagine what complexity adding cell phones to an urban battlefield introduced. A new strategy was required. In his book Team of Teams, he explains how they had to pivot from thinking about the military as one large team, to a network of many smaller teams. By focusing on decentralizing command and improving communications between teams, the war effort took a major turn. The book is filled with parallels to operating as part of a big business.  

One metaphor McChrystal uses is to think of the leader as a dinosaur. As the body grows and the tail gets longer, the brain stays the same size. When the stegosaurus turned his head and the body followed, the tail could knock stuff over that the head may not have even realized were there. In the same way, a leader and his/her responsibilities can grow, adding complexity to maneuverability, complete with a tail that sometimes can wreak unintended havoc. Therefore, a leader should remember that the metaphorical brain is still the same size even when the body itself has grown.

When we focus on the microstructure of our own businesses as well as our industry-wide partners, it can help to remember the dinosaurs. Sometimes the brain just doesn’t know what the tail is doing. It may be a lousy system, but fortunately, we are not dinosaurs. McChrystal helped the military to implement a system where the brain in the head sets the primary vision and mission, but then acknowledges and empowers a network of otherwise locally-informed and independent brains to make mission-supportive decisions. 

Decentralizing command and empowering partners in the name of the mission is something far more akin to what Amazon says in their Leadership Principles about being “customer-obsessed” than what it often feels like most massive organizations do. Cross-product vs. cross-project vs. cross-selling all have their place in a large-scale organization, but as McChrystal teaches, true success only stems from understanding the true mission.

For us, that mission is to best meet the full needs of our clients. There’s a lot of space between the head and the tip of the tail, but by leading our local teams in support of the broader mission, we can get a tremendous amount of good work done for our clients. The better we do, the more the rest of the body will take notice. That’s a fight worth fighting for.

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