Please, No More Pick-up Teams

By Aaron Bazin

Teamwork is a hallmark of the military.  From your first day in uniform until your last, you are part of a team.  In many ways, no one does teamwork better than the military.  It is part of our culture, our ethos, it is part of who we are deep in our DNA.  Building, training, and employing teams in difficult and dangerous situations is what leaders in the military do.  Arguably, few professions do it better.

            What is troublesome is once the mission is accomplished, more often than not, the team dissolves.  Even if teams are stabilized for combat operations, everyone scatters to the four winds at the end of a tour. If team members do end up in the same unit later in their careers, it is probably due to some rare twist of fate rather than a deliberate decision.  At times, it seems a bit counter-intuitive that an organization that prides itself on being a team of teams should break up the best teams are trained and performing at their peak.  This is especially surprising when it comes to the difficult task of strategic thinking, contingency planning, or policy development.

Is There a Better Way?

            In their 2013 Harvard Business Review Article, “The Hidden Benefits of Keeping Teams Intact,” Huckman and Staats tell the story of one of the best knee surgeons in the world.  Where other surgeons do a typical knee surgery in one to two hours, he averages 20 minutes.  Where other surgeons do around 220 knee surgeries a year, he does 550.  He also has fewer complications and has pioneered a number of new surgical techniques.  How does he do it?

The key variable is that he has worked with the same two teams for over 18 years.  In this circumstance, team familiarity, or the amount of experience individuals have working with one another, provides an undeniable advantage.  This is not an isolated phenomena.  Huckman and Staats go on to describe a study of over 11,000 workers that indicated, “when familiarity increased by 50%, defects decreased by 19%, and deviations from budget decreased by 30%.”  At the strategic-level of decision making, perhaps keeping a team together longer may be a good idea.

Keeping a Core Team Together

            When faced with a complex geo-strategic problem or devastating crisis, it stands to reason that the military would want a team that is the best that it can possibly be.  It seems logical not that you would not want people to have to progress through the often-rocky stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing at the same time. The Army has experimented with cohort units before.  Maybe it is time to try again at the staff level?

If you were a general charged with making a tough decision or recommendation, just maybe you would like a team that knows how you think and knows what your definition of right looks like?  Imagine for a moment that you are promoted to general and get your first assignment.  As a part of your transition, you travel to Leavenworth to pick up your core team, a group of staff officers selected explicitly for compatibility with your personality and trained together as a cohort at the staff college.  You have a chance to discuss with them how you like to work, your philosophy, and expectations.  This cohort staff stays with you for the remainder of your time in the military.  If you are lucky enough to reach the 4-Star level, you now have a team that you have built over a decade that knows you probably better than you know yourself.  The team stays together so the highest performing generals, and the highest performing teams, rise together to the top. 


            Many generals already personally manage individuals that fill key roles, so this idea is not completely new.  However, doing this in a more deliberate fashion at scale with teams across the force could provide an advantage.  It could be difficult, but it is not impossible.  Of course, this idea would need a way for involving experts, inducting new people, and require a healthy dose of red teaming to avoid in-group bias and groupthink.  At the end of the day, the advantage is that the best teams have a special quality that good individuals thrown together for a pick-up game have a hard time matching.  Who knows, keeping a good staff team together longer could unlock untapped potential and help make high-performance teams the norm, not the exception?