A truck bomb detonates in a lively street, congested with pedestrians headed to markets and school kids making their way home. The blast is temporarily deafening and the shock knocks people to their knees.

Those able to pull themselves up describe a disorienting moment of stillness—a ringing in their ears that drowns out the chaos, the shattered bones and the crumbling of nearby buildings into a dusty mess of rebar and brick. But the quiet, like a slow motion scene in a movie, quickly gives way to confusion and frenetic activity; the ringing gives way to a blurring amalgamation of screaming and sirens.

This scene is too frequent, familiar as an al Qaeda (AQ) tactic, and again with its newest incarnation, ISIS. Headlines are dominated by ever-ruthless brutality, senseless violence, and unspeakable injustice, the audaciousness of which leaves us baffled.

This isn’t really new.  Genghis Khan’s audacity and brutality unnerved his foes into submission.

 

But part of it is very new.

Although tiny compared to the Mongol hordes, operating with apparent orchestrated synergy, ISIS is seemingly everywhere.  Deft battlefield advances interwoven with terrorist strikes create a frightening kinetic reality that flies and multiplies across 21st century connectivity to assault our senses and undermine our confidence.  Like savvy investors, ISIS uses speed and digital leverage to geometrically increase their perceived power.

And in war, perception is reality.

We—the U.S. government, international community, and forces on the ground—have all the tools and resources required to defeat ISIS and any of its future manifestations. What we don’t have is an organized, unified approach and structure to harness our collective will, resources, personnel, equipment, intelligence, policy, and diplomatic efforts to defeat them. Success demands connecting an ever-dispersed and intricate organization into a Team of Teams.

In our fight against al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, we found our elite team—with world-class technology, training, and intelligence—was losing to a comparatively ragtag group. We pulled all the traditional levers—more personnel, raids, and intelligence—to no avail. The ringing in our ears was too frequent, too disorienting.

The solution, we discovered, was internal.

Faced with a 21st century threat, we faced the hard realization that being a great team was not enough.  We learned through painful trial and error the necessity of transforming into a system that mirrored the speed and interconnectedness of the distributed networks we were facing.

We—the U.S. government, international community, and forces on the ground—have all the tools and resources required to defeat ISIS and any of its future manifestations.  What we don’t have is an organized, unified approach and structure to harness our collective will, resources, personnel, equipment, intelligence, policy, and diplomatic efforts to defeat them. Success demands connecting an ever-dispersed and intricate organization into a Team of Teams.

This will require a fundamental shift in the way we organize ourselves; the traditional command and control structures of large organizations like the government, military, or corporations were developed to provide order and efficiency at scale. But this comes at cost of speed and decentralized decision-making.  Even in a hierarchical command of teams, decisions tend to be made at higher levels. A Team of Teams approach to create networked structures spreads valuable contextual information and empowers individuals closest to the problem to react in real time. At its core, it makes us adaptable.  

In Iraq, we were driven to connect across boundaries in completely new ways, break silos to solve problems, and execute faster than we ever thought possible. This didn’t happen overnight; it took us the better part of five years to transform the way our organization operated.

Defeating ISIS necessitates a new operating model, but also to recognize that ISIS isn’t a singular challenge, but rather the byproduct of a new order defined by complexity. It is essential to imbue our organizations with adaptability; the challenges will continue to mutate, and we need to adapt alongside. There can’t be a temporary taskforce or unit to defeat ISIS that is dismantled when the mission is complete. The new mission needs to foster a Team of Teams, otherwise we’ll find ourselves knocked to our knees time and again.

Stanley McChrystal retired from the U.S. Army as a four-star general after more than thirty-four years of service. His last assignment was as the commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. His memoir, "My Share of the Task," was a New York Times bestseller. He is co-author of the new book "Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World" (Portfolio/Penguin, May 12, 2015). He is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global
Affairs and the cofounder of CrossLead, a leadership consulting firm.