Recap and thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s ending keynote

Attendees of Atlassian’s Team ’21 user group conference got to hear Malcolm Gladwell’s storytelling around how work is changing. It is not surprising that his theme is the same we have all been living with since 2020, but he stressed that now is a perfect time to get leadership right.

There is a lot to unpack from his keynote, and this will be a long post. If Atlassian posts the video, I will update this post with a link to it. Commenting below, or subscribing to our newsletter, will alert you if this post is updated.

Why this is the perfect time to think about this

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” No need to debate the origins of this statement, it has been true for millennia. We’ve been through the biggest collective crisis that any of us should experience in our lifetimes. This proverb presents no better time to be applied than now. So, what can we expect as macro-level outcomes from the crisis?

One thing to expect is that the older workforce who can retire, will retire. Another expectation is that younger employees will not have a lot of patience for old ways of working. Finally, leaders will be leading a more dispersed workforce, and coordinating the work of that workforce will continue to change dramatically.


On to Malcolm’s stories

Malcolm describes two types of team structure: hierarchical and networked. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and each has a fit for the problems the team is trying to solve. However, there are significant generational differences in believing which is stronger. Let’s dive into his analogies for these two types of team structure.

Hierarchical teams

These teams put control at the top. A strong leader oversees a small team of strong lieutenants. Decision-making is centralized; nothing happens without the direction of the leadership. People below the leadership are disciplined. The central leadership team is a closed group, and admittance to the group is earned, if ever granted at all. A clear strategy is defined and reinforced through the entire team. Everyone knows their role, is well trained to execute, and only moves when told to.

Networked teams

These teams work without central direction, but form around a common idea. They may have someone, or a group of people, who are identified as the ideological leaders, but they do not have centralized direction. Subgroups can act with autonomy, sometimes in the form of a small hierarchy, and usually have a more firm direction or desired outcome for their subgroup. Subgroups, or entire network, can be shaped by anyone who can “sell” their ideology, but the subgroup or network is free to reject these ideas as well. Tactics can change to meet conditions, and it is ok to experiment.


How these team styles can be successful

Malcolm named the team styles based on what it takes for the team to be successful. Let’s dive into these names.

Characteristic Hierarchical “Strong-link Team” Networked “Weak-link Team”
Access to leadership circle Closed Open
Strategy Strongly defined, with an end in mind Defined, but definition of success is subject to change as conditions change
Requirements for team Disciplined, with specific training for roles Flexible, open to learning and experimentation on tactics
Decision-making Centralized Decentralized
View of self in team Know their role, know the mission, willing to play their part, penalties for misbehavior Know their skills, want to contribute to mission, feel equal to other “nodes” of the network
What it takes for success Skilled leadership and a few strong players. Below the top levels, players may fail as long as they do their job. All players must be strong, the team is only as strong as the weakest link.


Examples of these types of teams

Basketball vs. soccer

Strong-link teams prevail in basketball. Teams can be national champions with 3 strong players; the rest of the team has little effect on the outcome. Managing a basketball team can be reduced (almost) to selecting the 3 strongest players you can find, and then continually upgrade them with training or replacement.

Soccer is a weak-link sport. Goals are not made by the most skilled teams; rather, they are scored against teams that make mistakes. In soccer, a team can prevail if their weakest players are stronger than the weakest opposing players. A leadership strategy is to build the weakest players to be stronger than the competition’s weakest players.

Civil rights

The civil rights movement of the 1960’s was defined by the actions of a strong-link team. Martin Luther King, Jr. had worked with a small leadership team to define an acceptable outcome of their efforts – the civil rights legislation that was eventually passed. They studied their opponent (Bull Connor) and learned his weaknesses. They recruited protesters and trained them well, and defined tactics that would wear down their opposition. They picked the place of “battle” in Birmingham, AL, and planned for over a year before beginning their protests. As conditions on the ground changed, the central planning team moved to their next, pre-planned tactics. The performance of the strong players were pivotal in the outcome of creating the civil rights legislation that shaped the following 50 years of work and life for millions of people.

The Black Lives Matter movement is characteristic of a networked team. BLM had defined ideals, but the desired outcomes were not well-defined. The network subgroups were free to define their own tactics. Local leaders rose to the top of the subgroups but did not report to the central leadership. Outcomes effect millions of people, but are local, with some geographies rethinking how they police and others considering equitable relief.

Other examples

The US economy has long been driven by investment banks, large corporations, government intervention, and hedge funds – a hierarchical structure. But this is changing to a network structure, where loosely-knit retail investors with individual strategies and equal access to currencies, stocks, and trading floors are banding together spontaneously to affect outcomes for millions of people.

In the past, fighting wildfires was managed by a highly-skilled chief and a group of deputies, with well-trained fire jumpers and other support teams moving as directed by the leadership. The outcome of the firefighting, and the safety of firefighters, was dependent on the skills, experience, and ability to read the environmental conditions affecting the fire based on loose information. This is transitioning to a network style, where sensors are placed in and around the fire, information is gathered and fused by intelligent systems, and information and autonomy are granted to local teams who have access to the sensor data.

National Security and a story to learn from

The most impactful intelligence leaks of late last century were conducted by Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. These men were highly-placed in their agencies and had access to the bulk of information available to their teams. Information compartmentalization made them the contacts with the most access to information. Their compromises led to imprisonment and death and potentially changed the lives of millions. Protecting against threats like these is a strong-link activity: keep your strong links in line and prevent loss of secrets.

The most impactful intelligence events of the 21st century have been perpetrated by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. These two were low-placed in their organizations. Background checks revealed questionable views about the US Government. Each had access to troves of digital information and their own agenda. In short, they operated in a networked team. Their compromises led to death and revelations about intelligence that has affected millions.

Snowden and Manning viewed themselves as under-appreciated, equal nodes in a network, but operated within a hierarchical structure. They were like low-pay soccer players taking passes and helping the team, but watched as the upper hierarchy, basketball-playing leadership took credit. Their actions were partly due to dissatisfaction with the prevailing management structure.

Tying it all together

Malcolm said earlier that there are generational differences that come to the fore in this changing environment. Here is how I interpreted it, with some paraphrasing of Malcolm’s stories.

Baby Boomers, Gen X, and many Gen Y saw and lived with the tremendous success of hierarchical structures. They may look at the 1960’s civil rights movement, and say to themselves, “Now that’s how you get social change.” Big personalities were rewarded, from newscasters to basketball players to generals, and more. Over-achievers made goals around how they could be at, or near, the top of the hierarchy. The Peter Principle (people will rise to the level of their personal incompetence) ruled, and managers made more money than the minions.

For later Gen Y, Millennials, and Gen Z, success through network teams has become more visible. Millions of people talk about the same viral videos and memes. Streaming shows become popular because they are promoted through social circles. Social media marketing is an established subject in college marketing programs. Feature requests for the products they consume are taken from anywhere, without regard to the “rank” of the requestor, and these features hit the market more quickly than ever.

The Covid pandemic has caused Baby Boomers and some Gen Y to retire, or at least plan for it, so they are tuning out of the workplace. Some remain in management, but middle management is being quickly replaced by Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, and even some Gen Z. Skeptics believe that, as younger generations rise in the hierarchy, they would begin to favor the hierarchy over the network due to their self-interest. Studies are emerging that this may not be true, and management changes towards Lean methodologies are supportive of this transition.

The bottom line: It is looking more important for organizations to understand network team models, and build the processes and tools to support it, to manage and accelerate change into the next 2 decades.