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Adapting to Complex Environments Using Small Teams

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Daniel Myatt

In 2015, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals codified an international commitment to eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. It’s an ambitious and laudable endeavor underpinned by the positive trajectory of the past 15 years wherein more than 700 million people have risen out of extreme poverty. However, in fragile states, extreme poverty is not receding at all. Approximately 400 million people in fragile states were living in these conditions in 1990 — and as of 2014, that number remains unchanged. 

Meanwhile, the current global proliferation of conflict and extremism is extraordinary. We’re experiencing unprecedented levels of forced displacement, and those trapped in conflict-affected countries will continue to find themselves oppressed by cyclical violence and unfathomable conditions. The world’s most high-impact solutions are failing to penetrate the world’s most fragile-state, conflict-affected environments.

Many organizations opt to eschew conflict-affected markets altogether, but together, we can shift our organizational cultures to address the most complex problems, and embrace the effectiveness of small teams. 

Effectiveness Over Efficiency

A successful social venture in Ghana can’t just be copied and pasted into Somalia or South Sudan. What one did in Kenya doesn’t necessarily replicate in the Central African Republic. This is where the social impact sector’s quest for highly efficient and scalable solutions (generally a good thing) reaches its limits. 

Fragile states require a commitment to effectiveness over efficiency. They require rapid adaptation, long-term commitments, radically decentralized decision-making, and institutional resilience. Furthermore, they require decidedly localized solutions, and any “scalability” should come from the inside out; it shouldn’t be parachuted in from the outside.

The social sector has evolved significantly over the past decade in the pursuit of measurable impact. Just like the Industrial Revolution, we are prioritizing efficient, consistent, and repeatable processes to drive scale. However, this approach doesn’t effectively translate to rapidly changing, highly complex, conflict-affected markets. 

In his book “Team of Teams,” General Stanley McChrystal popularized a new approach that could likely be adapted for the social sector. The task is how to realize the unrivaled efficacy of a high-functioning small team at the institutional level. The answer is a highly networked “team of teams” that exhibits two main characteristics: shared consciousness and empowered execution. 

This requires a large shift in organizational culture that can be difficult to implement. Here are three suggestions on how to embrace this approach: 

  1. Create an internal culture that’s consistent with this philosophy.Changing your organization chart on paper is helpful — but only to the extent that the principles depicted are applied throughout the organization. 

    Make small teams a preeminent structural component of your organization. Empower small team leaders to lead and execute with high levels of autonomy, and facilitate a construct where the teams are networked to one another through high-frequency communication. 

    It is dependent upon an organization’s leadership to create a culture wherein well-trained small team leaders are trusted to execute according to changing demands in the field. They must be freed from rigid, hierarchical, bureaucratic structures. This won’t work if you draw it on paper but still hold on to all power and decisions at the “top.” Mobilize other organizations, funders, and advisors around this change to provide mechanisms for more flexible funding or evaluation of this approach. 

  2. Facilitate shared understanding, and decentralize decision-making.Create ways to build trust and a shared understanding of purpose. This often involves increased transparency and information sharing — or, as General McChrystal says in his book, “shared consciousness.” 

    Allowing more public information, more open-forum meetings, and more debate and discussion can seem risky, but it is highly beneficial to organizational effectiveness. Members must share a common purpose and deeply understand how their positions contribute to the greater mission. Moreover, they must have full access to the highest levels of strategic insight and perspective in order for “empowered execution” to actually work. 

    By pushing all information to every corner of your organization, you give your frontline staff the awareness it needs to make good decisions. Rather than orders passing through multiple echelons of superiors, all team members in the field maintain a level of strategic awareness that allows them to develop their own creative, innovative solutions unencumbered by unnecessary bureaucracy. 

    Shared consciousness and empowered execution are both wholly insufficient as standalone concepts. But together — held in proper tension — they can produce world-class performance.

  3. Develop resiliency. To thrive in complexity, organizations must pursue adaptability (supported by adaptive management) and live in a cycle of continuous implementation and iteration, constantly adjusting to new waves of change. 

    If working in a conflict area, it is guaranteed that things won’t go according to plan. Typically, organizations will have contingency plans for every conceivable emergency. But in real life, particularly in war, things never unfold like you planned. 

    So a better option is to develop a highly resilient organizational organism that can quickly react to changing circumstances on the ground. Embracing change — coupled with resiliency — allows us to “do the right thing” even when it is not in the strategic plan or log frame.

The world is making progress on extreme poverty and other complex social issues. That’s good news. But if we’re going to actually address these issues globally, we must learn how to penetrate the complexity of fragile-state environments with high-impact solutions. We must take an approach that differs from the ones we take in stable markets. 

It’s time to prioritize effectiveness over efficiency. It’s time to look at fragile states through a unique lens that places long-term stability for communities over cost-per-household metrics. Highly skilled small teams that operate within a new organizational construct built for the complexities of the modern world will be the best delivery vehicle for impact in fragile states. We at Mavuno don’t have it fully figured out yet, but we’ll let you know how it goes.


Daniel Myatt is the co-founder and CEO of Mavuno (@mavunocongo), a nonprofit organization that empowers local leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo to end extreme poverty in their own communities. Mavuno organizes communities and builds businesses at the grassroots level.

One response on “Adapting to Complex Environments Using Small Teams

  1. Jeongheui Jeon Campbell says:

    It’s good to apply these mind sets(Creat an internal culture.Facilitate shared understading.Develop resiliency) for many parts of my own life; Church ministry, Work, Social relationship, Education, even in raising my teen-aged kids^^ Thanks for the good article!

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