Inner & Outer Circles – Team of Teams

Last week I had a couple of long flights and I read ‘Team of Teams’ by Gen Stanley McChrystal et al. again to refresh my understanding of the authors’ insights into creating agility and responsiveness in an organisation tackling complex rapid change. At the conclusion of the book, the authors describe their model for an effective team of teams combining speed, empowered execution, interdependence and shared consciousness in an environment of high trust and common purpose.

‘Team of Teams’ highlights that traditional hierarchical environments struggle to adapt to the pace and complexity of change. The cost of information exchange across a hierarchy and the lack of autonomy prevents effective adaptation. Teams can ameliorate this at a local level if properly managed but a hierarchy of teams will have limitations on its ability to adapt. Structuring a more fluid structure that allows for constellations of teams working as a network is the key. This Team of Teams can adapt and reorganise itself while sharing information across the network in a rapid and responsive way through practices like working out loud.

McChrystal et al. note that complexity comes from the speed of change and the interdependence of parts of the organisational system and surrounding environment.  Adaptability depends on being able to manage individiual execution in a pervasive awareness of the system and the role that players are taking and the actions that they are undertaking.  Coordinating these elements requires a universal understanding of purpose and high levels of trust across all in the organisation.


What struck me was the alignment to the Inner and Outer Circles of work that are at the heart of Microsoft’s Collaboration product strategy. The Inner Circle in the Microsoft version is the environment of speed and empowered execution. This is the environment that solutions like Microsoft Teams are designed to support. The Outer Circle is the work environment of organisational connection and discovery. In the Outer Circle teams have the opportunity to share the visibility of their work with others widely across the organisation and explore unexpected connections around their work.


There is overlap in both circles and as noted in my previous post, the shaded areas above only capture the core environment of each circle. You can push the circles and their associated products to cover the entire domain of a Team of Teams if required. However, each pattern of work is different and there is value in specialisation.

What is critical to note is that Trust and Common Purpose are issues in both an Inner Circle team and and Outer Circle community. Both depend on purpose for shared connection and a sense of direction and trust for effective collaboration. The work of community managers and leaders is to foster trust and shared purpose. This is the work of change and adoption and where the alignment to the value maturity model supports the development of community.


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