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News | Dec. 3, 2018

The National Defense Strategy Commission Calls Attention to the “Quiet” Cross Functional Team Revolution in the National Security System

By Christopher J. Lamb Strategic Insights

Cross Functional Teams
Cross Functional Teams
Cross Functional Teams
Photo By: USIP
VIRIN: 181203-D-BD104-001

There is a slow, fragile and highly consequential revolution underway in the U.S. national security system, but few are aware of what is happening, what is at stake and what it will take to ensure success.  Over the past two years the Department of Defense, CIA, and National Security Agency have all reorganized or otherwise adjusted their structures to increase the use of Cross Functional Teams (CFTs).  The CIA and National Security Agency moved voluntarily to embrace CFTs in the 2016 timeframe, whereas DoD required some prodding by Congress in the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.  More recently, the Army’s new modernization command was constructed around CFTs, and this year it began awarding contracts based on CFT recommendations.

A reference to the increasing importance of CFTs was buried in The National Defense Strategy Commission report released this past week, Providing for the Common Defense.  The report’s rollout and a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the report garnered headlines.  What most caught the attention of the media and the public was the Commission’s estimate that the United States “might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.”  The key recommendation for avoiding this outcome—CFTs—was largely overlooked by media.  The Commission recommended that “DOD establish CFTs to integrate strategies and operational concepts,” stating “the multi-dimensional challenges presented by competition from China and Russia” were “well suited” for the CFT approach.  The Commission thus joined a long list of blue-ribbon panels and reports arguing the United States needs major reforms to better integrate its diverse national security capabilities, and a somewhat shorter list of those advocating CFTs as the preferred solution to this problem. 

Although the Commission’s report makes the right recommendation, it does not fully convey how and why CFTs are so critical to the nation’s security.  However, the current Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, explains well the circumstances that demand CFTs:

From my perspective, our current planning, our organizational construct, and our command and control is not really optimized for that fight. . . . In terms of true integration—in other words, decision-making authority that integrates a fight across a region, across a domain, or across a function . . . if you believe what I believe . . . and then look at the nature of what the fight might be against peer competitors in the future, I don’t think we’ll be able to be as responsive, I don’t think we’ll be able to generate the tempo, I don’t think we’ll be able to frame decisions and act in a timely manner as much as we should unless we make some fundamental changes, again, to our organizational construct—the way we plan, the way we develop strategy, and . . . our command and control.

Since General Dunford made this comment in 2015 he has been working hard to solve the problem he identified.  He has a host of reforms underway to adapt the U.S. military’s “approach to planning, decision-making, force management, and force design” so that it can execute “military campaigns with a flexibility and speed that outpaces our adversaries.”  As General Dunford and his top staff made clear in a presentation at National Defense University on November 15, 2018, CFTs are a key component of the Chairman’s plan to adapt to a future security environment where quickly integrating diverse national capabilities well across multiple functions and domains is necessary.  The impression one has is that the CFTs are working best in planning, and less so in other areas.  If the CFTs are not properly instituted, the problem General Dunford identified will persist, and so too the risk of defeat by near-peer competitors in the event of war. 

With so much at stake, it is encouraging that national leaders on the Commission, and General Dunford and the Senate Armed Services Committee are paying attention to CFTs.  It is less encouraging that so few appreciate what it will take to ensure their success.  As discussed elsewhere, academic literature on CFTs is messy, and sometimes incoherent.  Although there are some agreed upon basics, even companies that routinely employ CFT's debate the exact recipe for success.  Thus, it is not surprising that CFT's are widely misunderstood.  For example, some believe they are only effective at the “production,” or tactical level. In reality, case study research demonstrates that on the rare occasions CFT's have been used they have performed well at all levels of our national security system: national, regional, and tactical.

The minimum requirements for effective CFT's are also widely underappreciated. Many people think the mere presence of representatives from different functional entities constitutes a CFT. In reality, there is a vast difference between a cross functional committee, where the representatives focus on protecting the equities of their parent organizations, and cross functional teams, where the teams focus on accomplishing the mission they've been assigned.  In their classic work on decision making, James G. March and Chip Heath explain the difference between rule-based decision making, which pursues a “logic of appropriateness” whereby decision makers act on the basis of social and organizational identities, and choice-based decision making, which is essentially rational and pursues a “logic of consequences” whereby leaders attempt to select courses of action based on expected results.  These two different decision making approaches are essentially the difference between committee consensus and team problem solving.  As this chapter in National Defense University’s review of national level decision making in Afghanistan and Iraq argues, relying on committee decision making produced poor outcomes in those contingencies.   

In addition, many believe CFTs can operate like fire and forget missiles; i.e. once established, they automatically proceed on target.  In reality, CFTs are complex and fragile organizational entities compared to normal bureaucratic line management.  For example, some of the CFT's pioneered by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the war on terror were so dysfunctional they had to be disbanded.  Hopefully, we've learned a lot over the last decade or so on how to employ CFT's to good effect, but as case study research again demonstrates, the success of cross-functional groups cannot be assumed.  In fact, we must recognize that current national security system culture and process militate against CFT success.  A more complex and dynamic environment demands equally complex and dynamic organizational constructs, so CFTs are certainly appropriate to the circumstances General Dunford described.  However, making them work well requires leadership attention, authority adjustments, and process, personnel and cultural changes.   

Are CFTs currently being instituted to good effect?  It is difficult to tell from the information available, but there are troubling signs that some key prerequisites for success are being overlooked.  The most important requirement for success is the attention and support of the titular leader running the organization where CFTs are being used.  As Robert Gates observed from his experience leading the Pentagon, CFTs need to be protected by the senior leader “to keep the bureaucracy from smothering their efforts.”  General Dunford is clearly aware of the criticality of CFTs, and has the support of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, but it is not clear that Secretary Mattis is personally engaged with the CFTs as Secretary Gates was.  From author conversations with Pentagon middle managers assigned CFT duties, it appears some Pentagon CFTs have already been captured by functional interests, which will ensure they behave as committees seeking consensus rather than empowered teams seeking solutions. 

Moreover, the multi-domain challenges that General Dunford identified range widely across the responsibilities of multiple departments and agencies, so President Trump and Congress must also be on board and promoting the CFTs.  To date the President and his national security advisors have not shown an interest in CFTs, which unfortunately, for reasons explained elsewhere, is the historic norm.

Second, CFT's must be empowered with presumptive authority to take action on behalf of the titular leader.  The leader retains his or her oversight of the CFTs and can intervene at will when needed, but CFTs have to move quickly to keep pace with a dynamic security problem and need the authority to act.  Functional subordinates find this empowerment irritating since, properly constituted, it means the CFTs can direct functional activities within the scope of their assigned missions.  Ways to protect legitimate functional interests are described in detail elsewhere, but for reasons of political and bureaucratic expediency, leaders often eviscerate rather than empower their CFTs.  Both Congress and the executive branch have a habit of doing just that when establishing cross-cutting groups they hope will provide better integration of interagency activities, as described here.  When Robert Gates left the Pentagon, his successor disempowered the CFTs Gates used to such good effect, and the same has happened elsewhere in Combatant Commands and other government entities that have experimented with CFTs (see this and this).

The first and second points relate to the third danger CFTs face: short leadership tenures.  It is rare in the national security system to find leaders who understand the value of CFTs and how to employ them to good effect.  All too often these leaders leave for their next challenge without having the opportunity to oversee the institutionalization of the CFTs they initiated.  The greatest danger at the moment is that General Dunford’s tour of duty as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, will end next October before he can fully institute the critically important changes he has set in motion.  The Secretary of Defense and the Senate Armed Services Committee ought to make it a high priority to extend General Dunford’s tour of duty to ensure his reform program continues unabated.

For all of these reasons, the CFT revolution underway in the national security system must be considered as fragile as it is critical.  CFT success cannot be taken for granted.  Commentators often exaggerate the extent to which government is different than the private sector, but there is one major difference between government and the private sector that is relevant to the future of CFTs: market discipline.  In the private sector CFTs have proven an irresistible force because they produce results, allowing organizations to quickly integrate diverse functional expertise in pursuit of a coherent plan or strategy.  A couple of decades ago their proliferation was considered a profound but “quiet” revolution.  Today CFTs are so prominent that business articles address the finer points of how to get the most out of CFTs and how to manage “collaboration fatigue” resulting from their ubiquitous use.[1]  Many companies that could not manage the shift to CFTs are no longer around.  In that regard, the private sector brutally punishes the inability to adapt. 

But the U.S. national security system has no competitor vying to serve up better national security to the American people.  The system can fail, and refuse to change, but it will not disappear.  The only true competitor to the U.S. national security system is the national security system of other nations.  And, as The National Defense Strategy Commission’s report points out, some of those systems are currently doing a better job at integrating their national elements of power than the U.S. system.  “Potential adversaries are blurring lines between strategic and conventional approaches; they are blending nuclear, space, cyber, conventional, and unconventional means in their warfighting doctrines and pursuing coercive aims through a mix of military and nonmilitary means.”  However, the United States has spent years debating the definition of “hybrid wars” rather than doing anything practical to address the growing gap in integration capability (see here).  Alarmed, the Commission emphasized the need for the United States to develop “more holistic strategies and operational concepts for prevailing in competitions short of war.”

The irony of the declining competitiveness of the U.S. national security system compared to Russia and China is that the U.S. culture at large is better suited for using CFTs effectively.  However, that doesn’t mean our gigantic national security bureaucracy will easily adapt.  As Admiral Gary Roughead, USN (Ret.), one of the Commission’s two co-chairs, noted while commenting on the Commission’s report, oddly “The Chinese have adopted our rapid innovation [model]” while the United States has “adopted the communist model of how we process new capabilities in our system.”  So the Chinese are succeeding by emulating our best practices, while our national security system is failing by emulating their worst bureaucratic practices.  Nothing could more eloquently testify to the need for national security reform, or the critically important role of CFTs for our nation’s future security.


1 Oliver Bossert et. al., “Unleashing the Power of Small, Independent Teams,” McKinsey Quarterly, July 2018.  In this article the authors argue that “this multidisciplinary way of composing teams has implications for nearly every business function,” and that “senior executives must thoughtfully create the environment in which teams and their managers can thrive,” moving “the company—and themselves—away from outmoded command-and-control behaviors and structures that are ill-suited to today’s rapid digital world.”  See also Rob Cross et. al. "Collaborative Overload," Harvard Business Review, January–February 2016: 57.  This article notes that “As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success. According to data we have collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”



Dr. Christopher Lamb is a Distinguished Research Fellow at Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.