One of my colleagues—a super-smart scholar and all-around wonderful person—once asked me for my ideas about topics to cover in an upcoming class about organizational structure. He recognized the importance of the topic in general, but he wasn’t finding anything particularly exciting to cover.

The typical areas of formalization, span of control, centralization and the chain of command simply weren’t doing it for him. I can’t remember what I may have suggested for that class. Whatever I said, it probably wasn’t very helpful.

But my thinking about organizational structure has changed in recent years, particularly when trying to imagine ways to structure organizations that are increasingly agile—able to sense and respond quickly to their environments and the forces of change.

That’s when it dawned on me: the Marine Air-Ground Task Force. This special arrangement of people and resources used by the U.S. Marine Corps has a number of features that show how structure can promote agility.

And the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF, usually pronounced “MAG-taff”) probably has a few lessons for civilian executives and people like me who study organizations.

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Photo By: Cpl. Kelly Street. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Photo By: Cpl. Kelly Street. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

First, the Basics

The MAGTF is a basic building block used to organize Marines into deployable groups of various sizes and capabilities. Every MAGTF has some similar elements, but the MAGTF also can be shaped into several distinct types depending on the mission.

For example, all MAGTFs have elements devoted to command, air combat, ground combat and logistics combat. Having these elements in common allows MAGTFs to have certain core capabilities and some level of self-sufficiency, regardless of the MAGTF type.

It also provides for a common language and framework for the people. A Marine who has served in one type of MAGTF and is then sent to another will recognize the basic parts of the organization. This increases speed because people won’t have to relearn everything and will at least know the basics of who does what from one MAGTF to another.

The flexible MAGTF types, however, make it an agile organizational design.

MAGTFs generally come in one of three types. From smallest to biggest, they are the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) and the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).

The MEU has about 2,000 Marines and is designed for quick response. These units often comprise the first Marine assets to arrive at any given situation, and they are generally deployed aboard one of the U.S. Navy’s amphibious assault ships.

The MEB is bigger than a MEU and generally ranges from 4,000 to 16,000 Marines in size. Naturally, a MEB has more capabilities and resources (for example, more firepower) than a MEU. One key asset to the MEB is that it can be arranged in terms of people and assets to fit a specific mission.

MEFs are the biggest MAGTFs. These are whole warfighting organizations, and the U.S. Marine Corps currently has three of them. They range in size from about 46,000 to 90,000 Marines. Clearly, you can’t send a MEF somewhere as quickly as a MEU or even a MEB, but the MEF works great for larger operations that require more people and resources.

The MAGTF is agile because it balances consistency with flexibility.

People in charge—generically called “the commander” in military parlance—benefit from organizational structures like the MAGTF because it gives them options. It allows them to assess the need at hand and respond quickly.

Because of the different MAGTF types, the commander can respond with the right level of effort and resources. That’s flexibility.

And at the same time, the organization doesn’t have to start from scratch when designing how it will respond. It has already figured out a few different arrangements—the MEU, the MEB and the MEF—and can then modify a few different modules to fit the task. That’s consistency.

Civilian organizations often try to adapt their teams to fit specific tasks. But this is usually in the form of a special task force or committee. It’s often costly in terms of time and frustration. It’s typically not a well-defined and well-understood construct like the MAGTF.

What might happen if executives spent some time studying the emergent “missions” that their organizations might face?

If executives did this, they could look for common resources needed in those instances and identify how specific teams could be built quickly when necessary. Better yet, the people or roles identified for those teams could be included in the planning and training process.

That way, when something unexpected happens—for example, a quality issue, a huge increase in demand, a sudden change in regulations—the appropriate team could be temporarily activated to respond. Time wouldn’t be wasted trying to figure out the major details about which functions should be involved and who might be in charge.

This would require some close attention and strong leadership, of course, and it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. But at the very least, such attention to organizational design could foster agility when it’s needed.

And so the MAGTF, I think, provides an example of the type of forward-thinking, modular organizational design from which many of us could benefit.

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