Book - Turn the ship around

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This is the third book in the review series. “Turn the ship around” from David Marquet, a USS submarine captain who describes how he transformed the way the crew runs the submarine. A must read as it’s related to a lot of management situations we encounter. Many thanks for the recommendation.

With the learning of his previous experiences in the US military system, David Marquet noted that making followers can’t succeed in building a sustainable organization that can withstand the leader’s departure and achieve excellence. When he took on the role of Captain aboard the nuclear submarine USS Sante Fe, he decided to turn the leadership usual model, as taught in military schools, upside down. This is how the transition from the leader-followers model to a leader-leaders model began.

David Marquet starts by describing the situation in the Santa Fe when he took command. Even though the submarine is running, he noted a lot of behaviors that show that the submarine is not ready for improvements.

  • The crew awaits orders. Nothing happens if there is no order from the top. The crew is in a passive way of acting.
  • The crew relies only on the leader who takes all decisions. They do not act having in mind the goal of the mission, they trust what they are being said and do not try to challenge the decisions.
  • Avoiding problems is the only concern in all their actions instead of doing things right. They do not experiment and improve, they simply follow what they used to do.

This situation needs to be changed to get a more efficient ship. Switching to a model where the crew does not just avoid errors, but understands them to improve and tend to excellence.

Change the model

Through his story, David Marquet describes how he feels that developing more leaders in the organization could not only bring a lot of improvements in effectiveness and empowerment, but also create a stronger organization that could move quickly.

The first pillar of this new model is the Control. Divesting control in the organization while keeping responsibility. That allows, by decentralizing the decisions to the right level in the organization, the one closed to the operation, to involve the most competent people in the decision. Several mechanisms have been tried and setup during this journey to succeed in this pillar.

  • Define the right genetic code for Control in your organization. This means identify policy documents where decision-making authority is specified and review what can be delegated. For each one, identify the changes involved and the concerns around this delegation.
  • Change the way of thinking, at every level in the organization, from giving order to give control to others. Start by acting this way yourself to show the example (resist giving orders and provide solutions).
  • Then, redispatch the level of authority at a lower level. To find the right decision to decentralize, a good exercise proposed in the book is to ask people what could be done better if they can take the decision. The idea behind this is: “Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.”
  • Go from passive followers to active leaders by using some language tricks. “I intend to….” is a right way to make people taking the lead on their scope rather than asking for permission. Train them to provide all the information needed with their intention so that you will not have additional questions help them think at a higher level, anticipating what could happen following their decision.
  • Do not consider audits as a bad thing that happened. But take each audit as an opportunity to learn from your issues. This is a particular time when you can get an external eye on what you do, exchange about other practices and learn from their inputs. This way of thinking will change the authority relationship between the crew and the audit team. That means you are in charge of your organization, and not controlled by another force.
  • Having short and early conversations is far better than waiting you get into trouble to explain the issue. It allows the crew to get early feedback on the issue they are tackling and is also a way to provide clarity on the goals.

In the following chapters, we learn that Control can’t be given without two support pillars. The first one being Competences. Control without competence is chaos. Teams need to be technically competent to make the right decisions. Not only knowledge in their domain, but in a broad range of subjects to have an open-minded thinking. Several mechanisms helped in increasing the crew competencies:

  • Take deliberate action: this means do not act just by repetition, like in autopilot mode. Speak out loud about what you are doing to slow down, to think about what you are doing and let the others understand that. This give you and your colleagues time to avoid errors and even learn more about your actions.
  • Learn everywhere, everytime. This is a fabulous way to continuous improvement. Try to learn from every situation, on every topic. To find the right topics, David Marquet proposes to identify, with your teams, for each decision that can be taken by a level of management, what should be the right competencies needed to take this decision. Then you have the training courses you should propose.
  • Do not plan briefing to bring competency, but use certifications. This will change the learning dynamic. People will be active instead of passive. They will prepare the subjects and do not just come in a room and do not listen.
  • Take care of people’s competency and help them to be more competitive for promotion by giving them the means (materials, time, …) to study. And encourage them to prepare tests by themselves to verify competencies, they will be harder than the official ones!
  • “Specify Goals, Not Methods” allows people to think at a higher level and provide the best solutions aligned with the vision.
  • Repeat and repeat again your message to change the culture. It’s a long way to bring a new culture, once is not enough.

The second support pillars for Control is Clarity. As the authority is given to a lower level, it’s important that everybody understands what the organization is about. The following points are part of David Marquet’s actions to improve is message.

  • Use guidelines principles for decision criteria. So that, everyone can refer to these guidelines when a decision has to be made.
  • Get a vision of excellence, not just avoid errors. The vision you defined need to encourage excellence.
  • Begin with the end in mind to let everyone knows what the final is, even if there are several steps before.
  • Build trust in both ways, your messages will have bigger impact
  • Use immediate recognition to reinforce the desired behavior. Do not wait to do it later, do it right now while everyone has the situation in mind.
  • Encourage a questioning attitude instead of simple obedience.

Following his vision of the organization, which is fully different from the one taught by Navy, David Marquet was able to transform Sante Fe’s crew. From the worst submarine to the best one in just two years. Moreover, this excellence lasted long after he left his position. The organization was now able to work without having one strong leader on board. The crew has become a self-efficient organization that can handle challenges quickly, easily, and without waiting for orders.

To conclude, David Marquet highlights the fact that Empowering people is not enough as it’s still a top-down approach. It’s a necessary step, but what is needed is “release” or “emancipation”. Emancipation is a recognition of all our collaborators values and allows them to emerge.

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