Tag Archives: Empowerment

The Importance of Shared Purpose

My latest blog is actually one written for my employer here in the United States, Code Genesys.

You can take a look at it here and is on the importance of shared purpose.  Keep practicing that because it’s hard for first timers and anyone whose experienced for that matter.  Well worth the investment in time 🙂

I have an example of a company who go to great lengths to maintain their purpose.  An old blog article written 2 years ago.


Ideas on How to Give Feedback


In a previous article I suggested to not immediately jump to conclusions and be curious about what someone is saying.  It’s something in the realm of Focused and Global Listening that is mentioned by Agile Coach Lyssa Adkins here and in her book Coaching Agile Teams.

It takes some intuition to not sound patronizing as well.   It’s important to be genuine when delivering feedback and not stilted in any way.  Anything that sounds non-genuine will be noticed immediately and most likely visible through body language of the recipient.

You should feel this as well as the deliverer – when you do feel it make a note to conduct a mini-retrospective on your self or with a colleague to try and improve on delivery – especially if you feel it occurring often.

Toastmasters provide a framework for giving feedback, which I’ve adapted, is as follows:

  1. Ask yourself how you’d like to receive feedback.  Private feedback is appreciated.  Find something they’ve done well as a starting point
  2. Ask!  Understanding where they are coming from can help your focus your feedback
  3. Leave out negative words ‘Never’ and ‘Always’.  Your opinion is one of many.  Limit yourself to the problem at hand and use specific examples and be concise.
  4. Focus on the Performance not the Performer. Remain objective.  Demonstrates confidence that they can do it
  5. Keep it Motivational.  Use the sandwich – Commendation, Recommendation, Commendation. Substitute ‘You did it wrong’ with ‘I know a way to get great results’  Deliver in a friendly tone and smile.  Helping them helps everyone reach their goals.

Have a look using your favourite search engine – you can find videos from Toastmasters about giving feedback.  I found them useful 🙂

Please share your own ideas on giving feedback.  I’m not an expert on anything 🙂

Book Review/Summary: Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet

I heard about Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders through Agile Coach, Erwin van de Koogh last year.  I finally got round to reading it, and a great read it was.  I finished it within a day – thanks Erwin for recommending it.  This warrants a review and summary 🙂  As usual in my reviews I include key points I think are worth mentioning as well as my thoughts.  My policies on thoughts are best represented in these blog posts: Ask How, I merely state and Take Notice.  I like to include my views as it helps me understand – maybe it helps others as well 🙂

As the title suggests, the belief and the benefits of leadership occurs at all levels is the recurrent theme throughout the book.  It’s the common catchphrase along with this – ‘Move decision making to where the information is’  It’s a book about empowerment but not just a cowboy, ad-hoc approach to this or even the official approach of traditional empowerment/change programs.

“The steps were evolutionary. The result was revolutionary”

The book presents a real life account of Lieutenant David Marquet and his successful approach to turning the Santa Fe, a submarine in the US Navy, from the worst performed to the best performed.  He did this by empowering the sailors under his ‘command’ to make decisions by stating intent.  The journey starts with immediate results, within 24 hours, but took 2 years to fully bed in.  ‘The steps were evolutionary. The result was revolutionary.’

Empowerment programs aren’t new, they’ve existed for some time, however Marquet tells us from a prior experience on another ship, the simple exhortations don’t get the job done.  They tend to fail and regression back to old ways is the common result.  He tells us of several dysfunctions that are viewed as ‘normal’ but really could be described as anti-patterns.  For example: ‘When the performance of a unit goes down after an officer leaves, it is taken as a sign that he was a good leader, not that he was ineffective in training his people properly.’

How do you start?  Establish trust.  Realise that the system is the problem not the people.  The system rewards local and short term performance.  Here’s an example: ‘each CO is encouraged to maximize performance for his tour and his tour alone.  There is no incentive or reward for developing mechanisms that enable excellence beyond your immediate tour.  Imagine the impact of this on the thousands of decisions made by the commanding officers throughout the Navy.’

The system encourages aversion to mistakes ‘the crew was becoming gun shy about making making mistakes.  The best way not to make a mistake is not to do anything or make any decisions.’  A common joke sadly was ‘Your reward is no punishment’  (Marquet’s website has a seven step process for learning from errors on a nuclear submarine)

Enablers: Control, Competence, Clarity

The preceding paragraphs summarize the pain described in the first seven chapters of the book.  In parts II, III and IV we find out more of the enabling actions of control, competence and clarity (this is subsequently strengthened with courage).  We begin to see real practices that back up the hollow statements and calls to action that can sometimes be felt in empowerment programs.

Marquet recommends that you find the genetic code for control and rewrite it.  He tells us that many organisations lack a central principle, a genetic code, behind their empowerment programs.  Further, empowerment programs cannot be directed as they imply authority has been given by someone else to become better.  In other words delivery of empowerment is paradoxically dis-empowering.

To put it into action, you will need to ‘Act Your Way to New Thinking.’  For example, to improve morale was the first step and a simple suggestion for the sailors on board was to welcome visitors by greeting then with the name of the visitor, own name and a welcome aboard the ‘[name of the ship]’  This is an example a culture changer and an important early step.  In this instance bring back pride.

To establish control, one should institute SHORT, EARLY CONVERSATIONS.  The crew relayed what they were doing to commanders rather than being directed.  This enabled feedback (to improve) and importantly allowed them to retain control.  They last 30 seconds but save hours of time.

Marquet also tells us about the Power of Words.  Sailors used to ask permission, but were then asked to use start their sentences with ‘I intend to …’  Asking permission is an example of dis-empowering phrase and I intend an example of an empowering phrase.  One must also resist the urge to provide solutions.  You must allow time for others to react to the situation as well.  Only provide the solution if they recommend it.  Some decision making though is urgent – you will have to make it but allow the team to evaluate it after.  Other times a delay can allow team input.  In making input cherish dissension – ‘If everyone thinks like you, you don’t need them.’

The level of informal conversation is a good indicator for team health.  In a strict hierarchical environment discussion is repressed and frowned upon.  The opposite approach actually gave a better gauge of how the ship was operating and whether information was being shared.  A lack of certainty can be viewed as a strength!  Certainty implies arrogance.  There is a linkage – arrogance leads to silence and therefore chances for mishaps to occur.

To emphasize the point more, actions are deliberate in that they are vocalized. Intent to do some action is stated with the view to eliminating automatic mistakes.  This forces the vocalizer to deliberate action.  There doesn’t have to anyone else around to do this. (Sounds similar to Rubber Ducking)

“I learned the hard way that control without competence is chaos”

Competence is built up via learning and we learn all the time.  We learn by doing and do this everywhere, all the time.  An increase in competence allows divestment of control.  One wonders if you’d want anything different – incompetence breeds all manner of dysfunction.  Learning increases competence which allows confidence for control to occur where the information is.

Certification is another mechanism (the book is interspersed with numerous mechanisms of which I’m covering a few here).  So it’s not just a meeting or a brief.  To certify means that we are ready for the job and failing certification is less costly than bungling a task.  Study to learn and be responsible for their jobs became an omnipresent atmosphere amongst the sailors aboard the ship. Meeting briefs became a thing of the past. Repetition is a well known mode of human learning, and therefore there is no redundacy in constantly repeating a message.  Continually and consistently repeat a message.

I personally felt affinity for the story of Sled Dog, a hard worker who came to be over worked and under appreciated.  This lead to him going AWOL.  The natural course of events would have meant a severe disciplining.  However, Marquet dug deeper and found the root causes.  Sled Dog was an admired member of the crew.  His skills were invaluable.  Too lose him would mean a regress for the US Navy and for Sled Dog personally.  Knowing the causes Sled Dog was retained and his issues were dealt with in a humane way and he continued to improve and excel.


A key enabler is to specify goals and not methods (reminds us of the Scrum Guide – the team and only the team decides how to build the solution).  By specifying the method we have control diminished.  This leads into delivering clarity.  It requires trust, which occurs over time, and then also taking care of your people – in work and outside of work.  Work at overcoming your own in-tolerances of inadequacies.  Taking care of people does not mean protection from consequences, more about supporting their ongoing education and less about irresponsible behaviour (is nepotism, playing favourites a symptom?  Certainly seen this, and I’ve been coerced into being a favourite which I revolted against).

Clarity requires guiding principles and there are several listed such as Initiative, Innovation, Intimate Technical Knowledge, Courage, Commitment, Continuous Improvement, Integrity, Empowerment, Teamwork, Timeliness and Openness.  Openness resonated alot with me, this from the book – “We exercise participative openness: freedom to speak one’s mind. Additionally, we exercise reflective openness, which leads to looking inward.  We challenge our own thinking.  We avoid the trap of listening to refute.”  It follows that from these guiding principles we need leadership at every level.  Guiding principles should be well know as they aid with clarity.  Displaying your motto in Latin is not advised – an example from the book – not many people will know Latin.

And when something of merit does occur – give recognition immediately to reinforce the designed behaviour.  Do not let this occur later.  Further, providing feedback and comparing against other teams can be positive (called gamification).  This is the good side of gaming.

“Begin with the End in Mind”

This is a repetition of Stephen Covey’s statement.  Look out years in advance and devise ways of measuring performance against the goals.  Employees can write down their own goals which should flow hence forth from the company goals.

“We realized that resilience and effectiveness sometimes meant questioning orders”

Blind obedience can lead to catastrophic results.  Perhaps someone should have questioned the captain of the Costa Concordia prior to allowing the ship to change course to be closer to the dangerous reef.  Does your culture allow this? What would you rather?

Marquet’s journey from Leader-Follower to Leader-Leader turned traditional leadership on it’s head.  I include a table from the book and hope he doesn’t mind. It’s a summary for my benefit as much as anyone else’s 🙂

Don’t Do This! Do This!
Leader-Follower Leader-Leader
Take control Give control
When you give orders, be confident, unambiguous, and resolute When you give orders, leave room for questioning
Brief Certify
Have meetings Have conversations
Have a mentor-mentee program Have a mentor-mentor program
Focus on technology Focus on people
Think short-term Think long-term
Want to be missed after you depart Want not to be missed after you depart
Have high-repetition low-quality training Have low-repetition, high quality training
Limit communications to terse, succinct, formal orders Augment orders with rich, contextual, informal communications
Be questioning Be curious
Make inefficient processes efficient Eliminate entire steps and processes that don’t add value
Increase monitoring and inspection points Reduce monitoring and inspection points
Protect information Pass information

Words are important, so replace Empowerment with Emancipation.  Emancipation recognizes the inherent talents of your people.  Empower implies to give permission.  An emancipated team is one that does not need empowerment. That freedom (my word not Marquet’s -is  a related word to emancipation) is importantly backed by competence and clarity.

If a nuclear sub commander can give control to those under him and achieve amazing results, so can you.  But be careful – it’s not a prescription and your organisation will be different from others.  So tune for your particular circumstance.





IPI: Eye Palindrome Eye, A Self Organising Team

Way back in 1993, during my final year at Curtin University, I joined the Computing Students Association Committee.  We had a quite a driven bunch of people on that committee who wanted to make the association at lot more fun for us and the students.

I had a spark of an idea/vision to produce a newsletter or more lie it a magazine.  I was inspired by the Computing School’s Head at the time, Steve Kessell, who wanted the University experience to be more than just a training experience. He was all for having a degree supply tools for life.  I don’t think he totally succeeded in all of his goals, but he did have an effect on me.  I started a magazine called Eye Palindrome Eye or IPI for short.

I got to say it was the most valuable experience I got at Curtin.  All the other subject material you can throw away.  Why was this. Well I really had nothing to do other than edit the stories and provide seeds for stories that inspired others to take part.

Right at the start I had support from my sub-editor, Jo, who instantly signed up to help out.  Our first issue we got out with a hotch potch of stories which we put together in MS Publisher and printed by rapidly using up the quota of free photocopying we had at the schools photocopier.  We slotted copies, after Jo’s idea, under key lecturers doors and handed then out to students with a call out to help out with articles.  (I’ve archived the issues in a previous blog post)

palindrome1Page1, Issue1 (all pages here)

I was really quite surprised with the positive response we had.  We had all sorts of people submitting articles.  Some lecturers encouraged and that no doubt helped.  We had a librarian from the University Library request a copy be sent to them for archival there.  Eventually the School of Computing gave us an account at the campus printer as well.  For the following year the Head of School organised an office for the IPI editor in the new computing building that was due to be finished.

Personally I felt we had triumphed immensely.  The way people organised themselves to write articles was a revelation to me.  I could not be happier with that.  We just supplied a vision and people just jumped on board.  I would gladly throw way my degree for this experience again.  It just seemed like the natural thing to do, and who was I to tell smart people what they should write!

Unfortunately my working life has not been that rewarding.  Subjugation to hierarchical and arcane and soul destroying reporting structures has not been pleasant.  But I think the world is turning.  With the works of Drucker, Deming and Ackoff preceding modern day works by Daniel Pink and L. David Marquet and movements and organisations like Holacracy and ADAPT By Design (I’ve written about ADAPT in a previous post) things we be looking up.

It’s slow going but we will see other companies join the likes Semco, SouthWest Airlines, W.L. Gore and Associates, Zappos, Spotify and a few others in making work a rewarding and enriching experience.


Coach – one of the most important roles in the 21st Century

We are almost halfway through the second decade of the 21st century and I’ve noticed a greater and building interest in role of a ‘Coach’ within an organisation.  It still coming from a low base and many companies still do not have such a role or aware that they may even need such a role maybe due to old fashioned ignorance, no time (like really) and a tacit assumption that the workers should come equipped ready for the workplace.  It’s still overlooked or worse lip service paid to it.  It’s important to draw focus on this.

The role of coach has come into vogue in the last decade or so in software development.  It’s a role that has it’s genesis in the ground breaking work of knowledge worker and systems thinking notaries such as Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff.

Others like Robert Greenleaf wrote of Servant Leadership, Ricardo Semler wrote about empowerment (a related concept) in his book Maverick published in the early 1990s.  The list of more recent writers goes on with notary examples like Daniel Pink and his book Drive and David Marquet and his book Turn the Ship Around.  There are others I’ve missed for sure (please add you favourites).

We see today companies new and old practising empowerment as well – old companies like HandelsBank, the leading bank in Sweden and Spotify a startup that has grown in the space of 4 years to have 300 people over 3 locations working for it.  And of course the original was Toyota – employing the ‘Sensei’.  In the software world writers like Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister and a host of more recent Agile writers have written directly or in directly about concepts relating to coaching.

But why do we need a coach.   Well – the major reason so far has been to aid in the transition from traditional modes of work to more Agile and Lean modes of work – a change agent of sorts (but more than this – cares for people).  The newer ways of work challenge the old ideals of hierarchy and empowers everyone to be a leader.  This is a major cultural shift and we’ve learnt the hard way that change cannot be imposed.  A coach helps the people undergoing the change see the why and also how it can make their work lives more enjoyable and not just the latest improvement process de jour.

Coaches also develop other coaches because change is an ongoing exercise.  It never stops.  In the 21st Century the pace of change is ever more increasing.  A coach is required to help people navigate change with practices that focus on the the day to day tasks through to strategic planning with executives.  The drive for less command and control and more empowerment will see old roles disappear.  The coach will facilitate, be an unblocker and encourage activities that focus of the delivery of value.  The coach will encourage healthy debate, make it safe to be wrong and deal with conflict (which can be good) in sensible ways for the benefit of all parties.

We can see this change already occurring with the traditional project manager role changing into the Agile Project Manager with old traditional reporting and governance dropped for lightweight but hugely expressive ‘Radiators’ of information.  We’ve seen teams work with robust goals and vision without the direct supervision of a manager.  We are seeing managers turn into facilitators.  They are become even more valued by developing these people focused skills guided and driven by goals of delivering direct customer value.

The way forward

Develop skills directed to coaching people.  This will require a substantial paradigm shift from old thinking.  For a good story of a transition from a traditional Project Manager to an Agile Project Manager start with Michele Sliger’s and Stacia Broderick’s book – ‘The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility‘.  Jean Tabaka’s ‘Collaboration Explained‘ and Lyssa Adkin’s ‘Coaching Agile Teams‘ are also great sources.  I have other books in the The Coaching Side of my bookshelf – scroll down to that part of list.  I particularly like Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with Their Challenges and Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (it’s still applicable to coaches).

The world is changing and if you don’t change you risk being left out.  It will take some practice to build the skills and you’ll no doubt stumble along the way.  Practice and perhaps get yourself a trusted mentor to help you out as well.

All the Best!  Feel Free to be in touch 🙂