Tag Archives: Marquet

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.