Turn the Ship Around – summary

David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around is a great book on the power of intent-based leadership, of working with your team’s intelligence rather than treating people as order-following automatons. Here’s a summary of the key points.

Treating people as followers or as cogs in a machine is wasteful

People acting simply to follow orders can lead to big problems:

Marquet shares a story of a time when he ordered the submarine to move forward at ⅔ speed. His officer relayed the order. The helmsman then said that it was impossible, as the setting didn’t exist. Marquet asked the officer why he’d given the order, knowing that it was wrong – the officer said that he passed it on because he was told to. 

“What happens in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes over the cliff.”

Beyond this, if you treat people as followers, as cogs in a machine who are only there to follow orders, you miss lots of potential.

Marquet explains that a 135-person submarine would traditionally only have 5 people at a sufficiently senior position in the hierarchy to be expected to have “fully engaged their capacity to observe, analyse and problem-solve”.

We want to harness the brainpower, creativity and perspective of our teams

[If you’re doing knowledge work, or work that involves uncertainty or change, then you want to make the most of the understanding and experience of your team.]

“With emancipation we are recognizing the inherent genius, energy, and creativity in all people, and allowing those talents to emerge.”

So ask: what authority could we devolve to people to make their jobs easier?

“rejecting the impulse to take control and attract followers will be your greatest challenge and, in time, your most powerful and enduring success.”

Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information

Instead of channeling information up the chain of command to decision-makers, deconstruct decision authority and push it down to where the information lives.

Focus on achieving excellence, not on avoiding errors

“Focusing on avoiding mistakes takes our focus away from becoming truly exceptional. Once a ship has achieved success merely in the form of preventing major errors and is operating in a competent way, mission accomplished, there is no need to strive further.”

One example in the book is a crew member producing an error-free but utterly useless navigation chart.

“I resolved to change this. Our goal would be excellence instead of error reduction. We would focus on exceptional operational effectiveness for the submarine. We would achieve great things.”

If you connect the work to its larger purpose, and focus on doing a great job of achieving that purpose, everything else will follow:

“Once the crewmen remembered what we were doing and why, they would do anything to support the mission. This was a stark contrast to earlier, when people were coming to work simply with the hope of not screwing up.”

“On [the submarine] Santa Fe, doing well on inspections was going to be the natural outcome of being excellent, not the goal. Operational and tactical excellence and preparedness for service to the country were what mattered. If we were excellent and prepared, the drills and inspections would take care of themselves.”

To divest control whilst retaining responsibility, you need to make sure that technical competence and organisational clarity are strong

If you give people more control to make decisions, but their technical competence isn’t strong, chaos will result. You need to build people’s technical competence to allow them to go from expecting to be told what to do, to being able to take authority and control. As competence increases, you can increase control.

A graph showing Competence on the X axis and Control on the Y axis. They scale in a linear way. More competence than control and you have wasted talent. More control than competence and you have chaos.

Marquet advises that if you want a training programme that people actually want to go to, focus it on increasing technical competence. And delegate increased decision making as a result of passing the training.

To safely push decision-making down the chain of command, you also need clarity

Alongside competence, people need a clear understanding of what the organisation is trying to accomplish.

Instead of interrogating subordinates about a possible course of action, invite them to lead the questioning process

When deciding what course of action to take, don’t ask people a series of questions that will let you, the leader, determine if the proposed approach is sensible. Instead, ask people what questions they think you will have in your head. They can surface and address these questions.

This approach gets subordinates thinking about the issues that are important to the person the level above them in the hierarchy. “In effect, by articulating their intentions, the officers and crew were acting their way into the next higher level of command. We had no need for leadership development programs; the way we ran the ship was the leadership development program.”

Specify goals, not methods

The fire hose drill used to be very opinionated about who ought to be putting out the fire. The crew decided to change this drill to be less stuffy about who manned the hose, to focus instead on being able to put the fire out. That was the single most important thing. The goal was important, the method was something that could be adapted and improved.

“Provide your people with the objective and let them figure out the method”

Being quiet is important on a submarine. They used to monitor this in a top-down way: observation by the sonar operator, then investigated down the hierarchy. They decided to change this. They started asking people to self-report, and to non-judgementally investigate causes. This led to a reduction in noise in the ship.

The ship used to be slow to submerge. Previously this had been thought of, and optimised, as a series of disparate events. But now, Marquet set an overall goal: a target time for the ship to be submerged and stable. “That forced the crew not to think in terms of disparate events (under way, maneuvering watch, shift the watch below, submerge, trim the ship), with all the discontinuities in personnel and equipment, but to think of sticking all those events together. When challenged like that, they found ingenious ways to trim seconds and minutes from the transitions, which made Santa Fe a much more effective warship.”

Change “I recommend…” to “I intend to…”

With a skilled crew working towards an understood goal, give them space to take ownership by asking them to share what they intend to do, rather than ask what to do, or just make recommendations.

Saying “I intend to…” makes people feel ownership of their actions, making action more deliberate. And by stating an intent out loud, it also gives a chance for others to challenge if appropriate.

Similarly, ahead of setpiece events, don’t brief people about what’s going to happen and what they are supposed to do – instead, invite participants to show that they are ready for the event. This gives them ownership.

“A little rudder far from the rocks is a lot better than a lot of rudder close to the rocks”

Quick, regular sense checks of work in its early stages can help make sure that what’s being done by subordinates matches with the overall intent.

These short, early conversations aren’t about telling people what to do. Instead, they are opportunities for a subordinate to get early feedback on how they are tackling a problem, retaining control of the solution, and to make sure that there’s clarity on the intended goal.

“Many lasted only thirty seconds, but they saved hours of time.”

Don’t try and change people’s behaviour by preaching – instead, make concrete structural changes that give ownership

“Don’t preach and hope for ownership; implement mechanisms that actually give ownership.”

“we didn’t give speeches or discuss a philosophical justification for the changes we were going to make. Rather, we searched for the organizational practices and procedures that would need to be changed in order to bring the change to life with the greatest impact.”

In David Marquet’s case, expanding the power of the chiefs on his submarine started with giving them control over their men’s leave – a decision previously made by the captain.

He chose to change behaviour, hoping that it would lead to new thinking, rather than trying to change thinking, hoping that this would lead to new behaviour.

One concrete structural change that gives ownership is eliminating top-down monitoring systems. (Not data collection and measurement processes, but processes whereby senior staff are checking up on and directing the actions of junior personnel.) These top-down monitoring systems have “a pernicious effect… on initiative, vitality, and passion”.

Guiding principles need to be useful, reinforced and based on the real organisation

Crowd-source strengths and guiding principles and trim them to a page.

Only include a principle if it helps you make a decision between two different courses of action.

Principles need to be reinforced and people evaluated against them.

“Guiding principles have to accurately represent the principles of the real organization, not the imagined organization” – there’s no point including principles that the organisation doesn’t actually hold to.