Turn the Ship Around!
By David Marquet
I am biased. I should state this from the start. I chose this book because everything I read about it spoke to my beliefs in how organizations should be managed. I am almost genetically predisposed to write a positive review of this book. In that, I will not disappoint. However, I do have some criticisms, and I believe I can speak to why others might benefit from reading it.
Some background. David Marquet is a former Navy Submarine Captain. He is assigned to Captain a nuclear submarine. He has spent significant time to prepare for the assignment, learning the ship specs, the crew data. At the last moment, he’s reassigned to another ship, one he has never studied, with a crew that is under-performing. Performance is poor, morale is low, and re-enlistment is the worst in the fleet. In the he, he turns the ship around to one of the best ships in the fleet, with performance, retention, and promotion well above average.
So how did he achieve this? By changing the organization from top-down to one where decisions are distributed. He does this by providing tools for his team to make the decisions, and not rely on the captain for decisions or rely on procedures to take all thinking out of crew actions. This does a couple of things. It stretches everyone in the organization to take responsibility for his or her own actions. It means that procedures can be improved.
The book is successful for a couple of reasons. The anecdotes are engaging. Half the reason I enjoyed reading this is because it included well-written stories about life on a submarine. There were real people, with human stories. There was Sled Dog, who went AWOL because he had been driven to work without sleep for days because his chief didn’t take a watch. There was Rick Panlilio, whose wife was pregnant. Captain Marquet wanted to transfer him off the ship so he could be there for the birth of his child. There are also plenty of stories about advanced torpedoes, with language like,”Torpedo running hot, straight, and normal!”Marquet also talks about his own self-doubts. The stories are engaging, and he is very human.
It is also successful because of the message. If you want your organization to think and care, you have to give up control, increase competence, and provide clarity. Simply put, stop micromanaging, ensure everyone has the right tools for the job, and provide a thought framework for doing the right thing. Micromanaging is is demoralizing and discourages independent thought. It also ensures that people will do only what you tell them and nothing more, even if it doesn’t make sense. His examples are clear. You can use what he wrote and apply it, not just read about it. His advice is practical, executable.
The book is short. This is a missed opportunity. The message is concise, and that’s good. But he could easily have added another 100 pages, and I would have been satisfied. The anecdotes were just long enough to make the point, draw a conclusion and give practical advice in the form of bullet points. The stories didn’t tie together into a single narrative, which would have been more satisfying.
Are the ideas new? Not really. Captain Marquet invited Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to tour his ship. He admits that he is implementing many of the ideas in that book. Is that bad? Not at all. The book is a success story. Marquet is honest, vulnerable, and humble. He shares his very human thoughts, concerns, and mistakes in trying to make major changes in how an organization works and thinks. He cares about his people. And his results seem to bear out his theories.