From Nuclear-powered Submarines to Software Engineering, Why is “Turn The Ship Around”​ a Good Book for Managers and Leaders?

From Nuclear-powered Submarines to Software Engineering, Why is “Turn The Ship Around”​ a Good Book for Managers and Leaders?


✨ Introduction

In his May 2013 book, “Turn The Ship Around”, L. David Marquet, a retired United States Navy captain who was the commander of the submarine USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine of the United States Navy, tells us about his journey with this submarine. He turned Santa Fe from the worst-performing submarine to the top-scoring submarine operation on record in just two years. Even after his retirement, the submarine continued to earn awards and perform admirably.

This looks like an interesting story, but how does this relate to the software engineering industry? The answer is, in his book, David Marquet explains the major success he had with his crew in one of the most top-down structured organizations in the world, which is the US Navy, and how he managed to do a major transformation in the leadership approach, to be a “leader-leader” instead of the “leader-follower” approach, which is, typically, the passive approach that is being used almost on every other submarine or ship at that time.

The success of this strategy is an intriguing lesson that leaders and managers should evaluate and begin extracting positive takeaways from, because these lessons and takeaways can be applied to many other organizations just as successfully as they were on that submarine, and they should result in significant increases in performance and pleasure for people at all levels.

Here, I’ll go through some of the book’s most essential points that are relevant to any software manager or team leader that is searching for ways to better and thrive in the work they do.

✨ The “leader-follower” vs. “leader-leader” approach

People who are treated as followers have the expectations of followers and act like followers. As followers, they have limited decision-making authority and little incentive to give the utmost of their intellect, energy, and passion. Those who take orders usually run at half speed, underutilizing their imagination and initiative.

We’ve all seen it happen: when a great leader leaves an organization, the performance of their team(s) begins to decline unexpectedly. We constantly hear that this happens because the previous leader left and the new leader has not been able to run the team in the same way. This is actually a “bad” thing, and the departed leader should be held accountable because he failed to build more leaders and empower his team to succeed after his leave.

Only 5 people on a submarine of 135 had the authority to think and make decisions, while the other 130 had their brains turned off and basically did whatever they were told to do with a highly passive attitude focused solely on avoiding mistakes.

On the other hand, when it comes to the “leader-leader” model of leadership, the goal is to empower everyone in a team or organization to participate in making choices, setting rules, and enhancing the processes which are already in place, as well as introducing new ones, so that they can all be leaders and not just followers. This method also eliminates bottlenecks and empowers team members to make decisions in the absence of a team leader or manager.

To put the leader-leader approach into action, you must focus on three major components: control, competency, and clarity. Without any of these, you may encounter some risks or undesirable outcomes during the application phase of this strategy.

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.

✨ Resisting the urge to provide solutions

In this article, “Leaders, Stop Trying to Be Heroes”, an important topic was discussed which is the traditional attitude of leaders that they should be infallible, unflappable, in control, and courageous. These leaders appeared to be natural-born hero leaders, equipped with unmatched brilliance.

Well, this is too good to be true every single time, and also, having these types of leaders on top of every team is almost impossible. Nowadays, good leaders should focus on the identification of “what” should be done, and give the team the opportunity to figure out the best “how” to solve it, maximize the output, and unleash their decision-making potential.

During planning meetings, leaders and experienced team members should try to resist the urge to instantly provide solutions to business problems, and give less experienced team members time and support to come up with ideas, and help them calibrate on these ideas in order to reach an acceptable technical solution. If a staff engineer, for example, keeps providing solutions for every issue the team faces, his colleagues will start depending on him, and they will focus solely on implementing the solution, a typical leader-follower scenario, making them less engaged and also making the staff engineer a bottleneck moving forward.

Emergency situations required snap decision-making and clear orders. There’s no time for a big discussion. Yet, the vast majority of situations do not require immediate decisions. You have time to let the team chew on it, but we still apply the crisis model of issuing rapid-fire orders, you must take time to let others react to the situation. You have to create a space for open decision by the entire team, even if that space is only a few minutes or a few seconds, long. This is harder than in the leader-follower approach because it requires you to anticipate decisions and alert your team to the need for an upcoming one.

✨ Control without competence is a chaos

Competence means that people are technically competent to make the decisions they make. On a submarine, it means having a specific technical understanding of physics, electricity, sound in water, metallurgy, and so on. The emphasis in the book thus far has been on pushing decision-making and control to lower and lower levels in the organization. We found, however, that control by itself wasn’t enough.

Technical competency is crucial for every software team, not only for submarines crew because this competency defines what that team could build, innovate and deliver. Giving your people the control to make decisions is something good, but without the proper knowledge and skills that allow them to take the calls, it will only increase the number of mistakes and wrong directions taken by them.

Giving them the proper training they need, providing a sufficient level of mentorship and guidance, letting them be your shadows during some of the decisions you make, and also providing a culture that celebrates mistakes and strives for improvements, are all are some of the important activities that should be initiated and owned by team leaders and managers. Delegating decision-making should occur when you find your team is technically capable of handling this in a good way.

A submarine has a built-in structure whereby information is channeled up the chain of command to decision-makers. Instead, we were going to deconstruct decision authority and push it down to where the information lived. We called this “Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.”

✨ Clarity: Understanding what your organization is about

Whenever you start to delegate decision making and authority to your team, you should ensure that all people in the team understand and have clear visibility on the organization’s goals and directions because, at the end of the day, we do take decisions based on the goals that our organizations aim to accomplish, that includes what’s technically appropriate and what aligns with the organization’s interests.

Clarity means people at all levels of an organization clearly and completely understand what the organization is about. This is needed because people in the organization make decisions against a set of criteria that includes what the organization is trying to accomplish. If clarity of purpose is misunderstood, then the criteria by which a decision is made will be skewed, and suboptimal decisions will be made.

✨ Final thoughts

The actual story also reveals more lessons learned during the challenging period when David Marquet was in charge of USS Santa Fe, like allowing the crew to make more mistakes to learn and achieve excellence instead of avoiding errors, also instant rewarding for people who did the right job, and not postpone it to a time where the rewarding action would make nonsense. You can also notice that he actively encouraged a questioning attitude over blind obedience, which is totally different attitude than what they’ve used to have in the US Navy.

I recommend this book for managers and leaders who are managing teams. It should give them some insightful ideas on how to achieve more agility in their organizations and create more leaders from within their teams as well!