jml's notebook

Turn the Ship Around / Drive mashup

I think a lot about Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet. Out of all the books I've read on leadership or management, it's the one that resonates the most strongly with me.

When I was a lot younger, I figured that as a manager, you wanted to make sure you had a bunch of smart people around you and then get out of their way. Any time you told them what to do, you were making a mistake, because you probably know less than them about their job, and because the act of telling someone what to do short circuits the bit of their brain that would actually think about the problem. By giving an instruction, you've reduced the net intelligence of your team.

I tried this a few times and it mostly ended in disaster.

Groups of people don't naturally coordinate. It takes work to get a bunch of individual effort to cohere and add up, rather than cancel out.

Also, people sometimes do things badly, or do the the wrong thing, or take too long to do something, or spend way too much time on something unimportant, or completely overlook important details, or don't know what to do, or…

I responded to this failure of approach by changing my approach! I tried to become more directive, and give more instructions. I worked on giving timely constructive feedback (outside of the context of code reviews, which I've been doing for a long time).

This was definitely better, but it still wasn't where I wanted to be. I felt that I was the bottleneck of the team, that I was putting a ceiling on the growth of the more senior members of the team, and only giving the junior members on-the-spot feedback without giving them a way to actually grow. Helping them to do a job better without actually helping them get better at their job, if that makes sense.

Anyway, at some point I read Turn the Ship Around! and it opened my eyes. Marquet had the same ambition as me—at some point he vowed never to give a direct order—but actually thought about what would be required to make it happen. And, hoo boy is it a tonne of work. Reading through the book you get the distinct impression that he worked his arse off the entire time he was on tour.

Anyway, the big insight is that for people to have control, they must also have competence and clarity. Control means making decisions, taking initiative, having autonomy. Competence means actually being good at your job, being able to demonstrate that you are good at your job, and continually learning. It is about mastery. Clarity means knowing the direction you're going in and what's expected of you. If you have enough clarity and you have some commitment to what you see, then you have a sense of purpose.

So Marquet thinks that people in an effective organization need:

In his book Drive (which I have not read), Dan Pink suggests that for people to be happy they need:

And it turns out that control maps pretty well to autonomy, competence maps pretty well to mastery, and clarity to purpose.

I think this is fascinating. Marquet was most definitely not operating from the assumption that "if I make the crew happy, the ship will run better", he was trying to figure out how to get everyone to be leaders. Pink (to my limited understanding) wasn't concerned with organizational success or efficiency, but what makes individuals tick.

Put another way, my take on Turn the Ship Around! is that the whole thing is a framework for building an organisation around trust (which I think is underemphasised by almost everyone), and Drive is about individual happiness.

When I realised this, I had a bit of a "mind blown" moment. Is this a coincidence? It is that one author influenced the other? Or is there some deeper connection between institutional trust and individual happiness?