Turn the Ship Around (Book Review)

I first heard of David Marquet‘s

Turn the Ship Around

in an Agile conference four years ago, and I added it to my reading queue. For whatever reason, other books kept getting ahead of it (a relatively rare event in my reading queue), until it was mentioned in another book I recently finished, causing it to jump back to the top of the queue.

The book chronicles David’s personal story, taking command of an under-performing nuclear submarine, the USS Santa Fe, and transforming it into a top-performing one. What makes this book a worthwhile topic for this blog, is the way David chose to go about doing that: by pushing power/control/decision-making down the chain-of-command — in a complete opposite direction to traditional Navy doctrine.

The biggest lesson learned, in my opinion, from David’s experience is best summarized in his own words:

“Control, we discovered, only works with a competent workforce that understands the organization’s purpose. Hence, as control is divested, both technical competence and organizational clarity need to be strengthened.”

Many books and articles make the case for why pushing control/power/decision making down the org (often times erroneously referred to as “empowerment”) is important. But the tight coupling between doing so, technical competence and organizational clarity was illuminating to me. Reflecting on past situations when I hesitated to delegate control, or did so and was disappointed with the outcome, I can almost always attribute the root cause for my hesitation or disappointment to one, or both, of these elements.

Even though the quote I shared above is taken from the book’s introduction, this is not one of those would-have-been-better-as-a-10-page-HBR-article books. The book adds colors and nuances to this high-level idea, and breaks it down to specific mechanisms that David used to push down control, improve technical competence and enhance organizational clarity. Many of which can be adapted from a submarine-setting to a corporate-setting (environments that are worth a more in-depth comparing and contrasting, perhaps on some future post).