Book Summary: Turn the Ship Around

Hi all,

I want to highly recommend Turn the Ship Around. In a nutshell, the book is about intentionally designing systems into an organization or company to foster positive behaviors that encourage initiative, autonomy, creativity, and leadership. Improved retention, morale, and accelerated career development are a positive side effect.

Let me be clear with my recommendation, here. Every now and then, I read a book where the author's talent and insight absolutely drops my jaw and I don't look at the world the same way afterwards. This is one of those books.

I think the book is so good, because it connected so many dots for me. Here's were a few of the previously unconnected dots.

  • Amazon is a process company. It's one of their super powers. It's built into the culture, and I had formal training when I was there to distinguish between wishful thinking, called "good intentions", and actually getting things done and delivering results, which requires a "mechanism." Designing a mechanism involves understanding inputs, outputs, systems, tools, management and other organizational levers.

  • I've read leadership books about Pixar (Creativity, Inc) and Netflix (No Rules Rules) that were absolutely inspiring. The basic theme in both, was that if you want peak creative output, you need to give employees freedom and autonomy. That's it. Pixar's secret to creating a string of #1 box office hits was to have a writer/director and give them complete control over the final cut of the movie. The director received all sorts of feedback and critiques from the Story Trust committee, but at the end of the day, the movie was theirs. That was basically it.

  • I learned later that these principles of worker motivation have been known since the 1960's, after I read an article titled "Tell me once again, how do I motivate my employees?" If this is a known principle, and has been known for so long, then I wanted to know why so many companies and so many managers are so bad at it, especially when being good at it pays such outsized dividends?

This is where the author blew me away. He started designing organizational mechanisms and processes such that the culture of the submarine he commanded would have no choice but to start instilling habits that give people more autonomy and required them to take more initiative.

For example, the captain used to approve every request from the crew for shore leave on the ship, after maybe 6 or 7 other layers in the chain of command also approved the shore leave request.

The captain changed policy and made the crew chiefs (one level above junior officers) responsible for approving leave. On the surface, this might appear small, but it had ripple effects, because being responsible for leave meant the crew chiefs needed to have ownership for scheduling watch rotations to keep their sections running. And if they were responsible for watch rotations, they needed to take responsibility for training their crews, so that the crew members were qualified to serve on their assigned watches, and so on. (If you give a mouse a cookie, right?)

The captain very intentionally used mechanisms like the one above to transform his ship from the worst rated submarine in the fleet, to one of the best, within 6 months. He didn't have the luxury of getting the right people on or off the bus, or getting the right people to the right seats, either, it was all through organizational process Design. Further, the mechanisms he implemented transformed the ship's culture in a way that had lasting impact on morale, retention rate, ship rating, promotion rates, and numerous other quantitative measure, long after he left the ship.

(Sidebar, the author references Built to Last and Good to Great, both by Jim Collins, who I know had a large influence on Jeff Bezos and Amazon, so I can't help but think that the captains's mechanism concept, and what I learned at Amazon is related. I've read Good to Great, but will add Built to Last to my list. The captain also referenced Start With Why and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, so those are now on my list as well.)

With Netflix, there was definitely a similar pattern of discovering organizational mechanisms (changing the reimbursement policy to "act in Netflix's best interest" was one such mechanism), but where I stand in awe of Turn the Ship Around, is the speed and intention at which changes were implemented, the genius of starting with the crew chiefs, rather than at another rank, and the capability to do anything like this in the context of the culture of the United States Navy, and in particular, the culture of the nuclear submarine fleet.

Highest recommendation possible for anyone going into leadership.

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