Turn the Ship Around!

by L. David Marquet

Cover image

Publisher: Portfolio
Copyright: 2012
ISBN: 1-101-62369-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 272

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Turn the Ship Around! (yes, complete with the irritating exclamation point in the title) is marketed to the business and management non-fiction market, which is clogged with books claiming to provide simple techniques to be a great manager or fix an organization. If you're like me, this is a huge turn-off. The presentation of the books is usually just shy of the click-bait pablum of self-help books. Many of the books are written by famous managers best known for doing horrible things to their staff (*cough* Jack Welch). It's hard to get away from the feeling that this entire class of books is an ocean of bromides covering a small core of outright evil.

This book is not like that, and Marquet is not one of those managers. It can seem that way at times: it is presented in the format that caters to short attention span, with summaries of primary points at the end of every short chapter and occasionally annoying questions sprinkled throughout. I'm capable of generalizing information to my own life without being prompted by study questions, thanks. But that's just form. The core of this book is a surprisingly compelling story of Marquet's attempt to introduce a novel management approach into one of the most conservative and top-down of organizations: a US Navy nuclear submarine.

I read this book as an individual employee, and someone who has no desire to ever be a manager. But I recently changed jobs and significantly disrupted my life because of a sequence of really horrible management decisions, so I have strong opinions about, at least, the type of management that's bad for employees. A colleague at my former employer recommended this book to me while talking about the management errors that were going on around us. It did such a good job of reinforcing my personal biases that I feel like I should mention that as a disclaimer. When one agrees with a book this thoroughly, one may not have sufficient distance from it to see the places where its arguments are flawed.

At the start of the book, Marquet is assigned to take over as captain of a nuclear submarine that's struggling. It had a below-par performance rating, poor morale, and the worst re-enlistment rate in the fleet, and was not advancing officers and crew to higher ranks at anywhere near the level of other submarines. Marquet brought to this assignment some long-standing discomfort with the normal top-down decision-making processes in the Navy, and decided to try something entirely different: a program of radical empowerment, bottom-up decision-making, and pushing responsibility as far down the chain of command as possible. The result (as you might expect given that you can read a book about it) was one of the best-performing submarines in the fleet, with retention and promotion rates well above average.

There's a lot in here about delegated decision-making and individual empowerment, but Turn the Ship Around! isn't only about that. Those are old (if often ignored) rules of thumb about how to manage properly. I think the most valuable part of this book is where Marquet talks frankly about his own thought patterns, his own mistakes, and the places where he had to change his behavior and attitude in order to make his strategy successful. It's one thing to say that individuals should be empowered; it's quite another to stop empowering them (which is still a top-down strategy) and start allowing them to be responsible. To extend trust and relinquish control, even though you're the one who will ultimately be held responsible for the performance of the people reporting to you. One of the problems with books like this is that they focus on how easy the techniques presented in the book are. Marquet does a more honest job in showing how difficult they are. His approach was not complex, but it was emotionally quite difficult, even though he was already biased in favor of it.

The control, hierarchy, and authority parts of the book are the most memorable, but Marquet also talks about, and shows through specific examples from his command, some accompanying principles that are equally important. If everyone in an organization can make decisions, everyone has to understand the basis for making those decisions and understand the shared goals, which requires considerable communication and open discussion (particularly compared to a Navy ideal of an expert and taciturn captain). It requires giving people the space to be wrong, and requires empowering people to correct each other without blame. (There's a nice bit in here about the power of deliberate action, and while Marquet's presentation is more directly applicable to the sorts of physical actions taken in a submarine, I was immediately reminded of code review.) Marquet also has some interesting things to say about the power of, for lack of a better term, esprit de corps, how to create it, and the surprising power of acting like you have it until you actually develop it.

As mentioned, this book is very closely in alignment with my own biases, so I'm not exactly an impartial reviewer. But I found it fascinating the degree to which the management situation I left was the exact opposite of the techniques presented in this book in nearly every respect. I found it quite inspiring during my transition period, and there are bits of it that I want to read again to keep some of the techniques and approaches fresh in my mind.

There is a fair bit of self-help-style packaging and layout here, some of which I found irritating. If, like me, you don't like that style of book, you'll have to wade through a bit of it. I would have much preferred a more traditional narrative story from which I could draw my own conclusions. But it's more of a narrative than most books of this sort, and Marquet is humble enough to show his own thought processes, tensions, and mistakes, which adds a great deal to the presentation. I'm not sure how directly helpful this would be for a manager, since I've never been in that role, but it gave me a lot to think about when analyzing successful and unsuccessful work environments.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-09-24

Last modified and spun 2015-01-06