Furthest Right

Turning the Ship Around

Humans appear to have a few problems, the most important of which is their need to organize and then to destroy the same organization over time. It can be likened to a predator finding food provided by his family very appealing, but when it matures it hunts elsewhere anyway allowing his family to dissolve. This is apparently built into human nature too.

Many attempts to arrest this tendency has been tried. Some examples include within family structures, military structures, scientific management, and narrative oriented objectivization. Most books written on the topic possess an apparent uncertainty whether the book is aimed at the individual or organization level. Difficulty ensues when one starts to consider intra-personal, inter-personal or extra-personal orientations like intra-organization, inter-organization, or extra-organization.

Despite all intellectual pursuits, case studies on successful organizations lasting for at least two generations may serve as practical guidelines while very few management consultants have the ability not only to build up a substantial clientele, but that they are then able to survey their own clients (outside academia) to develop a lessons-learnt framework. One example is Stephen R Covey while another is Jim Collins that were able to do his own research over a period of ten years.

Unfortunately, just like human generations are like waves over time, so are there waves of management consultants too, mostly capitalizing on newer technologies previous waves were not privy to. Real lessons-learnt therefore are simply bypassed in favor of the latest fad.

Things changed for America in 2012 after Obama was elected, but unbeknownst to him in 2011 one of America’s nuclear submarine commanders decided to write a book called Turn the Ship Around. The author did his own experiments on his own organization — command of a nuclear submarine — which proved successful over time. The lessons learned can be compared to other organizations in parallel.

David Marquet shows you his journey as Captain on the nuclear submarine USS Santa Fe. He had the guts to lead in a completely different way. Top-down leadership sometimes endangered the men. He decided to give his men the control themselves, with amazing results.

Marquet describes the traditional top-down management as the leader-follower model in which the followers have limited decision-making powers and where they are barely encouraged to make the most of their intellect, energy and passion. The follower has learned that he must rely on the leader who takes all the decisions, instead of fully focusing on the work process in order to keep the organization running as smoothly as possible. In contrast, the author sets the leader-leader model that not only brings improvements in terms of effectiveness and morale, it also makes the organization stronger and more agile.

The idea was not entirely new at the time because the Marines had developed a similar technique where a corporal or sergeant in the field would be allowed to make tactical decisions, even political decisions in his dealings with the citizenry, without asking for permission from high command. They established a hierarchy instead of a centralized command where everyone had to wait on one guy to figure everything out.

Captain Marquet demonstrated that centralized management is dangerous but adding some bottom-up leadership improved the organization. Instead of exploring why top-down management could be destructive, Marquet spent his time analyzing positive results supported by undeniable examples of which he had full understanding.

What makes the contents of this book also remarkable is that military organizations are undeniably rigid and structural, even hierarchical, with very specific command and control, therefore are top-down organizations. This is why the idea of bottom-up seem impossible at first glance and why normal managers would not even entertain such ideas when it comes to organizational improvement.

Marquet found that he told his team to do something he knew to be impossible, and they went along with it without pushback. This can be compared with Korean Airlines crash investigations confirming that a co-pilot did what his captain told him to do despite knowing he was going to die in a crash.

This shows how centralized management eventually engenders a sort of organizational culture where the boss cannot be questioned. This notion is supported by Gallup polls showing an average of thirteen percent employee engagement globally

Only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work, according to Gallup’s new 142-country study on the State of the Global Workplace. In other words, about one in eight workers — roughly 180 million employees in the countries studied — are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations.

The bulk of employees worldwide — 63% — are “not engaged,” meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes. And 24% are “actively disengaged,” indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers. In rough numbers, this translates into 900 million not engaged and 340 million actively disengaged workers around the globe.

The 13% of engaged employees in the 2011-2012 study has ticked upward from the 11% in Gallup’s previous global workplace assessment, conducted in 2009-2010.

This shows us of an example of how organizational culture can be inverted by centralized authority. With a single pivot of command, everyone must wait for instructions, and so all management comprises a type of micromanagement based on “putting out fires” and using the methods instructed from above.

The Marquet revolution recognizes that such structures reward blind obedience and both encourage people to do things that they know are destructive or ineffective, while by requiring management to dictate methods and timing, separate workers from their own ability to make those decisions.

When you get too much centralization, in other words, you have people who sit around and wait for instructions, then do them to the letter whether or not this has positive effect, but then go back into a wait-for-instructions mode and think no further about improving their jobs.

Instead of micromanagement, Marquet argues for something I call “micro-coaching.” A swimming coach uses this when he teaches all swimmers the same basics of breathing and stroke, but also approaches each individual swimmer detailing the particularities exhibited only by each swimmer.

After this micro-coaching, the coach makes the swimmers compete against each other. This teaches them the importance of the end result of their activity. They see how they are measured by time, and therefore, how they can choose to take his helpful advice in order to improve.

Another example is of a normal business that attempted a turnaround. The CEO realized that the executive team does not use profit as a measure in doing each of their duties, so he broke the gross profit down into the contribution each manager is supposed to deliver. He started giving a monthly address to all the employees, where they were allowed to ask questions that their own managers refused to answer.

With this turnaround strategy, employees appreciated the the opportunity to understand the company situation. When things are bad, all will double down and start helping each other, and when things are good, the company will sponsor a barbecue. The barbecue however, is not a sit-down dinner; the workers cook food for each other, furthering the bonding process.

Micro-coaching is a natural technique to improve bottom-up management, but it does require time to implement, but the real long-term benefit is multi-generational. It builds a culture of people who are actively looking for ways to contribute, not waiting for central control to micromanage.

In this example, project managers are not geared to do micro-management, so that each participant in a project is supposed to know exactly what is required and what and how to deliver. This made their projects more likely to succeed and relaxed management load.

When we think about human organizations, it makes sense to see the relationship between centralization, formalization, standardization, and dark organization. The less employees are required to actively contribute, the more they become reactive and prone to do nothing except the minimum.

Extending this to a political level, the first world has destroyed its competitiveness by insisting on micromanagement so that everyone can be equal warm bodies. Instead of demanding workers who can do their jobs actively, we expect passive minimum contributions and micromanage this by means-over-ends methods.

Some of this may have come from the top. Like in the military, a multi-generational reliance on centralization has produced leaders who implement the same structure in their commands, but as Marquet points out, this is not only dangerous but neutralizes workers.

Communism made the same mistake. In order to have an egalitarian society, it relied on central command, which created people reliant on centralized authority a full generation later:

Even after 27 years of reunification, East Germans are still more likely to be pro-state support than their Western counterparts, a new study published in German Economic Review finds. Of the sample studied, 48% of respondents from the East said it was the government’s duty to support the family compared to 35% from the West.

Interestingly, East German preferences for more state support appear to be passed on to the next generation. The researchers found that people born between 1990 and 1999 (that is, after reunification) who had at least one parent from the former GDR were significantly more likely to think that it was the state’s responsibility to provide financial security for families and the elderly.

“That means that living under different systems can have really long-lasting effects on preferences, which are passed down from one generation to the next,” said Fuchs-Schündeln.

People who are raised to defer to centralized authority form a BDSM relationship with the authority. They resent it, but rely on it to tell them what to do, and in exchange for obedience, expect it to take care of all of their needs.

This resembles the state of the average worker (or submarine sailor) under centralized command. They act when told what to do, but otherwise notice nothing, mention nothing, and improve nothing. They simply wait for the next micromanagement instruction.

Ironically, this shows us part of the death cycle of the supposedly “free market” West. The more government intervenes in business, the more secure jobs are, therefore the more they are designed for unengaged workers, and thus, the more workers become detached from their own contributions.

Micro-coaching on the other hand both asserts a bottom-up order in giving workers power over their own contributions, and a top-down structure in telling them how their performance is measured so that they can meet expectations or exceed them if they want to rise.

Since WW2, the West has gone further into using procedures, speech codes, regulations, and political agendas to control people, and therefore workers are less engaged than ever before. Marquet shows us one way to right the balance and get back to autonomous and engaged productive work.

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