Turn the Ship Around
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A guide to transforming top-down organizations into lean ones, where everyone is a leader. Written by a submarine commander, it’s mostly useful to managers in big corporations and other institutions, and more of a fun read to people already used to small, lean companies.
Question to consider: If a successful organization is run by an charismatic top-down leader, and then after they leave, the organization crumbles — what does it say about the leader?
The normal answer is thast the person was a great leader! And obviously, if the organization crumbles, it’s because they lack a good leader.
This is bonkers! They were good at commanding people to do stuff, but they failed as a leader! A good leader thinks long-term, and empowers the whole organization to do a good job after they’re gone.
The problem is the leader-follower model. In that model, followers are just “doing their job” and require someone who understands the goal of the group to command them. But this fails in the long term, and is an inefficient use of people’s intellect and creativity.
What you want to instill is the leader-leader model, where everyone leads in their own part of the organization. This way it’s everybody’s job to understand the purpose, values, and goals of the organization, think solutions to problems, and fix stuff because it needs to be done, and not because someone directed them to do it. Such an organization is resilient to the leader leaving, being on vacation, or simply incapable of knowing about everything and commanding everyone.
The pillars that must support such a change are: clarity (everyone knows the goals of the organization) and competence (everyone has the knowledge required to make the right decisions).
Some of the most interesting techniques:
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- “A little rudder far from the shore” — short, informal meetings at the beginning of a project to set the course, expectations, goals, instead of scrambling to fix stuff when its' urgent
- “I intend to” — instead of waiting for an order or asking for permission, merely comminicate your intent to your manager.
- Specify goals, not methods — give people the opportunity to think of the best solutions. Don’t just provide it outright, even if you know it. Give them the end you have in mind, then let them figure it out.
- Guiding principles — communicate the organization’s values and the ordering of priorities explicitly so that everyone can make decisions based on that.
- Excellence > avoiding errors — big orgs often have a punitive culture that emphasizes avoiding errors above all else. That makes people afraid to be creative, innovate, experiment, improve processes, do anything really. Because doing something always carries a risk of making an error, which you’d be punished for. Change the focus to being best at X, and reduction of errors will follow
- Repeat the message — most people are not used to being leaders. To change from a top-down model, it’s not enough to just tell your employees once what you expect them to do. You have to repeat the ideas, values, and the change in attitude over, and over, and over again. Old habits die slowly.
- Encourage questioning attitude — don’t expect people to just do as you say. Have them question everything, all the time. You’re often wrong, and the ways in which your organization operates are often historical artifacts that don’t have good justifications.