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InfoQ Homepage News Turn the Ship Around - Towards Leadership at Every Level

Turn the Ship Around - Towards Leadership at Every Level

At the Agile Tour London 2015 Wim Heemskerk and Dirk Mulder hosted a session about creating leadership at every level. Their workshop is based on the book Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet.

InfoQ interviewed Heemskerk and Mulder about how hierarchy can hinder transitioning to agile, why organizations should develop leaders in stead of followers, and how to apply the leadership lessons from the book to increase the agility of organizations.

InfoQ: In your session you showed how organizations that are transitioning to agile are being hindered by things like hierarchy and complexity. Can you give some examples?

Heemskerk: Actually, we don’t need to show them. Our audience notices every day that hierarchical decision making relatively high up in the organisation is at odds with people self-organising their own interactions and processes. Yet we need those self-organising qualities to deal with today’s pace and complexity. So we ask them in our workshop what keeps people from delegating more. The answers they give generally circle around three themes. 1) People won’t do a good job because they lack the necessary competences. 2) People cannot make the right calls because they don’t know enough about the bigger picture. 3) The manager is personally struggling with issues like: "Am I allowed to?", "What will this do to my own position?"

Mulder: Not only organizations that are transitioning to agile are being hindered by hierarchy. As managers or experts we have a tendency to want to be in control (and show our expertise). When people ask what to do we will give them an answer.That’s not always helping the organization to be a great place to work for everybody. Giving people control and educating people to take ownership and take more initiative creates a culture where people flourish better (think of Drive by Daniel Pink).

InfoQ: For people who don’t know "Turn the Ship Around", can you briefly explain what the book is about?

Mulder: The book tells the story of David Marquet who by circumstance becomes the captain of a submarine he isn’t familiar with. It appears to be the submarine that was "the black sheep" of the fleet with regards to motivation, retention, and results. It describes the learning process of both the captain and crew of this US Navy nuclear submarine from command and control to leader-leader. During this learning process control and decision-making was pushed to every level in the submarine. David managed to change his (and others’) natural instinct to take control to one of giving control, which is much more powerful. By doing this the culture on board changed for the best.

Heemskerk: That’s not about fluffy stuff (only), it’s retention jumping upwards, it’s going from worst to best on inspections within a year. David explains it as a move from 1 thinking person on board - the captain - to a whole crew of 135 thinking, passionate, proactive people.

InfoQ: In your session you stated that organizations should develop leaders in stead of followers. Can you explain what you mean with this?

Mulder: For organizations to to be more adaptive, all the power of the organisation needs to be engaged and mobilized. Every employee must take ownership for their part, should be the leader within their competences and be able and allowed to make decisions and take the initiative. This will improve changeability of organizations and increase morale. Furthermore, in a world where we have to compete for the best workforce, organizations that inspire people will be more attractive and at the end produce better results.

Heemskerk: Can you find me a job ad that doesn’t ask for someone who’s proactive, or a self-starter? We advertise that we want people to think for themselves nowadays. But whether they actually do depends a lot on how they are managed. Micro-management crushes thinking and initiative. Giving control encourages people to take the lead themselves. By asking them to follow you blindly you won’t ever engage their full potential. So let’s develop leaders instead.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples how you can apply the leadership lessons from the book to increase the agility of organizations?

Heemskerk: I mentioned the three categories of problems people struggle with when they try to delegate. David calls them Competence, Clarity of Purpose, and Control. Once you recognize these, you can build on each one step at a time. This allows you to give (or ask for) ever more control without spiralling down into chaos.

In my own work as a coach, to be most effective, I need considerable freedom. One thing I’ve used from David’s work to gain that freedom, is to show my management that I’m trying to keep their bigger picture in mind. When I showed my manager I was thinking on his level, and opened the conversation, he felt much more relaxed to give me room to do my work.

We get great responses when running this workshop in various settings. It turned out especially enlightening in house with a full management team. We’re now in the middle of organising a series of activities in the Netherlands with David himself: an open evening seminar on leadership, a half-day workshop, and a full leadership program suitable for high level management. More info on these on our website

Mulder: In a situation where New Way of Working is implemented David’s material is very useful to develop trust and capability on the side of both the manager and the employees to cope with the challenges.

The focus on practical use is what I love about the material. No complex models, but just what you need to find your next step each time. David stresses this incremental approach by providing a small "Nudge" every week, that you can subscribe to.

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