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Agile 2017 Keynote: Creating Leadership and Engagement at Every Level

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At the recent Agile 2017 conference in Orlando, David Marquet, retired Navy captain and author of best selling book "Turn The Ship Around!" gave an entertaining keynote on intent-based leadership.

He kicked off by describing that business value creation in the future depends on us getting better at getting people thinking and making decisions (what he refers to as blue work) versus people executing and process discipline (red work). His story is about taking control of the USS Sante Fe, which was the worst performing submarine in the US Navy fleet and a vessel with which he had no prior experience.

One of the most important leadership attributes and behaviors is the ability to say I don’t know:

Standing up in front of my crew and admitting I didn’t know something, scared the tar out of me. But I found after I said it, it was so liberating and the honesty… actually, my respect with the crew went up, I thought I would lose respect.

He contended that in the past as a leader if you gave a bad order, then the solution was to just give better orders. However, as leaders we need to change our behaviors, so rather than giving orders just say tell me what you intend to do and if I don’t stop you, you do it. The outcome is people own it. We then need to go further than just intent, we need certify that they we are ready to go and make a decision. This pushes thinking work all the way down the organization.

Things started going really, really well… these are people who instead of in a previous regime hating their life… loved their job… We were evaluated by the Navy, the crew of the USS Santa Fe, we didn’t fire a single person, got the highest score in the history of the Navy for operating a submarine.

With Dr. Stephen Covey (author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People") he developed the Ladder of Leadership to explain how the process worked. As leaders you invite people to the next level:

7. I’ve been doing…
6. I’ve done…
5. I intend to…
4. I would LIKE to…
3. I think…
2. I see…
1. Tell me what to do

Marquet states that in process (red) work, adding stress either improves performance or keeps it the same. In cognitive (blue) work however, adding stress can quickly overwhelm our ability to think.

The will to prepare to win is the only thing that matters… You need to create a team that is going to execute their job without being told what to do.

He concludes by suggesting that we need to create a vehicle to allow people to come out of the red work when they need to, a good example of which is the Andon cord in the Toyota factory.

If you don’t have a little bit of that trepidation, you are keeping too much control to yourself, you are not building a team, you are not injecting thinking.

The video of the keynote is now available from the Agile Alliance. InfoQ has also interviewed Marquet previously about applying Intent-based leadership in Agile.

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