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The Command and Control Model is Outdated, Even The Military Says So!

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar March 08, 2017

Last year, after our visit with Bucket List heroes and former US Navy captain David Marquet. It was with great delight that we came across David Marquet's bestseller, 'Turn the Ship Around!' earlier in the year. In this book, the former nuclear submarine commander shares the case study of his beloved USS Santa Fe. He describes, in great detail, how he managed to create a workplace where his crew were encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and where his crew seemed to be engaged and happy.

The story of the Santa Fe is exactly what we are looking for. We are actively searching for examples of highly engaged workplaces, no matter the industry or culture. We believe those examples must be out there, everywhere and in every industry. We refuse to believe the stereotypes that certain industries or groups of people should not be able to change. We are on a mission to bust those stereotypes, and the army is maybe the biggest one of all.

Hacking the navy leadership culture

The story of David starts when he is appointed captain of the worst performing submarine in the fleet. At the start of his command the nuclear-powered submarine USS Santa Fe was flawed by very poor morale and low engagement. He experienced first-hand how the command & control environment forced his crew to do anything he would say, even when it was wrong. David witnessed that the traditional command & control model (which he prefers to call to *leader-follower model*) used by the navy and the majority of the companies in the world is outdated and no longer efficient.

He knew that there had to be a better way of operating, but for that they needed to fundamentally change the way they worked. David started to successfully hack into the traditional navy leadership culture and pushed for leadership at every level. With one fundamental believe in mind: a highly engaged crew is proactive, makes better decisions more rapidly and comes up with smarter solutions faster. Eventually, his crew managed to achieve the highest retention and operational standings in the US Navy. It's an impressive case study, but what lessons can we draw from how the USS Santa Fe went from 'worst to first'?

1. Push leadership down the org chart

David Marquet believes that in the traditional command & control model there are leaders and followers. On the USS Santa Fe, David was the leader of the ship. His crew were just followers waiting for his orders to be executed. In this model followers are rarely able to fully exploit their talents, ideas and capabilities. It gets even worse, they assume the leader will make every major decision anyway and thereof become disengaged and passive.

So, he took matters into his own hands and started to push for leadership at every level. In stead of treating his crew as followers he started to treat his crew as leaders. He started to provide them with increased levels of control, trust and responsibility. He wanted everyone to feel like a leader, all contributing and living up to the values of the ship. It didn't take long before the morale among the crew took a dramatic turn. The increased decision making among his employees resulted naturally into higher rates of engagement, motivation, and initiative.

Find your organization's genetic code for control and rewrite it

David Marquet: "The first step in changing the genetic code of any organization or system is delegating control, or decision-making authority, as much as is comfortable, and then adding a pinch more. This isn't an empowerment program. It's changing the way the organization controls decisions in an enduring, personal way.

Here is how you can find your organization's genetic code for control and rewrite it:

  • Identify in the organization's policy documents where decision-making authority is specified.
  • Identify decisions that are candidates for being pushed to the next lower level in the organization.
  • For the easiest decisions, first draft language that changes the person who will have decision-making authority. In some cases, large decisions may need to be dissaggregated.
  • Next, ask each participant in the group to complete the following sentence on a card provided: "When I think about delegating this decision, I worry that..."
  • Post those cards on the wall, go on a long break, and let the group mill around the comments posted on the wall.
  • Last, when the group reconvenes, sort and rank the worries and begin to attack them."

2. Develop skills from mistakes

As you can imagine, nuclear submarines are complicated machines. That's why David believes that decisions should be based on technical reasons, not on hierarchy. On the USS Santa Fe, the traditional hierarchy of the US Navy was still kept in place but every employee started to enjoy control, leadership and accountability over his own work and operations. Leadership just explained what the ships wanted to accomplish, but allowed flexibility in how it was accomplished. In this case, the people that possessed specific technical knowledge made most of the decisions about the daily operations.

On board of the USS Santa Fe they established a culture of continuous improvement. The leadership constantly encouraged the crew to take action and supported them if they made mistakes. They learn on the job, by learning from their mistakes, as this is how they believe they get better. Constantly they are looking for ways to improve their processes and themselves. Because without developing the necessary skills, competences and knowledge for your particular job it's impossible to comply with your responsibilities.

3. Be clear about the desired outcome of the mission

When you established leadership at every level, and people are constantly making their own decisions it is important to have a common goal and principles in place. It should be crystal clear what the desired outcome of the mission should be. For yourself, for your team and for the organization. It will guide employees in their daily decision making. Because, if the common purpose is not clear or misunderstood then the guidelines and principles by which a decision should be made are unclear. It will result in a reduced quality of the decision making.

How to begin with the end in mind

David Marquet: "Here are some things you can do to begin with the end in mind:

  • With your leadership team, develop longer-term organizational goals for three or five years out.
  • Go through the evaluations and look for statements that express achievement. In every case, ask "How would we know?" and ensure that you have measuring systems in place.
  • Then have employees write their own evaluations one year, two years, or three years hence. The goals in the employees' evaluations should cascade down from the organization's goals; they needn't necessarily be identical but they should be appropriate at an individual level.
  • Have conversations with employees to make their desired achievements indisputable (How would I know?) and measurable."

David Marquet successfully busted the stereotype and made work fun again on his ship. He proved that even in the most traditional environments you should be able to create highly engaged employees by changing the way you work. His approach was not only successful under his command it also lasted. After David left the USS Santa Fe as commander, the ship kept promoting more officers than any other submarine in the fleet, including ten submarine captains. In the end, the approach seems relatively simple and comparable to stories we heard many times before: listen to your employees and teams, start experimenting and discover your own unique way towards an engaged workforce...

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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