An Interview with David Marquet, Author of Turn the Ship Around
USS Santa Fe

An Interview with David Marquet, Author of Turn the Ship Around

Editors Note: This interview was initially published in 2012 for 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success.

Bill: Today I'm speaking with David Marquet. He is the author of the recently published book, Turn the Ship Around. David was Captain of a fast-attack nuclear submarine and has an incredible leadership story. I've read his book in advance of this interview, and I'm excited to tell you how relevant I believe you will find his approach to improving process, performance, and results. I'm looking forward to getting started.

Bill: David, what is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked really well for you or your clients?

David: We had a basic rubric, which was to ask the following question when something went wrong, "What was the process, and who was the owner?" And so, you end up in a two-by-two matrix. Yes, there's a process and an owner. Yes, there's a process, no owner. No owner, but there's a process, and no owner, no process. No owner, no process is chaos, but some of the things that you would think you had processes for, we didn't.

What we had was a list of requirements. For example, in navigating the ship, the way we prepared the chart, the Navy provided procedures that said things like, "The 100-fathom curve will be highlighted. The 50-fathom curve will be highlighted. The 12 miles from the land boundary will be indicated on the chart. The chart will contain the operating areas of the submarine."

But the above are basically lists of the requirements. They don't tell you how to convert the process of what the submarine is attempting to accomplish and then get the junior enlisted guy there preparing the chart to make relevant corrections on the chart, decide where you intend to operate, and so on. As a result, we spent a lot of time asking, "How are you going to accomplish that?"

Bill: Your response to this question gives me great insight into how you approached things I didn't get from the book. When a problem occurred, you immediately tackled it. You didn't have a list of problems. It happened in the moment, and you addressed it head-on, right at that time. Is that how it occurred?

David: Yes, that's correct. One of the things I'd like to say is that we embraced the idea that we learned from whatever we did, and significant self-critiquing was happening. The problem with self-critiquing is that people make it too darn hard. In other words, especially in the nuclear Navy – a critique is a bunch of people in a room that burn two and a half hours going through a detailed timeline of what happened and who said what. That may be appropriate for significant events, like getting the ship underway or making a simulated torpedo attack.

But you don't want to make it too hard for many of the little things that happened. The barrier's too big. For example, maybe someone says, "Hey, I wasn't too happy with how this thing went, and we're going to

make some changes." If you overreact to that, it makes it too hard, and you don't get that behavior.

Bill: I understand exactly what you mean. You don't need a convoluted and drawn-out process. You need a way to respond in an appropriate or lean manner.

David: The concept is scalable. The self-evaluation needs to scale to the event. Otherwise, it will always be a top-down driven program.

For example, we set up a camera on top of the chart table, which faced down at the navigational plotting table, and we videotaped it when the ship got underway. No one was doing that before, which was incredibly helpful because now we had a video recording. It recorded all the audio in the control room; you could see the chart, see what happened, and play it back.

We wouldn't play the whole two and a half hours. We'd pick out specific events. We picked the one thing that would be easy, and then the guys could do it. Then when we went to the training building, the training guys didn't know how to do assessments, so we would go in there, and I would say, for example, "What I want..."

We had to take charge of when we went to the trainer, and we would tell the trainers, "Hey, measure this. I'm getting off track." So there were two things, process, and owner. If there's an owner but no process, you get varying results, but you're not in control.

If you have a process but no owner, you have control but don't have improvement. What a process owner gives you is an improvement of the process because that's the person invested in improving the process over time.

Bill: This is all very interesting. Does that lead your concept of who's in charge that you discussed in the book?

David: Yes. In the submarine force, despite what I said about the process, we were generally pretty good about processes. What we were lacking was the ownership piece. We talked to the chiefs who would be comparable to senior managers in a business. This was the very first thing that I did. I said, "Hey, you guys want to run the ship?" "Yes, we do," they said. "Do you really?" You know, "You're going to be responsible. There's a responsibility that goes with running the ship." "Gulp, "I guess so." Then we jumped to it.

Here's an example: there was a list of things where the Captain or the duty officer would say, "We're going to do the following 17 evolutions tomorrow," and the Captain would authorize it. Or he would say, "Call me," or "You have permission to do it." On the Santa Fe, we added a column that listed who the chief-in-charge was. For every evolution, there was a chief who was the owner, and it was his job to ensure that it happened right. These were evolutions like pumping the sanitary tank, bringing fresh water, etc.

Bill: You're bringing back many memories from when I served on the USS Pintado!

David: Yes, I hope good memories! Well, we didn't specify what it meant to be the chief-in-charge. When I got the chiefs together, the only thing I said was, "Look, your job is to make sure it happens right."

If that means you can sit in the chief's quarters, or you're drinking your cup of coffee, and it goes right, fine. But, you know what? If it doesn't go right, then it's going to be you and me in the stateroom, and you'll be explaining. You have to assess the complexity of the evolution, how many times we've done it, and who's out there doing it.

Now, no matter what's happening on the ship, I could walk around the boat and see some guys doing something. I can always go back and say, "Well, who's in charge?"

Another thing about ownership is you push the ownership as far down as possible. There's this idea in the military that we're going to brief all things. I don't remember if we talked about this before, but it hit me one day. We were going to submerge the shipβ€”and this might bring back some scar tissue, too.

We will submerge the ship, so we'll brief the submerging. The Diving Officer starts briefing the procedure, "On the second blast of the diving alarm, the helmsman shall push full dive on the bowplanes," and blah, blah. He's reading the book, and everyone's falling asleep and no one's paying attention. We do it, and of course, there are mistakes. So how could this be? How could there be mistakes? The sailor says, "You know, Captain, no one listens to those briefs. I'm just sitting here waiting to get started."

And so I said, "Okay, we're going to stop doing these briefs. We're going to do certifications where we're going to ask questions, and you guys will tell us what you do. It's going to be bottom up because brief is brief. We are briefed. It's passive for everyone in the brief other than the briefer, who briefs."

The following week we went to sea and asked, "Okay, helmsman, what do you do?" "I don't know." I said, "Well, how could this be?" He said, "Well, I didn't know we were going to dive on my watch." So what I discovered was it places a bigger burden on management. If you're just going to tell people what to do, they just show up and do this. That's what briefs do. Show up, do it, and be told what to do. There's no advanced thinking required. There's no pre-thinking required, is a better way to say it.

Bill: Right, right.

David: I'm going to show up, and they'll tell me what to do. But now, I couldn't expect the crew to be prepared for their watch if we, the management, didn't tell them what. So not only do I have to tell them what the submarine was doing, "We will be submerging." But, "You will be the helmsman. You will be the Reactor Operator on the reactor startup." I can now hold them accountable. They started studying. You'd walk around the ship, and guys would be studying on their own. It was shocking.

Bill: You took ownership of ensuring they understood their role.

David: Yes, I was. That's true. That's not how I thought of it, but that is a good way to think of it. I wish I'd been thinking of it like that, but I was just mentioning it because I was giving them ownership of their responsibility for making the event happen. For me, my ownership was getting 135 people thinking critically instead of one guy thinking and 134 doing what they're told.

Bill: David, I really like the way you think of this too. You made sure they understood and created the conditions and environment that would allow it to occur naturally. One idea that intrigued me was using the language of "I intend to." Can you talk about what that was and how that worked?

David: The "I intend to" mechanism was where the officers would say, "Captain, I intend to submerge the ship." But that just scratches the surface of its power of it. You can sense there's some psychological ownership, but what happened is that an officer would say, "Well, I intend to submerge the ship." Then I would ask, "Well, what am I thinking right now?" Then they'd say, "You're probably wondering if it's safe." I'd respond, "Yes, bingo. How do I know it's safe?" They'd tell me, "Well, all men are below. The ship's ready to dive into the water we own. Check the soundings 200 fathoms."

Next, I said, "Very well." It was those conversations that happened that were very useful because the guys were thinking. It forced them to think at the next, higher. The officer of the deck had to think like the Captain. The junior officers had to think like department heads and so on down the chain. That was very powerful.

Bill: Yes, when I read that, it seemed like such a subtle change, but you can't really quite grasp how that would have such an impact. Can you tell us what it was like and how it occurred?

David: Here's what happened. When we first decided to do this, we went to the attack center, a land-based trainer. I said, "Okay, at this Attack Center, I am giving no orders. You guys have to tell me what you want to do," and we literally drove in a straight line for two hours. I can't tell you how often I wanted to say, "Okay. Enough. I've had enough pain, turn – we've got to attack the enemy." We're driving off into left field.

But I kept my mouth shut, and finally, they stepped up. These guys just didn't believe me.

They said, "Well, he's just saying that. He might still be really telling us what to do." I mean, it was so tense. Finally they started stepping up. When they did, they realized it was great.

Bill: I can remember moments like that aboard the Pintado. I remember being in the reactor control room during a drill; the admiral and the Captain were there. Everybody is afraid to do or say anything.

David: Yes, that's another huge problem. I talk about that in terms of we don't teach people how to talk, is what I realized.

Bill: Interesting insight. Can you give us an example of what you mean by that?

David: We teach them to say what's in the manual. We teach them to say for example, "Reactor operator, shift reactor coolant pumps to fast," But we don't teach them to talk about uncertainty and probability. We're running a drill, and it's a steam leak, for example. Everyone knows there's a drill because they see the drill monitors. But no one says anything. No one says, "Hey, you guys hear that?" If it were real, someone would say, "Hey, you guys hear something? Check your indications. What's happening?"

There's no discussion like that taking place. We don't teach people how to say how they feel or what the next thing could be or in terms of probability. There's no room for ambiguity in our language. Because there's no room for ambiguity, there's no room to say, "You know, I could be wrong." We don't open the pipelines for communications.

But since it's all got to be official navy communications, from the Interior Communications Manual, it's a burst of orders, five minutes of silence, burst, five minutes of silence. One of the things we did was quote, or I called it, thinking out loud.

Bill: Yes, that's a great technique.

David: Consider this. I'm standing on the bridge, and we're coming up to a turn. I don't know whether the Officer of the Deck who is giving the orders driving the submarine will turn. I don't know what he's thinking, so as soon as we miss the turn, I have to tell him, "Turn now." But if he's saying, "I think we're going to come up to the turn. I'm planning on ordering the turn in 30 seconds. Navigator's just marked it. I need five more seconds," then I could spot him five seconds. But if he's not saying that, he loses control of his job.

Bill: Exactly, this person is no longer functioning as a leader. He's broken the leader-leader model. Since you are ultimately responsible, you are forced to return to the top-down leadership model. This is a great mechanism that keeps a leader-leader model functioning and intact. One thing that has really struck me from reading your book is the vast array and the innovative number of approaches that you immediately begin to implement, learn from and adapt one after the other as soon as you step aboard and take command of the Santa Fe. Where did that come from? What had the most influence on you that gave you the ability to do that? How can others achieve this in their leadership style?

David: I wanted to make sure the reader walked away understanding what exactly it was that we did. All those ideas came from the troops or something I'd seen before. I would ask them, "Hey guys, we need a mechanism to accomplish XYZ." Then we'd brainstorm one up. We'd try it. If it didn't work, we'd move on without remorse. The book captures some of that, but success still seems too pre-ordained.

Bill: Your book is about creating leadership at every level to ignite the passion, intellect, and energy of everyone. I love that idea and totally resonate with it. However, your approach aboard the Santa Fe started from the top down. But it's also fascinating that, in time you found yourself being mentored by others aboard the ship because of the leader-leader paradigm. But what if someone is not in an organization with enlightened leadership at the top? What can they do to help ignite a leader-leader approach right where they are?

David: I don't believe you can implement a bottom-up empowered culture in a top-down way. You can remove the barriers that will allow humans' natural proactivity and power to come forth. We ended up starting with the chiefs in the middle. The "leader" needs to be on board because they are the ones giving up power. You can't take control from someone who doesn't want to give it up. It's tough from the middle, but you could try this:

After your boss makes a decision, and you support it, ask them what it would take for them to let you make those kinds of decisions. Start small. Listen carefully to the answer and start removing barriers. Or, start with this, simply make sure you are a part of the decision-making calculus for your boss. You want them to start by thinking, "Gee, I can't make this decision without talking to you."

Bill: Empowerment is a popular idea these days and seems to be something everyone wants to achieve, but few seem to be able actually to bring it about. You talk about going beyond empowerment and achieving emancipation. What does emancipation mean to you and how is it different from empowerment?

David: In other words, I didn't empower anyone. If it takes me to empower you, you have no power. But you DO have power. What I do is give you the decision-making authority that allows you to act on your natural power. If you want to have fun, take an article about empowerment and replace all empowerment with "give life to." It's that ludicrous.

Also, empowerment programs exist within a top-down structure. It's "do what you're told" with an asterisk. Emancipation means just that: freeing people to act on their innate power and creativity.

Bill: One fascinating common notion I noted in reading your book is the power of words. From day one, you seemed to be tuned into seemingly insignificant changes in words that dramatically changed how people were thinking and interacting with each other. Can you talk a bit about that and give us some ideas on how we all might want to implement changes like this in our everyday behavior?

David: Yes. Act first. The thinking will not convince people to change their thinking and hope their actions change. Have you been subjected to speeches urging you to be more collaborative? More innovative? More whatever? Those were substitutes for the hard work of figuring out the mechanisms actually to make those things happen.

Bill: Stephen Covey said after visiting your submarine, the Santa Fe, that it was the most empowered environment he had ever seen or experienced. In my book, that is an incredible statement and one that should grab the immediate attention of any leader striving to lead his organization to a better ideal state or excellence. I'd like to take you back to the Santa Fe. What did it feel like to live and work in an environment like that?

David: As the Captain, I was in this place where I just basically walked around with a headset. Even when we were in battle stations, we were launching missiles, and I had a headset. I would walk around the ship and hear what everyone was doing. I could talk if I wanted to, but I rarely did. I'd walk down to the torpedo room and see how things were going. I'd go back to the communications and radio room and see what things were going on there. I'd go up in the control room, walk back down; I'd walk back to the nukes and see how they were doing.

I tell people there's no movie that I can point you to because the movie camera needs a focus. They need a place to put the camera, so it's like the movie Master and Commander, where the camera follows Russell Crowe. If the camera followed me, it would have been boring and confusing because you would have seen me walking around with a headset on and barely saying anything because decisions were happening all over the submarine. It's a very distributed environment. There's no movie for this. There are a hundred movies where I can show you the other kind of leadership. There are no movies, zero movies, where I can show you what it was like.

Bill: I got a picture of what it must have been like when you discussed the Seal team recovery in your book. It seemed to me it would have been almost surreal with all these people and groups fully engaged. They're thinking, they're planning, and they're taking ownership. It's all happening all about you.

David: Yes, it was just incredible.

Bill: I don't think we can adequately cover the Seal Team Recovery experience in this interview, so I'm going to recommend to readers read your book to get a glimpse of what a fully engaged and empowered organization looked and felt like. I think they will learn a lot from it. My perspective is that I don't think there's any reason why every organization shouldn't function like that.

This has been an excellent interview, David. I'm really looking forward to publishing it along with Tweets of many of the highlights I made while reading your book, Turn the Ship Around. Thank you again.

About David Marquet

Former submarine commander David Marquet breaks with the old school of thinking that humanity has carried since the advent of farming; that there are leaders and followers. According to that model, large portions of humanity are relegated to following. This saps energy, initiative, and curiosity β€” our most valuable contributions. This is no longer the most effective model for human interaction.

As work becomes more cognitive and less physical, our leadership ideas need to evolve. David Marquet champions the collaboration of equals. He works to move organizations into the new evolutionary model. This model increases effectiveness AND fosters additional leaders within the organization. With more and, more leaders, effectiveness increases exponentially over time.