May Day Memo 2015: Ch. #3

May Day Memo 2015: Ch. #3

Maxwell Ryan
May 17, 2015
(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Coincidentally, many of the ideas in Marquet's book stem from the work of W. Edwards Deming (1900-93) who discovered that when women took over US factories during World War II, output improved in every way due to increased communication in both directions along munitions assembly lines. Deming found no audience in the US after the war and brought all of his ideas to Japan, where they were eagerly received and put to good use.

Ch. #3 - The Leader/Leader Organization Idea: The Secret Sauce

One of the dangers of what I wrote at the end of the last chapter is that the idea of excellence I landed on comes from me. Technically speaking, that could already a mistake under David Marquet's Leader/Leader approach, because while the captain needs to tell the crew where they are going, the crew needs to all own the how. That said, aiming for excellence is a pretty safe bet.

But what does that mean? What is this Leader/Leader approach?

The central insight in TTSA (Turn The Ship Around) is the concept of the Leader/Leader approach. It is in direct opposition to a more traditional Leader/Follower approach, and it means that every person on every level in every department has the freedom and the responsibility to lead their work.

In a Leader/Follower organization, the Traditional Boss tells the Middle Management what to do and Middle Management tells the Department Employees what to do, on and on down the line. The Traditional Boss therefore owns most of the responsibility and freedom and everyone else follows orders. This can work well if the Traditional Boss is very, very good and hard working and keeping on top of everything 24/7. But there are three big problems with this structure:

One is that if the Traditional Boss is not excellent, the organization will fall apart or stumble on, producing work that is of low quality and uninspiring.

Two is that it can be very hard for the organization to shift and move quickly in response to a changing competitive environment since the Traditional Boss is tasked with nearly all decisions and those further down who may be seeing things more clearly don't have a way to shift their work or communicate quickly to the Boss.

Three is that should an excellent Traditional Boss get hit by a bus or leave the company, the company will have, in a sense, lost its brain and won't be able to function at that level again. Without developing its own inner leadership capacity, the company will always need an exceptional Traditional Boss in order to function well.

A Leader/Leader organization may look similar in terms of Org Chart and structure, but underneath the surface things are very different. In Leader/Leader decision and idea generation comes from the ground up as much as possible. At every level decision making is delegated downward as far as it can go, so that each level own and decides what is the BEST thing to do within the realm of their own work. Whenever a problem pops up or something needs to be done that requires approval, a fully thought through case is made to the next level up so that - if all is on target - the next level needs only to ask questions and give their approval for the action to move forward.

Instead of an order going "down," each member of the organization would place an order "up." Instead of asking for permission or bringing a problem, every person in the organization is tasked with deciding on what they think is the best thing to do and going to their manager with the words, "I intend to...". While approval for the action is required to move on, the small shift in words is a big shift in leadership.

From Ch. 11 - "I Intend To..."

The key to your team becoming more proactive rests in the language subordinates and superiors use. Here is a short list of "dis-empowered phrases" that passive followers use:

  • Request permission to...
  • I would like to...
  • What should I do about...
  • Do you think we should...
  • Could we...

Here is a short list of "empowered phrases" that active doers use:

  • I intend to...
  • I plan on...
  • I will...
  • We will...

Frequently, I wouldn't just say, "Very well." There would be too many unanswered questions about the safety and appropriateness of the proposed event, so I found myself asking a bunch of questions.

One day I caught myself, and instead of asking the questions I had in mind, I asked the OOD what he thought I was thinking about his "I intend to submerge."

"Well Captain, I think you are wondering if it's safe and appropriate to submerge."

"Correct. So why don't you just tell me whay you think it is safe and appropriate to submerge. All I'd need to say is "very well.'"

Thereafter the goal for the officers would be to give me a sufficiently complete report so that all I had to say was a simple approval. Initially, they would provide some information, but not all. Most of the time, however, they had the answers; they just hadn't vocalized them. Eventually, the officers outlined their complete thought process and rationale for what they were about to do.

The benefit from this simple extension was that it caused them to think at the next higher level. The OODs needed to think like the captain, and so on down the chain of command. In effect, by articulating their intentions, the officers and crew were acting their way into the next higher level of command....

... Eventually we turned everything upside down. Instead of one captain giving orders to 134 men, we would have 135 independent, energetic, emotionally committed and engaged men thinking about what we needed to do and ways to do it right.

Now all of this may or may not be exciting to you and theories about management or how we organize ourselves may not be your cup of tea, so let me explain why I think this is important for us right now.

First of all, over the past ten years I have watched Apartment Therapy Media grow from one person to nearly forty, with most of that growth coming in the past three years. We write, photograph and post in a much more sophisticated way. We sell far more advertising in far more ways than ever before. We build, maintain and monitor much bigger technical systems than we've ever had before. We all work hard and yet there is much more to do both from the standpoint of what the sites want to become in order to grow and improve, and in order to keep up with the competition.

In short there is A LOT still to do, and it's going to take working more intelligently at a higher volume on top of a foundation that can accommodate many more people. And I don't want anyone to be burned out. We cannot reach these higher goals in our current state. This tune up and borrowing from Marquet's TTSA is meant to help us reevaluate all of our systems so that we can be absolutely sure they are working well for us.

In addition, I believe that in our fast moving and competitive environment adapting to a Leader/Leader model will give us the deep organizational energy and intelligence necessary to stay ahead of the game. I know for a fact that I can't do this alone, nor can I with Chris, Janel, Faith and Scott.

Many of the entrepreneurial organizations I have known closely have ceased to exist once the company was sold and the leader left the building or had his or her role undermined. Another few have tanked under the weight of a leader who placed big bets and lost the ship.

AT Media has been tremendously successful - "punching way above its weight" as some have said - but it has an even bigger opportunity ahead of it that will require a whole new level of thought and action. I intend to get there, to beef ourselves up to do it, and I believe that this novel structure will be part of the secret sauce that allows it happen. It is not that easy, it is not that obvious, and it will provide us with the kind of inner cultural system to match our outward systems that will allow us to outwit, outmatch and overcome whatever is thrown at us.

This tune up is therefore, in a very real way, an invitation to join the next phase.

To be continued...

Next: The Decision Tree.

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