Chapter Two: Turn The Ship Around & In Defense of Excellence
...It had a cool cover, but, again, I was wary of being hit over the head by another management book that would, like a weight loss book, inspire then tense my brow and ultimately make me feel worse about what to do next.
But I liked the story.
From the get go, I was interested first in life on a submarine, then in his pursuit of trying to manage differently, especially when it failed on him. I was also interested in how he could possibly attempt to shift a culture as traditional and top-down dominated as the Navy. His ideas seemed sound, but it really seemed like a foolhardy mission. I liked that he only had a certain amount of time to get it all done.
But having been a teacher, I was especially skeptical of how he would relinquish authority and still provide leadership and clear boundaries so that all the work would get done. I was skeptical that he would be respected in the long run if he stepped back so far and let, in a sense, the ship run itself.
I was intrigued.
The magic moments came first when Marquet, being thrown into command of his new ship, the USS Santa Fe, with very little time to study up on it, decided to poke around the ship and ask his crew how everything worked. I liked that. It was genuine, he was willing to admit he knew less than them and it made them responsible for knowing the answer.
Then he went below to speak to the Chiefs about some complicated ticketing process (that I still don't understand) and asked them if they knew a better way of getting it done. The energy and intelligence when opening this question up to them was palpable on the page, and I began to see immediately that the only way to really figure out knotty problems is to start - as he says - from the bottom up. The Chiefs knew how to fix the system better than anyone, and their solution was the beginning of many instances of improvements that came from the crew and reshaped the way the entire submarine was run.
I was then hooked and inspired. This story resonated deeply with me and reminded me of something I had nearly forgotten, which was that my whole inspiration for going into business was to work with others to solve problems and provide new solutions in collaborative way - with all brains turned on at the same time. I have never "phoned it in" with a job in my entire life and still to this day don't understand how anyone could and be happy. If I'm not fully engaged and not working with fully engaged people I get uncomfortable.
And I know that I could never do everything by myself, and if I ever could - even for a moment - it wouldn't be as good as the skill of a well oiled group.
I don't know where this came from, but I would have to give some credit to my high school and college education where every class was held in a seminar style circle and everyone was required to prepare, speak up and lead, not follow.
I always assumed that everyone is as smart as I am and that I have as much to learn from someone else I'm working with as they do from me. Perhaps our experience differs, but that's all. My teachers were really just more experienced, I always felt, not necessarily smarter. I always assume that the only way to get everyone over the wall (remember that outdoor group challenge?) is to put your heads together and everyone lend a hand.
But running a company is not that easy and everyone is NOT on the same level, nor do they have the same experience, pay grade or position. Which is exactly the same, if not more dramatic, on a nuclear submarine, so what was going on here?
Marquet's book deeply inspired me by describing how a crew of people could all work at their own different tasks, at different levels, different pay grades and yet all be in charge of their own work and therefore their destiny, which is ultimately a tremendous achievement and a rare gift to find in one's work. It also described how this process didn't breed narcissism, judgement of others and independence from the group, but the opposite - the crew came to identify as a proud group and as the ones responsible for the USS Sante Fe in a way they had never done before.
This was the kicker for me, since I've heard of empowerment before, but never such a clear example of how groups come to feel proud of the company they keep and work for, outside of the typical "I work for the big and powerful company that is growing faster than yours and makes more money" type of thing.
While the book is brilliantly written and notable for how little he says as well as how much (the chapters are incredibly short), a number of things were clear to me that I thought would work perfectly in our situation as we navigate complicated waters in an increasingly bigger ship.
The book's viewpoint made it clear to me that if you're not working towards total excellence there's just no point in working at all. Why aim for anything less?
This was at first a problem for me as I have a very difficult history with the word "excellence" as it reminds me of blue ribbons, gold trophies and other meaningless material rewards that my elementary school awarded for "excellence" and which I never got. It has been an abstract and empty word for me on a par with blind flag waving, reactionary patriotism and perfect attendance. It also has always smacked of exclusivity in a big way. In other words, if one person in a class gets the award, they are excellent and no one else is. This never sat right with me, so when Marquet brought up the concept of only striving for excellent work, my skin began to itch.
He made me see it totally differently after a few chapters, however. In the real world, excellence is always a personal goal and a group victory. We all can strive for excellence in our own work and win it while the collective outcome of everyone doing this translates into a far greater version of excellence which everyone can become even more proud of. When everyone is striving to do their very best and the team wins the game, the whole being of the team achieves excellence in a way that no one person ever can.
I don't think this is how excellence was treated in my elementary school or in most schools for that matter.
There's a wonderful Rudolf Steiner verse that is very similar to this:
A healthy social life is found only, when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living.
I am now not only comfortable with the concept of excellence, but I am inspired by it. I want to run a little faster and jump a little higher, and I want to do that with others who want to as well. I know it is possible. I know that if the whole group wants to do it, amazing things can be achieved.
I am also far more comfortable saying "Let's do excellent work at Apartment Therapy Media!" than I am "Let's be the number #1 shelter and food websites in the world!" because the first one is a verb, it is active and it comes from within and the second one is a destination and parking spot and an outward measure of success that really means very little when you look at it closely.
The second says nothing about who you are, how you work or how you got there. The first is a true achievement and it may take you in any direction and slap any ranking on you without your caring. You are on your way to going beyond rankings.
So, for those of you who want clarity of what this company's about, here's a big one:
We intend to strive for excellence in our work. We will never stop learning and improving on what we do so that we grow wiser and do a better job each and every day.
And this doesn't mean that we don't make mistakes at times or that we don't discover that something we thought was excellent isn't and needs retuning. It simply means that we strive for it, and that we banish the idea of "good enough."
If we see or know that something can be better, we intend to work on it, and the group commits itself to improving it until we're satisfied that it is excellent relative to where it started.
To be continued...
Next "The Secret Sauce"