Turn the Ship Around: Agile Lessons from a Submarine Captain

I was not expecting a book about working on a Navy submarine to provide insights I could use to help a team be more agile. Having heard recommendations for Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet from both a colleague at work and people in the agile community who I respect, I decided to give the book a look anyway. I’m glad that I did.

I thought that this was be a quick, enjoyable read with many lessons I could quickly employ at work. The chapters are all short and focused, and the author repeats the key themes often enough that they stick. Each chapter is centered around a story, so it’s easy to see that the lessons in the book are based on experience and not just theory. My focus is on working with agile teams, so I found that the lessons applied to that context. Even if you are not doing “Agile, this book highlights the value of an agile, adpative, self-organizing approach can have in any organization, regardless of the overall process.

The book is easy to read, with one key point per chapter, and with chapters being short enough that one could almost always find time to read a complete chapter (and thus gather a coherent lesson). This wasn’t a perfect book. Certain aspects about the writing style I found a bit jarring. While some repetition of key points is helpful, there is a bit too much of it at times. And I found the author’s use of ALL CAPS as a mechanism for emphasis to be a bit jarring. Over these stylistics decisions don’t take away from the value of the book; they just made the reading experience less than ideal. But it’s not hard to get past that, and the engaging stories that the book uses to set the stage for its lessons keep you reading.

The ideas in the book should be familiar to anyone who has spent time studying agile teams. That the author talks about how bottom up, distributed decision making (an aspect of what the author calls a leader-leader approach) can lead to a more effective operation than the traditional (to the Navy) , top-down leader-follower approach that many military and other organizations follow. Processes and checklists have as place to simplify decision making, but only in the context of rational though about your goals. Command and Control has a place, in particular in a military organization, but a more limited one than you might think. Even in critical situations a leader-leader model, where people are applying their training to do what works, rather than working by the book, or blindly following authority, can solve the problem better.

What I particularly found compelling was that this book is full of stories of how a more botton-up, empowering model of leadership can be a better way to work. That this can be true even on a submarine – an environment that is both literally and figuratively high-pressure – , should be an excellent counter to those who argue that we can’t do (agile, self-organizing teams, etc) in my organization. An agile approach is not the best solution for all problems, but agile techiques are more widely applicable than many think.

This work does not exist in a vacuum. The author frequently cites Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the writer of the forward to the book, and also provides some pointers to other resources. Whether you are a manager, scrum master, or just someone involved on a team (agile or not) that doesn’t seem to be working well, reading this book will be a quick and enjoyable path towards finding help in identifying things that might be getting in the way to effectiveness, and also give you a sense of optimism that things can get better with the right approach.