captain david marquet

Push Decision Making Down

Captain David Marquet of the USS Santa Fe turned his ship from worst to first by pushing decision making – and with it, commitment, innovation, passion – down the org chart.

As I’ve written about before, the default position of most in charge is “no.” There’s precious little upside to saying yes, especially if you’re not completely versed in the scenario or stakes. And who has time to get versed in the scenario? So, the response is silence; static at the other end of the line. “No” wins the game by default.

In this video, Captain Marquet discusses how he went from a “permission-based” system to an “intentions-based” one and the results that came with it.

The captain decided to reverse the polarity of the decision-making. In a conventional organization, the top gathers data from the people closest to the product/service, mull it over, and then dictates back what is to happen next. They are always reactive, and usually reacting later than needed to be of much use. Most of the time management didn’t know a problem existed until it had already been solved by the front lines, or at least a patch had been created that allowed the mission to continue.

I watched my former mentor, Nathan Collier, wrestle with this first hand. He lamented early in my career that as we continued to grow as an organization we’d face new challenges in communication and decision making. How could we react swiftly and competently if we decision-makers in the organization couldn’t or wouldn’t make timely decisions? The first time I heard this was in 2004 and it became a theme that ran for years and haunted most conversations with general managers and up. Few had good answers.

In one moment of quiet introspection with 35 or more stuffed into a conference room someone slammed the table and shouted “Get ‘er done!” The room was silent for all of twenty seconds before this interruption and that was enough to kill the mood. They didn’t get it – this wasn’t something to be muscled through.

What got you here won’t get you there.

Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful

Nathan liked that quote and I understood why he’d employ it week after week. The acumen and systems that built the backbone of a local company were all but useless for managing a decentralized company that would span cities and states. He found Captain Marquet’s book inspirational and the era of “I intend to” (or “IIT”) was launched around 2008.

Now, all a GM needed was to send an email to their Regional Manager with IIT in the subject line and their proposed course of action. They’d flesh out their reasoning in the body, but that was it. If not responded to 48 hours later they were free to proceed.

And then it ended as quickly as it began.

There were 4-5 Regional Managers inundated with “IIT” emails from 25-30 GMs declaring their intent to do everything from approve capital repairs to changing marketing campaigns. Regionals had 48 hours to respond with a reason not to do whatever that thing was or the GM was free to carry it out. Regionals couldn’t keep up as a backlog of delayed projects suddenly sprang back to life. Someone had to pull the plug and a massive financial crisis was the hard yank needed.

I think the problem was due to two issues:

  1. There was such a backlog of things that were ignored/delayed that it was too much all at once. Especially for too few people to vet in any meaningful way. People that were still responsible for the outcomes of these decisions.
  2. The GMs were young. The vast majority of us were under 30 and experience was in short supply. One of the perks about the early days of working for the Collier Companies was that one could gain a ton of experience very early in one’s career. It wasn’t uncommon for PT leasing agents to become a GM within 12 months if they were bright and motivated. What they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm and energy. That lack of experience fell on the Regional Managers who were very experienced, most having worked in the industry for at least ten years at that point. Put simply, the system was unbalanced.

I write all this now as our new venture has me pondering the right approach to leadership, culture, and how we want to build our new enterprise for success. What got me here won’t get me there. I can’t be the guy in the room solving problems. I can’t take every phone call, create the daily agenda, or decide what’s best for every moving piece of what I’m sure will become a sprawling empire in the coming years.

As we hire our first GM, how do we build a culture that will keep decision-making close to those affected by the decisions? What areas do we focus on controlling and what do we encourage the site staff to innovate and create? 

I have some ideas and I’m realizing that not knowing is pretty exciting. I’m ready to be surprised by what we find and what we decide to do as an organization going forward.