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Turn your Digital Transformation Around

I’m currently reading David Marquet’s book Turn that ship Around, and, as you know, I’m always looking to relate the lessons I learn back to the world of digital transformation.


So what has the USS Sante Fe, a Los Angeles class fast attack nuclear-powered submarine, got to do with digital transformation?



In short, it’s all about leadership and the way a revolutionary leadership model transformed the worst performing submarine in the Navy’s fleet into the top performer. Now I don’t use the word revolutionary lightly, the Navy is pretty inflexible when it comes to its command and control leadership model. But, let’s be honest, we all know a few businesses that are like that - because they pretty much all are. However, it often takes a desperate situation, like being the worst ship in the fleet, to be given the license to try something revolutionary. And then I thought about it, Mckinsey have found the success rate of digital transformations to be less than 30%. That means at least 70% of you surely have similar license to try something revolutionary?


There are a few exceptions, but the vast majority of businesses are run on the traditional leader-follower model. But can we truly say that works well in a technology setting? The statistics tell us no. And it’s no coincidence that more and more tech houses are moving to an agile way of working. That’s what Agile is all about - removing the roadblocks blocking productivity, engagement of people and, ultimately, innovation. Your leadership model, and this alone in my opinion, is the direct root cause behind that alarmingly low digital transformation success rate.


So what’s Marquet’s theory?


If you asked most leaders to describe their job they would answer with the likes of guide, motivate, observe, supervise, direct. But these are all words rooted in the leader-follower model.


What happens when you take that motivator, guide or supervisor away? It all comes crumbling down. But does that make you a good leader? According to the US Navy it does, in fact, it was unofficially a measure of a leader’s quality if their ship drastically started underperforming after they left their post. Is that really great leadership?


So what’s the point of the leader-leader model?


The truth is, human beings are intrinsically empowered. External empowerment is actually just manipulation. If you work twice as hard just because your boss is looking over your shoulder, that’s not motivation, that’s fear. And as soon as that fear steps away, the whole system comes crumbling down.


Leaders often talk of empowerment. That is ultimately the fundamental element of the leader-leader model. A leader is there to empower and facilitate. To remove roadblocks so that you can operate at your peak, particularly when they are NOT looking over your shoulder. When they’re not there to hold your hand - just like in an emergency on a submarine.


So what is your current perception of leadership?


If you’re happy with the leader-follower model and you believe that it works for you, feel free to stop reading. If not, let’s break down the leader-leader model a little further.


Marquet breaks down his leader-leader model into 3 key categories: Control, Competence & Clarity.


Let’s start with control.


A fundamental component of leadership you might agree.


So, how are you exerting control?


A good test: Are you asking questions to make sure they know or you know?


In other words: Be curious, not questioning. You hire experts to do what they do best. Trust them to do it well, if they feel undermined during a simple conversation, how are they going to feel when the going gets tough?


To help with this, short, early conversations establish control. Not control for you as the all-knowing dictator, but for your team so that they get early and constructive feedback that builds confidence in their own abilities.


Similarly, starting statements with “I intend to..” rather than asking a question is incredibly empowering. Even more so if you task the person to make the statement in such a way that all the ‘leader’ has to answer is “very well”. That way they start thinking like the next leadership layer ‘above them’. This way the day to day running of your organisation becomes your leadership development program. You’re creating active leaders not passive followers.


Next up is competence.



The narrative shouldn’t focus on avoiding mistakes but on achieving excellence. Mistakes are inevitable. By aiming for excellence we are going to reduce the number of mistakes we make by definition, but it also makes us strive for more than that. We’re challenging the very fabric of the system around us to see if we can improve it rather than just falling into the system that existed before us.

By simply focusing on avoiding mistakes people become action-averse because actions lead to mistakes. In other words, error reduction sterilises initiative and risk-taking. Not characteristics of successful digital transformation.


The question to ask yourself is: Do you focus more time on correcting mistakes or celebrating successes?

A good test, when you ask people to describe their job, do they answer in terms of reducing mistakes?


Lastly, clarity.



I won’t labour this point too much because I’ve written plenty of other articles that are specifically dedicated to the topic of purpose. But, in effect, clarity is all about purpose.


Is there a call to action? A motivation for change? Are people too comfortable/complacent? In the face of this, does your leadership take control or give it?


In order to have clarity of action we need to have a common purpose that we’re all working towards. To use the same question again, when you ask people to describe their job, do they all give a similar answer? And is that answer a shared purpose that everyone is tapping into? If not, then you don’t have clarity. Pure and simple.


Many organisations talk in terms of values, but do your actions clearly reflect those values. How many companies talk about ‘celebrating their people’? But at the same time it takes months for pay rises to be processed, or there are policies only allowing a pay rise every 12 months. If you really celebrate your people, act and act now.


So, if you want to turn your digital transformation around follow 3 simple steps. Give control back to your people, empower them. Encourage excellence not perfection. And operate with clarity of purpose. Simple.

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