He’d been asked to not only polish the turd that was the USS Benfold but cover it in glitter.
It was the US Navy’s best equipped ship with the worst performing crew.
Within a few months, he got the tanker (OK warship) to turn. In record time, he moved them from Top Flops to Top Gun.
The pace at which he completed this wasn’t down to a tight deadline or an edict from above. It was a ruthless focus on clarity. And, once clarity was achieved, speed of change quickly followed.
I was at a Contagious talk last week. They’d spoken to their key network of top marketers, agency heads, academics and industry experts. Their biggest challenge for 2019 was, guess what? Speed.
Speed to market, speed of decision making, speed of change, speed of competition.
And, I talk to lots of business leaders who tell me the same thing. Speed is the competitive advantage yet we just can’t inject enough of it into our business.
The problem gets pushed around like a bowl of creamed carrots on Christmas Day. Everyone politely declines because there’s enough on their plate already.
The irony is, from my experience, speed is a wonderful bi-product of shifting things off the plate and allowing more to be done with less intervention. Yet, quite often, this is counter intuitive. Let me explain.
Abrashoff kicked off this remarkable change with his ‘This is your ship’ initiative - a way of working that produced clarity on decision making and empowerment which in turn led to speed of change. By personally asking everyone on board what’s the one thing you’d do to improve the efficiency on the ship, he unblocked previously beurocratic systems of decision making.
Unblocking your current thinking around clarity of decision making is the key to unlocking speed. And there are 3 simple steps you can take.
Honest straw poll - if you were to ask everyone the direction of travel right now and what their role is in delivering it, could your team tell you? 100%
So often, the clarity of focus lies with the key leaders of the business and by the time it reaches the frontline it’s at best confused, at worst non-existent. Not only that, people’s understanding of what’s expected of them is often delivered 3rd hand through their boss’s KPIs.
One of the most underused yet potent tools in a leader’s armory is ‘intent’. A clear statement of what you’re all aiming for and what that means for the individual is incredibly powerful. In stating that ‘This is your ship’, Abrashoff is empowering the crew to make decisions for the good of everyone. Not only that, it’s clear that you need to take ownership. It’s not someone else’s ship, this is YOUR ship.
Once you do that, you encourage another wonderful behavior - alignment.
You know that moment when you say ‘I want to buy a red car’ and every other car you see on the road is a red one?
If you state intent, then people will adjust their behaviour to create what it is that you desire to see. And, you’ll see more of it. Boom!
Giving people clarity on FOCUS is the start of generating speed in your business. It empowers them to understand what good looks like and creates alignment.
I come to work to fuck everything up. Said. No-one. Ever
People will always try their best (unless your recruitment strategy is pants). However, they’re often frustrated or constrained by meaningless processes that only add friction and create resentment.
The weekly status meeting, the constant stakeholder sign offs, the management system where there’s 1 person responsible and 16 people to input...you know that one?
Why hold back progress? Why slow things down? What are you scared of?
OK, I admit, it can be hard to let go, but just for the record, there’s a large dose of ego at play here. I felt it myself in my last role. I’d go round my teams in the morning and, ego firmly in ‘add value’ mode, I’d ask if people needed my help.
Ego - MASSIVE deflation. What do you mean? Surely you need me to sign something off or help or...(moment of realization) actually s l o w d o w n the momentum.
Part of me died. But, at the same time, it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Suddenly, because my team were clear on the intent and aligned they were cracking on with the work. We created a clear ‘Freedom Framework’ that allowed them to get on with what they’d been hired to do. And they did a spectacular job. In the process, it freed me up to ensure there was even more clarity in other parts of the business. And, in less than 12 months, that team exceeded sales targets and grew the bottom line. Boom!
So, ego aside, creating Freedom Frameworks is your next challenge. What can you remove from your existing processes, what friction can you lube that unblocks slow, laborious decision making and frees your team to make the magic happen? In other words, give focus through intent, create alignment and move the hell out of the way, clearing a path as you do so.
Your favourite team are 2-0 at half time in the biggest cup final of their lives. You look to the manager, 60,000 incredulous eyes imploring them with heartfelt pleas -
Full time. It's 4-0.
The journalists ask the manager -
The manager turns round and says
Of course, I exaggerate to make the point, yet I am constantly (and unpleasantly) surprised when I speak with businesses who operate on this principle.
‘Feedback’ is bad. Praise is limited. Appraisals are delivered once a year by a time poor manager in the pub...
“They tell me I did great for 10 minutes and then spend the next 45 telling me what I need to do better.”
And they call them performance reviews.
Feedback is critical for clarity, course correction and speed. And, classifying it as either good or bad is counter productive.
I’m insistent on talking about effective feedback. Conversations that are timely, objective and precise about the thing in hand in order that all parties can keep improving by making course corrections to their performance. This is 2-way; up and down. After all, everyone is lined up behind the intent.
Doing this after every meaningful event means that clarity remains intact. I coach a specific formula for these conversations to enable people to openly talk about how to make things better without the unhelpful badges of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ - it’s all about effectiveness.
By the way, this isn’t micro-management. It has to be rooted in observed behaviors and isn’t designed to slow anything down. It’s a conversation aimed at maintaining clarity, intent and alignment which ultimately delivers speed.
The need for speed is a challenge, yes. And, we’re never going to be as slow as we are today. But instead of looking outside for your partners, agencies or other departments to deliver it, why not look at your team and see what you can unblock and unlock in order to unleash the speed you desire to see.
1 - Bring Focus
2 - Create Freedom Frameworks
3 - Deliver feedback