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Leadership is Language

Leadership is Language

THERE was a time when it made sense to have a group that thought about the work and another group that performed the work. A manufacturing environment lends itself to this kind of structure. The thinkers and the doers. It was the most efficient way to build the momentum of the Industrial Revolution.

This structure also helped to reduce variability, which is just what is called for in a manufacturing environment. When Henry Ford began to build his Model T, he didn’t need a lot of freethinkers on the assembly line. What he needed was people to consistently perform in an efficient manner. No variations. Reducing variability was the key to a great manufacturing environment. And we find that the leadership approaches and the language used aligned itself with that goal.

This mindset is not only found in the manufacturing environment but just about everywhere else where humans are involved. We quite naturally like to reduce variability. But without variability, we don’t improve. We don’t innovate. We don’t grow.

Today the workplace has changed. Along with the velocity of change we see around us comes the need to embrace variability just to stay relevant. We now need the people doing the work also to be thinking about the work.

It is this need that David Marquet thoroughly discusses in Leadership Is Language. How we communicate with each other can help us to embrace variability and is our best shot at success. If we are not tuned into this principle, we reduce variability and risk irrelevance or even extinction.

We were first introduced to Marquet and the USS Santa Fe, in Turn the Ship Around. In this account, we learn of his efforts to change his leadership approach from leader-follower or thinker-doer to a leader-leader approach that allowed for everyone to lead, think, and do. Moving from a leader-follower dynamic to a leader-leader dynamic requires a change in the way we approach and communicate with one another. This is the subject of Leadership Is Language.

Arising from the thinking-doing playbook we have followed since the Industrial Revolution has been an imbalance in the rhythm between doing and thinking says Marquet. “Doing and thinking are the basic building blocks of all human activity. The correct balance of these two activities helps us achieve our goals.” He clarifies:

In short, the right balance of doing and thinking drives learning. It keeps the company relevant and solvent. By doing, I mean physical interaction with the world.

Doing something doesn’t mean you aren’t thinking, but the brain operates much more automatically. Doing is our default mode because it is faster and more efficient, and our brains are nothing if not efficient.

By thinking, I mean deliberate, curious, and open exploration of information, beliefs, stories, and assumptions in order to interpret the world around us.

We need a new playbook. “We need to call the plays that will balance all that doing with more thinking at every level of the hierarchy, not just at the top.”

The chart below provides some of the differences between doing, what Marquet calls Redwork, and thinking or Bluework. The key difference is “thinking benefits from embracing variability. Doing benefits from reducing variability.

Difference RedWork BlueWork

In the old playbook, our language is primarily about doing, not thinking. Redwork sounds like this: “Get it done! Make it happen. Let’s finish this, and Are we on track?” Marquet notes that the “language that sounds natural to you has probably been optimized for rework.”

Bluework sounds like this: “How do you see it? How ready are we for this? What can we do better? And What did we learn?”

The Six Main Plays of the New Playbook

1. Control the Clock

We are programmed to obey the clock—get it done, keep moving. Controlling the clock is the start of the redwork/bluework cycle. It is the deliberate move to exit redwork and shift to bluework.

Controlling the clock is a mindful pause from all of our doing. It’s calling a time-out on ourselves to pause in order to learn, improve, and collaborate.

We get there by not just calling a pause, but by making it possible. Avoid statements that erect barriers to questioning and reconsidering a decision, especially in the light of new information. To make it stick, practice doing it. Call a time-out even when no pause is needed. It may be hard for team members to call a pause because they “might be lost in redwork because of the stress of the clock.”

2. Collaborate, Not Coerce

Sometimes collaboration is really an exercise in coercion. “Bosses try to be compelling, not curious. They ask leading and self-affirming questions. They suppress dissent and push for consensus. This is not collaboration. This is coercion disguised as collaboration.” “Build consensus” or “Get everyone on the same page” is another way of saying, “I’m right, and you need to change your thinking.”

The solution is to let the doers be the deciders. Get their thoughts first before expressing your opinion. Instead of asking yes or no questions, ask how questions. Instead of, “Can we launch on time?” ask, “On a scale of 1 to 100, how strongly do you believe we should launch on time?” And in the face of an outlying opinion, ask, “What do you see that we don’t?”

Marquet offers seven ways to ask better questions. “The point is that we do not want a ‘harmonious conversation.’ What we want is an accurate picture of reality.” He also makes a good point with “Give information, not instructions.” Very helpful.

3. Commit, Not comply

If you want to keep your commitments, don’t make it about the behavior but more about who you are. Not, “I can’t,” but rather, “I don’t.”

Compliance may have worked for simple, physical, repetitive, individual tasks, but it does not work for complex, cognitive, custom, team task. Compliance only gets minimum fulfillment of requirements, whereas commitment invites discretionary effort.

RedWork BlueWork Cycle

A way to execute this play is to focus on learning by “developing hypotheses to test rather than making decisions to execute.” This makes it easier to shift from redwork to bluework. Rather than “What are we going to do?” create a mindset of “What are we going to learn?”

Instead of making a one-time decision, break it up into decision points. Make the redwork a “series of smaller increments divided by bluework decision points.” This was instructive: “Here’s the rule about the blue-red-blue cycle length: shorter periods of redwork increase learning but reduce production output, and vice versa. Therefore, in environments and under conditions of high uncertainty and unpredictability, we need to shorten redwork periods. As the product or exterior conditions become more defined, we can extend the length of the redwork.”

4. Complete, Not Continue

The Industrial Age mindset is to continue—to keep on producing—nothing is ever complete. The idea was to maximize the time spent in redwork. Completion marks the end redwork.

While in redwork, we benefit by having a prove mindset. However, our overall mindset guiding the redwork-bluework rhythm is on of improve.

Focus on the journey, not the destination.

When people think of their achievements in terms of mile markers in a journey, they are more likely to continue the behaviors that resulted in them reaching that goal.

5. Improve, Not Prove

Improvement is the core purpose of bluework and is meant to improve redwork. Here we reflect, ask questions, and seek feedback. We run the improve play at the end of redwork.

Now we need people to do both redwork and bluework. We are all both redworkers and blueworkers. This requires us to be able to step out of our roles as producers and look back at our production with the dispassionate eye of an improver.

Marquet offers four ways to execute the Improve play. First, look forward, not backward. “What do we want to remember about this for next time?’’ Second, focus on others rather than the protection of the self. “If someone else had to take over this project, what would you say to them to make it even more successful?” Third, focus on the process and not on the people. This helps to minimize our defensiveness. “How could this be done better?” and forth, seek excellence rather than trying to avoid errors.

6. Connect, Not Conform

Connect is the mindset behind all of the other plays, enabling them to work better. It is about caring— “caring what people think, caring how they feel, caring for their personal goals.” Instead of over, it is with.

Connect is not a superficial “friendship” but caring for someo0ne else and wanting the best for them. Connect is love.

Part of flattening the power gradient involves leaders demonstrating vulnerability and being able to admit they don’t know.

Great takeaway here: “Never underestimate the power of fear to distort common sense in environments with a strong culture of control and compliance.”

While Marquet provides ample examples from all walks of life, he concludes with specific examples of how these principles play out in the workplace. The language we use truly makes a difference. Don’t miss putting into practice the insight found here.

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