David Marquet

Developing a new language for leadership

19 Jan 2020   |   Leadership

David Marquet
David Marquet

Developing a new language for leadership

19 Jan 2020   |   Leadership

What are we talking about?

Day-to-day leadership, specifically ways to break our industrial revolution programming.

Why is changing our language of leadership important to the future of work?

The way we talk to each other is the way we lead. David Marquet identifies six major industrial age plays that are still impacting the way we talk to each other in a negative way. For leaders to move to a better model, there’s a lot of ways that we need to fix what we say.

What David Marquet taught us about the language of leadership

There’s a difference between execution mode and decision mode. In the Industrial revolution, the workers did the work, and the management made the decisions. Today, usually it’s all going on inside one person.

Decision mode embraces variability because you need to see everything and take a wide angle view. However, execution mode means that you need to focus and reduce variability. However, most leaders are stuck in one or the other and can’t figure out how to switch when required.

It’s not just our language too. Our workspaces are confused about deciding and doing. Open offices are great for collaboration and deciding things and getting input. But they are horrible for focused solo work. We need to embrace this even across how we create our offices.

While we love to hate on the Industrial Revolution, we have a lot to be thankful for. Without it, we may not have been able to reach the level of wealth and education that we have as a species. However, its time has ended and we need to pursue new models.

When we are in decision mode, we need a lot of input, but our language gets in the way. For example, if you say, “Well, I think we should launch the product. What do you guys think?”, then you’ve already created a big barrier for anyone to disagree.

David’s suggestion for making decisions

  • After everyone has been informed of the information, take a quick vote
  • Let people vote from 1-5 with their hand for how confident they are about moving forward with a decision
  • Invite those in the minority to speak first and give ideas for how to move forward

Another important idea is building decision-making factories. If all the decisions come back to the leader, then it can’t scale. How do you do it?

  1. Describe what you see.
  2. What do you think?
  3. What do you recommend?
  4. What will we wish we would have done in 6 months?

Boundaries can actually encourage people to go to the limits. When you remove all boundaries, people tend to stick to the center. This was shown in a study where they removed fences around a playground for kids. Before they took it down, kids played all the way up until the fence. After it was down, all the kids stuck to the middle of the playground. Boundaries can actually increase risktaking.

Don’t preempt a pause. Make it easy for someone to be able to call a timeout on you.


Learn more about David Marquet

The new book – Leadership is language

David’s first book, Turn the Ship Around

David’s first podcast

David’s website

Today we have our first repeat guest on the show. David Marquet is back. He’s got a new book called “Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t“. And I love this book. I’m really excited to talk to him. David Marquet, hi. Welcome to the show again.

Hey. Thanks, Neil, for having me back.

It’s exciting.

I made it through the gate.

And now you’re really in our club now. It’s good. David Marquet, we loved what you had to say before just about leadership and the ideas you got from that. But this book I feel like is a great logical step in the next direction. Honestly, I was reading it. I was working on an article about productivity and about how to lead a more productive team. And I was about halfway done. And I started reading your book and I realized I had to change so many things.

Sorry to give you extra work.

Yeah. But just give us a little bit of background about why the new book is out. What’s the main idea of it?

Yeah. So, since “Turn the Ship Around” came out, I’ve had the good fortune to meet with a lot of different companies, and see how they work and see what their problems are. And everyone wants to think, “Oh, we’re unique. Look, we’re a nuclear power panel. Look, we do bottled water,” whatever it is. But when you get down to the human level, I see very common trends. Now, on the submarine, we had what I call decision mode and execution mode. And decision mode was we wanted to make a wide aperture, broad perspective, make a decision that was very inclusive. It was embracing variability. “Oh, you think differently? Let’s hear about it.” But then once you made a decision, I wanted focus, I wanted to reduce variability, I want to be precise about executing a plan that we had decided on. And if we needed to, we’d pause and we go back to embracing variability. And I thought that this was a concept that really didn’t come through in “Turn the Ship Around” but would have been really helpful. So, I had that stirring around in my head.

And then the other thing that was going on was I felt like I was programmed to respond in certain ways. And even though it’s pretty good on a submarine, so for example, I’d be giving a speech, and someone would say, “Oh, can I give you some feedback?” Immediately, I’d shut down. Like, really? Yeah. And that was disjointed. I was like, “What? Like, oh, so you couldn’t keep up? Is that what you’re trying to say?” That was what I wanted to say. But then I’d take a breath and, “Oh, tell me about that.” And I felt like my programming took me in an unhelpful way. And so, here’s what I’m doing. I’m blaming the Industrial Revolution for my programming. It’s not me. It’s just like that’s how we’ve been programmed. And so, we need to reprogram ourselves. So, these two ideas are coming together where we’re going to have to create this rhythm of thinking and doing and we’re going to reprogram our plays. So, for example, instead of obey the clock that would be industrial age play. That’s why we have words like clockwork, we clock in, we pay people by… It all stems from this sense that we obey the clock.

And now we want to control the clock, and you see it play out today. So, for example, in the 737 MAX tragedy where 346 people died in the two crashes, now we see there’s some texts from one of the pilots early on, and he’s talking about the pressure to get it done and to meet the regulators. Well, this is obey the clock. This is the sense in the company that we have to get it done, not let’s pause and make sure we do it right. It’s not are we going to do it, but how quickly can we get it done. And so, the idea in the book is to capture what I think are six fundamental plays programming that we have from the Industrial Revolution that we need to rescript. So, that’s a longer answer than you probably were hoping for.

That’s good. I mean, the Industrial Revolution is one of our favorite punching bags, too. It probably would like to defend itself here and then but we don’t let it so.

So, I’m glad you said that. And I’m a huge fan of the Industrial Revolution. I mean, think about the way it was before. But the problem wasn’t the Industrial Revolution when it happened. The problem is an organization designed to serve the Industrial Revolution way of working now. And I talked about Taylor and Taylorism. But I do try and give respect to at the time. I mean, look, in the early 1900s, the education level was way less than it is now. We have records from soldiers and listening to go into World War I, and there were high rates of illiteracy, much higher than now. And thankfully, we have a much more educated… but even uneducated people are smart. There’s a difference. I always remind people, cavemen could understand quantum mechanics. They had all the brain capacity to understand quantum mechanics. And we confuse uneducated with dumb, and that’s a bad mistake, a really bad mistake.

Yeah, that’s a whole other podcast we’ll get into one day. That’ll be your third one. That’s your next book. Write it on that.

Yeah. Caveman can do quantum mechanics.

Yeah, David Marquet is making a note right now. So, I want to get back into this idea of doing versus thinking. In the book, you call it red and blue work, these two different hats. And I think the thing I got out of the book was that for the longest time in the Industrial Revolution, these are not just two different things one person did. These are two different jobs. You had somebody doing the doing. And you had somebody doing the thinking. And where we’re at now is that you need to have one person or one team that does that consistently back and forth, right?

Exactly. And so, the Industrial Revolution, one group, so we called them the followers, we called them the blue collar workers, we called them the hourly workers, or the union workers, those were the doers. And the other group was I like to say deciders and doers because I like the alliteration. And now what we need and what organizations are trying to do is we need the doers to also be deciders. I think this is exactly what we want because in the other way, all leadership was coercive. I had to get someone else. If you were a leader, you needed to get them, the doer, to do what you decided for them to do. And if you were a doer, you had to do what someone else decided you needed to do. And so, that’s coercion. And so, we don’t call it coercion. That’s ugly. So, we say, well, we motivate or we inspire, blah, blah, blah. But it’s basically getting someone else to do something. And I don’t think this works, especially when it comes to thinking work. So, what we need is to let the doers also be the deciders and create structures to allow that to happen. So, that’s exactly right. So, now we have a rhythm where if I look at my work, I flip back and forth between doing and deciding and doing is focused, proving, might be individual work. That’s why open workspace are great for collaboration, but they’ve neglected the doing part. I need to actually do the work. And sometimes we get confused. The thinking part only lives to serve the doing part. No one ever built an airplane just making PowerPoint slides. You actually build an airplane by building an airplane. So, sometimes we get confused and we think that the meeting is the master, but the meeting serves the actual work.

That’s a really great point. I struggle with, and where a lot of other people do, I hope, too, is just in the sense of that transition between the two. You’re talking about jumping back and forth. When is it time to collaborate? When is it time to do my solo work? When is it time to go back to group work? When is it time to think? And going back and forth and you have some helpful tips in the book about that. Why don’t you go into those?

And I’ve seen organizations go both ways. So, for example, I have these two made up executives in the book, Fred and Sue. Fred is stuck in red. Sue is stuck in blue. So, the red work is the doing work. So, Fred’s running around all day long getting people to do stuff. He never has time to think. And he’s the guy that needs to control the clock, and say, “Hold on a second, guys, let’s all get together. Take a minute, decide if we really want to launch this product.” And then Sue is stuck in blue. Her problem is she’s always in socialization mode or analysis paralysis, and it just feels too heavy to make a commitment and do something. And it’s just two flip sides of the same thing. So, to make it easy, if you’re stuck in it seems like we’re just talking about it all the time, and you’re using words like analysis paralysis, then you probably need to move to red and move to the doing. And the reason it feels heavy is because we feel like we’re making an initiative for a long time. And so, you lighten that by just saying, “Hey, let’s try it for three months.” And you put an expiration date on the decision. And then it’s easier to commit to a three month thing, like, “Oh, for the rest of your life…”

And then the other thing is that experimental commitment with an expiration date triggers a learning perspective. So, let’s see what we learn from this as well as we’re going to produce something for three months, but then we’re going to see what we learn and what we can improve. And then three months from now, we’re going to raise our heads again and we’re going to look around. How do we like it? How are we doing? Let’s make a tweak. Then dive back into the work. But I think you want to be super focused when you’re in the work and you want to be super broadly perspective when you’re out of the work. And what I see is if you don’t know, you don’t have this language, we’re just sort of focused and then we’re sort of broadly perspective. And neither one is good. And one of my phrases is we bring a reduced variability playbook to an embrace variability game, because we’re bringing and reduce variability, industrial age language, and we want to get people to think. For example, if you say, “Hey, we’re in a meeting. Let’s build consensus.” What is that? That’s reducing variability, because I’m squeezing out the outliers. This is not what you want.

This was a new thought I’d never thought of when you talked about there’s a new idea you need to think through, need to get people’s opinion on, David Marquet. The typical thing is you throw the idea out there, let’s talk about it. And then we’ll take a vote afterwards or we’ll decide what we’re going to do afterwards. But you’re saying that that actually does not help at all.

Well, that’s the industrial age way of doing it. Why? Because it’s reducing variability. Because as soon as you say, “Hey, let’s talk about it,” the worst thing you can do is say, “Well, I think we should launch the product. What do you guys think?” Because what you’re doing is just making it very hard for people who think differently than that to speak up. You’re just making it a little bit harder. Not quite as bad but also bad is when we say, “Hey, let’s talk about it.” Because people have a very good sense of where the group is going and, “Oh, the group seems to think that we should launch the product. I don’t. I think there’s a problem, a hidden problem, and we really need to rethink it. But no one else seems to think it. So, I’m just going to stay quiet.” And what you want to do, and that’s what I mean when we’re bringing a reduce variability playbook to an embrace variability game. So, what you want to do is say, “Hey, before we contaminate anyone with groupthink, let’s just vote.” And it’s not a binary vote because binary votes, you don’t learn anything. “Oh, should we do it? Yes. Thumbs up. Is that a 51% thumbs up or a 99% thumbs up?” So, you say, how strongly do we feel about launching a product? One to five, or fist five, and then people can put their hands up or we use card sometimes, we have probability cards.

The purpose of the vote is to let the people who feel very strongly one way or the other identify themselves, and then we give them voice to say, okay, we embrace the outliers because we’re now embracing variability. Oh, I see you see different than everyone else. And by the way, if 80% of people are voting one way and 20% the other, you always invite the minority first. Because it’s harder to speak as a minority after the majority spoke. The leadership at a meeting is not getting people to get on board with your decision. Leadership in a meeting is running the meeting in a way so that at the end of it, each person walks out of there feeling, “Yes. What I was thinking I felt was heard in the meeting. And it was safe. I thought differently.” All innovative ideas always start sounding weird. All new, “Hey, I think we can build these machines that fly.” “What? No, that’s crazy.” “Hey, the world’s round.” “No, that’s crazy.” “Hey, the water in Flint, Michigan is poison.” “No, that’s crazy,” right? They always start as an outline or as a fringe idea. The first time someone says it, it always sounds wrong. Now it may actually be wrong but you don’t know that.

I think this is where a lot of us kid ourselves because it’s one thing to read all this and say I have a progressive company. We’re very open minded. We do all these things. But I mean, you’ve seen tech companies and startups that exhibit these same destructive behaviors when it comes to saying, let’s just build consensus, let’s all agree on this. And the leader in the room is often the one that drives everything. So, even though it has this facade of being new and modern, it’s still the same old thing, right?

Yeah, exactly. And the reason is because they’ve just adopted the same language patterns that they’ve seen. And until someone says, “No, we actually need a different language pattern.” So, on and on and on, is it safe? Yes. That’s not the question. How safe is it? How likely will this be? So, you want to ask in a probabilistic way. Even something as simple as you come up to me and say, “Hey, I really think we should launch the product.” “Oh, how about this? I think we should delay product launch.” I’m like, “No, that’s wrong.” That’s what happens in my head. And I might do something really annoying, like, “Well, have you thought about company reputation?” “Oh, no, I totally forgot.” Yeah, of course. That’s annoying. So, the next thing we do is, “Well, why would you want to do that?” Even that’s provocative. That’s a tactical why. And it sends a signal, “I think you’re wrong.” And they’re like, “Nah. Nevermind. Forget about it.” And then we launch it. And it turns out this is a disaster. It’s like, “Well, I tried to tell you and you didn’t listen.” “No, you didn’t tell me. It’s not my fault.” Like, no. You as leaders are not asking questions that makes it easy for your team to send you the signal that they’re trying to send.

I think one of the things I see in tech companies is, first of all, there’s a transition point because they always start very founder centric, and the founder is the decision maker, and at some point, the founder needs to build a decision making factory and get out of making decisions. Otherwise you can’t scale beyond a certain level. And the second thing, and the reason I like the red blue is because you do need structure. I’ve been in some of these companies where they say, “Oh, yeah, everyone just do whatever they want. I’m not going to set any boundaries.” And what happens is, without boundaries, people become more risk averse. And there’s more confusion, there’s more friction. And there’s a famous study where this was an urban school that had a fence around a playground, and the kids would play right up next to the fence. Then they removed the fence because some psychologist said fences are bad. And what happened? The kids just clustered in the middle of playground because they weren’t sure where the boundary between safe and unsafe was. And so, boundaries actually allow people to do more risk embracing behavior, not the opposite.

Interesting. Well, David Marquet, the book is all about language, right? What are some other language tips that leaders especially are not aware of or are using wrong that they can bring in, some more of these plays that they can incorporate into their daily life?

So, your team is running behind and your instinct is to say, “Come on, let’s get going. Hey, we’re burning daylight. You have all these phrases which create speed bumps to someone saying timeout. And so, you have a person on your team who sees a problem, and it’s wearing at them and they got to make a decision. Do they speak up and say timeout or not? But because we’ve been saying these things, “Hey, this is really important. Hey, we really got to make this deadline.” And you’re saying these things thinking you’re doing the right thing, but you’re just creating speed bumps. So, when it becomes really important, you say, “Hey, we have time to do this right. Hey, if anyone sees something, raise your hand. Or here’s a yellow card around a construction site, hold up a yellow card. So, we’re about to pour the concrete, we need to know that it’s laid out right. And if you think there’s a problem, let’s do it before the concrete’s sitting in the foundation.”

So, we call that preempting the pause. In other words, you’re doing things to make it a little bit harder for someone to say timeout. Another thing that people do sometimes deliberately is what we call we increase the power gradient. So, the power gradient is how much more important is my boss feel for me? And I’ve seen corporations where what are signs of power, office size, carpet thickness, the attractiveness of your assistant that out front, the guardians that sit up front of your office. And so, that creates a sense of separation, private parking garage, private dining room. And then these same executive say, “Oh, I didn’t know. I didn’t know that this was happening.” Yeah, no kidding. Because you isolated yourself. You’re like that Sith Lord in the Star Wars movie, right? You’re like by yourself. The nearest person is 30 feet away from you and they’re just guards with lightsabers. And then you complain that you don’t know what’s going on. Yeah, but you designed the architecture deliberately to isolate yourself. So, that’s called the power gradient. Information flows inversely proportional to the power gradient. So, the steeper the power gradient, the more important you feel about yourself, the less information you’re going to get from your team, especially the most important information which is information which is different than how you see the world. They’re not going to want to tell you that. And then don’t whine later when other stuff happened. This is what we see like Winterkorn at Volkswagen. “I didn’t know that these guys were cheating on the emission scandal.” Yeah, Volkswagen is a highly top down, command and control, do what you’re told culture that they deliberately designed.

I’m going to jump back to a concept you talked about before which is decision-making factories. So, you’ve got a leader who’s trying to build a team to go out but all the decisions keep coming back to them. What are some steps they can do to start that?

You got to lean back but very very, very slowly. Don’t say, “Oh, look, no, this is your decision.” If yesterday it was the leader’s decision, tomorrow you can’t say, “No, it’s your decision.” The first step is simply description, description to psychologically all you do is say, “Tell me more. How do you see it? What do you see?” Description. Like, what was the customer’s face? Describe the face when you said, this is what it was going to cost. Tell me what you see. And then what do you think? Now you’re going into analysis and interpretation. And then you say, “Well, what would you recommend? Or if I weren’t here, what would you do?” Here’s a couple tricks. One is I call it fast forward. So, you advanced yourself in time, mentally, you say, “Hey, six months from now, let’s say it’s six months from now, we’re looking back to today, what do you wish you’d done?” That generally helps put you into a more longer term perspective, which generally is going to be better for you. Most decisions that when they become sub optimize is because they’re too near term, just trying to hit quarterly numbers and that kind of thing. So, if you have a short-term perspective, it’s always easier for you to make a decision. Once you have a longer term perspective and say, “Well, I can’t sell my company in 10 years if I’m the sole person.”

So, I have a bunch of baby boomers now. They’re in their 60s and 70s. And they’ve done everything right. They built a company, they got 25 people, 50 people, 100 people, they’re doing well. But they’re the key decision maker. And they go to private equity guy and they say, “Hey, what’s my company worth?” And the private equity guy says zero. “What?” Yeah, because you’re the company. All decisions are made by you. If I pulled you out of it, it’s going to fall apart. So, you’ve got to build something. You’ve got to build a decision making factor. I got that exact problem, sort of, right now. My company is based on my story and me as a person and I got to get out of it. We’re trying to build a movement, a more agile or lean or something and a temp based leadership thing, which is separate from me.

That’s great. We’ve been talking internally about the difference between marketing a product, which in some cases is your brand, your personality, your book or whatever that’s out there, versus marketing an idea, a concept that you can latch onto and a lot of other people can get in there, too. So, this is great stuff. David Marquet, I always wish we could have more time to talk. We’ll have to wait until you write your next book, though, as we talked before.

I’ll have to write another book. It’s going to be about cavemen can do quantum mechanics.

Yeah. I’ll be the cowriter if you want.

All right.

Well, cool. So, the book, “Leadership Is Language“, when is it going to be released?

February 4th.

Very nice. February 4th of 2020. Make sure you get it. If you didn’t read the first book, “Turn the Ship Around,” it’s great. It’s got a lot of lessons from your time as a submarine captain and you bring a lot of great stories, a lot of good anecdotes in this book, too. So, a lot of cool stuff. So, make sure everyone go check it out. So, thanks a lot, David Marquet.

Cheers, Neil. And hi to all your listeners. Thanks, everyone.

David is one of the world’s most in-demand leadership speakers and the bestselling author of Turn the Ship Around. The book is consistently listed as a “top read” and is a #1 best seller on Amazon. CEOs have dog-eared nearly every page of the book because of its practical and insightful approach to leadership.

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