On Style

I recently finished reading Style – The Basics of Clarity and Grace – by Joseph M. Williams.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

When we don’t know what we’re talking about (or have no confidence in what we do know) we typically write long sentences choked with abstract words.

I suspect that those who choose to observe all the rules all the time do so not because they think they are protecting the integrity of the language or the quality of our culture, but because they want to assert a style of their own.

We began with two principles: •Make central characters subjects of verbs. • Use verbs to name the actions those characters are involved in.

Most readers prefer subjects of verbs to name the main characters in your story, and those main characters to be flesh-and-blood characters. When you write about concepts, however, you can turn them into virtual characters by making them the subjects of verbs that communicate actions.

Your readers want you to use the end of your sentences to communicate two kinds of difficulty: long and complex phrases and clauses; and new information, particularly unfamiliar technical terms.

Five Principles of Concision: 1. Delete words that mean little or nothing. 2. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words. 3. Delete words implied by other words. 4. Replace a phrase with a word. 5. Change negatives to affirmatives.

A highly recommended read in the area of writing.


On Turn the Ship Around

I recently finished reading Turn the Ship Around by Captain, U.S. NAVY (Retired) L. David Marquet. Despite having very high expectations about this leadership and transformation journey, given the book’s high ratings, I can definitely say that the book exceeded them in every way. The leader-leader model advocated by David is one that resonates very strongly with me, and the practical and applied manner in which he presents the transformation journey he went through and how one can apply it within their own organization is to be commended.

Below I wanted to share a summary of insights from the book.

In the foreword by the late Stephen R. Covey, on why you want to read this book:

Our world’s bright future will be built by people who have discovered that leadership is the enabling art. It is the art of releasing human talent and potential. You may be able to “buy” a person’s back with a paycheck, position, power, or fear, but a human being’s genius, passion, loyalty, and tenacious creativity are volunteered only. The world’s greatest problems will be solved by passionate. unleashed “volunteers.” My definition of leadership is this: Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves. I don’t know of a finer model of this kind of empowering leadership than Captain Marquet’s. And in the pages Remember, leadership is a choice, not a position. I wish you well on your voyage!

David starts out by denouncing the shortcomings of the traditional leader-follower model:

We’re taught the solution is empowerment. The problem with empowerment programs is that they contain an inherent contradiction between the message and the method. While the message is “empowerment,” the method—it takes me to empower you—fundamentally disempowers employees. That drowns out the message. Additionally, in a leader-follower structure, the performance of the organization is closely linked to the ability of the leader. As a result, there is a natural tendency to develop personality-driven leadership. Followers gravitate toward the personality. Short-term performance is rewarded. When leaders who tend to do it all themselves and rely on personality depart, they are missed and performance can change significantly. Psychologically for the leader, this is tremendously rewarding. It is seductive. Psychologically for most followers, this is debilitating. The follower learns to rely on the leader to make all decisions rather than to fully engage with the work process to help make the organization run as efficiently as possible.

On the purpose of the book:

I imagine a world where we all find satisfaction in our work. It is a world where every human being is intellectually engaged. motivated, and self-inspired. Our cognitive capacity as a race is fully engaged in solving the monumental problems that we face. Ultimately, this book is a call to action, a manifesto, for all those frustrated workers and bosses for whom the current leadership structure just isn’t working. We need to reject leader-follower as a model and view the world as a place for leaders everywhere to achieve this vision. Whether you are a boss, an employee, a teacher, or a parent, you will find ways to work toward this goal.

On the importance of a questioning and curious attitude:

I am not advocating being ignorant about the equipment. For me, however, it was a necessary step to make me truly curious and reliant upon the crew in a way I wouldn’t have been without it. Later in my tour I became a technical expert on all aspects of Santa Fe, but the positive patterns had been set and I continued in the same relationship with the crew. If you walk about your organization talking to people, I’d suggest that you be as curious as possible. As with a good dinner table conversationalist, one question should naturally lead to another. The time to be questioning or even critical is after trust has been established.

Aim at achieving excellence, not just reducing errors:

Focusing on avoiding mistakes takes our focus away from becoming truly exceptional. Once a ship has achieved success merely in the form of preventing major errors and is operating in a competent way, mission accomplished, there is no need to strive further. I resolved to change this. Our goal would be excellence instead of error reduction. We would focus on exceptional operational effectiveness for the submarine. We would achieve great things.

Distributing control by itself is not enough:

We discovered that distributing control by itself wasn’t enough. As that happened, it put requirements on the new decision makers to have a higher level of technical knowledge and clearer sense of organizational purpose than ever before. That’s because decisions are made against a set of criteria that includes what’s technically appropriate and what aligns with the organization’s interests.

On his approach of changing culture:

When you’re trying to change employees’ behaviors, you have basically two approaches to choose from: change your own thinking and hope this leads to new behavior, or change your behavior and hope this leads to new thinking. On board Santa Fe, the officers and I did the latter, acting our way to new thinking. We didn’t have time to change thinking and let that percolate and ultimately change people’s actions; we just needed to change the behavior. Frankly, I didn’t care whether people thought differently at some point—and they eventually did—so long as they behaved in certain ways. I think there were likely some sailors who never understood what we were trying to do and resisted the change to leader-leader, but they behaved as if they believed.

On using regular conversations:

SHORT, EARLY CONVERSATIONS is a mechanism for CONTROL. It is a mechanism for control because the conversations did not consist of me telling them what to do. They were opportunities for the crew to get early feedback on how they were tackling problems. This allowed them to retain control of the solution. These early, quick discussions also provided clarity to the crew about what we wanted to accomplish. Many lasted only thirty seconds, but they saved hours of time…Here is a short list of “empowered phrases” that active doers use: I intend to…I plan on…I will…We will.

On resisting the urge to provide solutions and letting others react to situations:

RESIST THE URGE TO PROVIDE SOLUTIONS is a mechanism for CONTROL. When you follow the leader-leader model, you must take time to let others react to the situation as well. You have to create a space for open decision by the entire team, even if that space is only a few minutes, or a few seconds, long. This is harder than in the leader-follower approach because it requires you to anticipate decisions and alert your team to the need for an upcoming one. In a top-down hierarchy, subordinates don’t need to be thinking ahead because the boss will make a decision when needed.

On the importance of of improving the process as opposed to merely monitoring it:

In his book Out of the Crisis, W Edwards Deming lays out the leadership principles that became known as TQL, or Total Quality Leadership. This had a big effect on me. It showed me how efforts to improve the process made the organization more efficient, while efforts to monitor the process made the organization less efficient. What I hadn’t understood was the pernicious effect that “We are checking up on you” has on initiative, vitality, and passion until I saw it in action on Santa Fe.

On the need for constant communication among the team:

If you limit all discussion to crisp orders and eliminate all contextual discussion, you get a pretty quiet control room. That was viewed as good. We cultivated the opposite approach and encouraged a constant buzz of discussions among the watch officers and crew. By monitoring that level of buzz, more than the actual content, I got a good gauge of how well the ship was running and whether everyone was sharing information.

On deliberate action:

TAKE DELIBERATE ACTION is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. But selling the crew on this mechanism’s value was hard going. One problem in getting the crew to perform deliberately was the perception that deliberate action was for someone else’s (a supervisor’s, an inspector’s) benefit. Even though we continually talked about how deliberate action was to prevent the individual from making silly mistakes, I would overhear sailors discussing deliberate action among themselves in this misperceived way. The second problem was overcoming the perception that deliberate action was something you did as a training exercise. but in a “real situation,” you would just move your hands as fast as possible.

How to more effectively engage employees in training programs:

Want to have a training program that employees will want to go to? Here’s how it should work: 1) The purpose of training is to increase technical competence. 2) The result of increased technical competence is the ability to delegate increased decision making to the employees. 3) Increased decision making among your employees will naturally result in greater engagement, motivation, and initiative.

On active certification as opposed to passive briefings:

DON’T BRIEF, CERTIFY is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. Certification is also a decision point. It is possible to fail a certification. Individuals can reveal that they aren’t prepared to take part in an action because of their lack of knowledge or understanding. Otherwise, it’s just a brief. “Don’t brief, certify” became another example where we basically did the opposite of what we were supposed to.

On specifying goals, not the approach/method:

SPECIFYING GOALS, NOT METHODS is a mechanism for COMPETENCE. In our case, this was because the crew was motivated to devise the best approach to putting out the fire. Once they were freed from following a prescribed way of doing things they came up with many ingenious ways to shave seconds off our response time.

On the importance of clarity:

As more decision-making authority is pushed down the chain of command, it becomes increasingly important that everyone throughout the organization understands what the organization is about. This is called clarity, and it is the second supporting leg—along with competence—that is needed in order to distribute control…Build trust and take care of your people. Use your legacy for inspiration. Use guiding principles for decision criteria. Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviors. Begin with the end in mind. Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience.

On the need for emancipation:

Empowerment is a necessary step because we’ve been accustomed to disempowerment. Empowerment is needed to undo all those top-down, do-what-you’re-told, be-a-team-player messages that result from our leader-follower model. But empowerment isn’t enough in a couple of ways…What we need is release, or emancipation. Emancipation is fundamentally different from empowerment. With emancipation we are recognizing the inherent genius, energy, and creativity in all people, and allowing those talents to emerge. We realize that we don’t have the power to give these talents to others, or “empower” them to use them, only the power to prevent them from coming out. Emancipation results when teams have been given decision-making control and have the additional characteristics of competence and clarity. You know you have an emancipated team when you no longer need to empower them. Indeed, you no longer have the ability to empower them because they are not relying on you as their source of power.

A highly recommended practical read in the areas of leadership and personal development.

The Advantage

A few years ago, I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and it remains to be, for me, one of the most practical and applicable management books. Patrick Lencioni, the author of that book, has published a number of other books which have received high reviews as well, and I decided to read one of his more recent ones The Advantage – Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

The main premise of this book is that:

The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simply free, and available to anyone who wants it.

Sounds simple, so why is it that difficult?

But before leaders can tap into the power of organizational health, they must humble themselves enough to overcome the three biases that prevent them from embracing it. The Sophistication Bias: Organizational health is so simple and accessible that many leaders have a hard time seeing it as a real opportunity for meaningful advantage…The Adrenaline Bias: Becoming a healthy organization takes a little time. Unfortunately, many of the leaders I’ve worked with suffer from a chronic case of adrenaline addiction, seemingly hooked on the daily rush of activity and firefighting within their organizations…The Quantification Bias: The benefits of becoming a healthy organization, as powerful as they are, are difficult to accurately quantify.

What exactly is organizational health and how do I recognize it?

A good way to recognize health is to look for the signs that indicate an organization has it. These include minimal politics and confusion, high degrees of morale and productivity, and very low turnover among good employees…And so a good way to look at organizational health -and one that executives seem to respond to readily— is to see it as the multiplier of intelligence. The healthier an organization is, the more of its intelligence it is able to tap into and use. Most organizations exploit only a fraction of the knowledge. experience, and intellectual capital that is available to them. But the healthy ones tap into almost all of it. That, as much as anything else, is why they have such an advantage over their unhealthy competitors.

How do we create it, or get there?

An organization doesn’t become healthy in a linear, tidy fashion. Like building a strong marriage or family, it’s a messy process that involves doing a few things at once, and it must be maintained on an ongoing basis in order to be preserved. Still, that messy process can be broken down into four simple disciplines: Discipline 1: Build a cohesive leadership team…Discipline 2: Create Clarity…Discipline 3…Overcommunicate Clarity…Discipline 4: Reinforce Clarity.

On the first discipline – building a leadership team, let us start with the fundamentals, with the definition:

A leadership team is a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization…This is perhaps the most important distinction between a working group and a real leadership team. Collective responsibility implies, more than anything else, selflessness and shared sacrifices from team members.

What are the key behaviors of a leadership team:

On building trust:

Members of a truly cohesive team must trust one another. I realize that sounds like the most patently obvious statement ever made, something that every organization understands and values. As a result, you’d think that most leadership teams would be pretty good at building trust. As it turns out, they aren’t, and I think a big part of it is that they have the wrong idea about what trust is…The kind of trust that is necessary to build a great team is what I call vulnerability-based trust. This is what happens when members get to a point where they are completely comfortable being transparent. honest, and naked with one another, where they say and genuinely mean things like “I screwed up,” “I need help,” “Your idea is better than mine,” ‘T wish I could learn to do that as well as you do,” and even, “I’m sorry”…Trust is just one of five behaviors that cohesive teams must establish to build a healthy organization. However, it is by far the most important of the five because it is the foundation for the others. Simply stated, it makes teamwork possible. Only when teams build vulnerability-based trust do they put themselves in a position to embrace the other four behaviors, the next of which is the mastery of conflict.

On mastering conflict:

Contrary to popular wisdom and behavior, conflict is not a bad thing for a team. In fact, the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems. Of course, the kind of conflict I’m referring to here is not the nasty kind that centers around people or personalities. Rather, it is what I call productive ideological conflict, the willingness to disagree, even passionately when necessary, around important issues and decisions that must be made. But this can only happen when there is trust…When leadership team members fail to disagree around issues, not only are they increasing the likelihood of losing respect for one another and encountering destructive conflict later when people start griping in the hallways, they’re also making bad decisions and letting down the people they’re supposed to be serving. And they do this all in the name of being “nice.”

On achieving commitment:

The reason that conflict is so important is that a team cannot achieve commitment without it. People will not actively commit to a decision if they have not had the opportunity to provide input, ask questions, and understand the rationale behind it. Another way to say this is, “If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.”

On embracing accountability:

Even well-intentioned members of a team need to be held accountable if a team is going to stick to its decisions and accomplish its goals. In some cases, people will deviate from a plan or a decision knowingly, tempted to do something that is in their individual best interest but not that of the team. In other cases, people will stray without realizing it, getting distracted or caught up in the pushes and pulls of daily work. In either case, it’s the job of the team to call those people out and keep them in line…At its core, accountability is about having the courage to confront someone about their deficiencies and then to stand in the moment and deal with their reaction, which may not be pleasant. It is a selfless act, one rooted in a word that I don’t use lightly in a business book: love. To hold someone accountable is to care about them enough to risk having them blame you for pointing out their deficiencies.

On focusing on results:

The ultimate point of building greater trust, conflict, commitment, and accountability is one thing: the achievement of results. That certainly seems obvious, but as it turns out, one of the greatest challenges to team success is the inattention to results. What would members of an executive team be focused on if not the results of their organization? Well, for one, the results of their department. Too many leaders seem to have a greater affinity for and loyalty to the department they lead rather than the team they’re a member of and the organization they are supposed to be collectively serving. Other distractions include a concern for individual career development, budget allocations, status, and ego, all of them common distractions that prevent teams from being obsessed with achieving results…The only way for a team to really be a team and to maximize its output is to ensure that everyone is focused on the same priorities— rowing in the same direction, if you will.

The second discipline is about Creating Clarity:

The second requirement for building a healthy organization—creating clarity—is all about achieving alignment. This is a word that is used incessantly by leaders, consultants, and organizational theorists, and yet for all the attention it gets, real alignment remains frustratingly rare. Most executives who run organizations—and certainly the employees who work for them—will readily this.

This is done by answering six fundamental questions:

1. Why do we exist? 2. How do we behave? 3. What do we do? 4. How will we succeed? 5. What is most important, right now? 6. Who must do what?

On what do we do:

If an organization’s reason for existence answers the Question, Why?, then its business definition answers the question. What? It’s critical that it be clear and straightforward. It should not be crafted so that it also be used in marketing material. The point is just to make sure that the leadership team is crystal clear about, and can accurately describe, the nature of the organization’s business so that they don’t create confusion within the rest of the company or, for that matter, in the market. It’s as simple as that.

On how we will succeed:

We came to realize that the best way for an organization to make strategy practical is to boil it down to three strategic anchors that will be used to inform every decision the organization makes and provide the filter or lens through which decisions must be evaluated to ensure consistency. Strategic anchors provide the context for all decision making and help companies avoid the temptation to make purely pragmatic and opportunistic decisions that so often end up diminishing a company’s plan for success.

On who must do that:

There is not a great deal to be said about this particular question, aside from warning leadership teams not to take it for granted. Although there is often clarity among executives in most organizations about who does what on the team, making assumptions about that clarity can lead to surprising and unnecessary problems.

The third discipline is Overcommunicating Clarity:

What those leaders fail to realize is that employees understand the need for repetition. They know that messaging is not so much an Intellectual process as an emotional one. Employees are not analyzing what leaders are saying based solely on whether it is intellectually novel or compelling, but more than anything else on whether they believe the leaders are serious, authentic, and committed to what they are saying. Again, that means repetition is a must.

The fourth and last discipline is Reinforcing Clarity:

As important as overcommunication is, leaders of a healthy organization cannot always be around to remind employees about the company’s reason for existing, its values, and so on. In order to ensure that the answers to the six critical questions become embedded in the fabric of the organization, leaders must do everything they can to reinforce them structurally as well. The way to do that is to make sure that every human system every process that involves people—from hiring and people management to training and compensation, is designed to reinforce the answers to those questions. The challenge is to do this without adding too much structure.

A concluding reminder that success in creating healthy organization rests on the leaders of the organization:

There is just no escaping the fact that the single biggest factor determining whether an organization is going to get healthier—or not—is the genuine commitment and active involvement of the person in charge. For a company, that’s the CEO. For a small business, it’s the owner. For a school, it’s the principal. For a church, it’s the pastor. For a department within a company, it’s the department head. At every step in the process, the leader must be out front, not as a cheerleader or a figurehead, but as an active, tenacious driver.

While there is a considerable effort involved, there is also a substantial reward:

At the end of the day, at the end of our careers, when we look back at the many initiatives that we poured ourselves into, few other activities will seem more worthy of our effort and more impactful on the lives of others, than making our organizations healthy.

A recommended read in the area of organizational leadership and management. If you have not read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, I highly recommend you read that one first.