Will We Be A Speedboat Or An Oil Tanker?

I’ve heard more than one new leader tell their team why their business needs to be a speedboat and not an oil tanker. Agile, fast, reactive and responsive rather than heavy, awkward, hard to steer, slow to change and slow to start. It’s not a bad metaphor if all you want is to highlight the merits of agility over inertia.

The speedboat however isn’t for me. There are many qualities of a speedboat I don’t like and I can’t put aside. They don’t have room for a lot of people, unless you’re very very rich. The person driving the speedboat rarely needs any expertise or qualifications, In fact as speedboats can have almost no indicators and simple controls most people think they can grab the wheel without any practice at all, which scares me silly. They’re not very suited for long journeys and they’re far from comfortable in rough seas or bad weather. In fact the worse the weather the more exposed and vulnerable you’ll be. And they can whiz round all day long making a lot of noise and waves without actually getting you anywhere.

But I don’t want to work on the Exxon Valdez either.

I want to work on a battleship. The running and maintenance of a battleship has several attributes that a business could mirror to be more effective.

  1. Expertise is essential. Not just the captain, but every man and woman aboard needs to be well trained to perform their role. The bridge of this boat has many systems and indicators, which all need to be interpreted accurately. There is no place for guesswork here.
  2. Don’t panic. Decisions need be informed and best taken without emotion or panic. Panicking does not only slow down reaction time and effectiveness, it’s also contagious and can spread quickly. People tend not to panic when they are skilled at what they do.
  3. Command and control. Every crew member is expected to know their role and perform it to the best of their abilities. Because the hierarchy is clear and every crew member understands thier position in the organisation, orders are relayed to the right destination and actioned.  Because crew members are clear on what is expected of them they take pride in the execution of their duties.
  4. The ability to avoid icebergs. Information needs to be relayed down through the organisation quickly, accurately, to the right destination and people. If that fails you’re sunk. Equally, information needs to be relayed upwards with the same accuracy and efficiency. The bridge’s ability to make correct tactical decisions relies entirely on factual and relevant information received in good time. Everyone understands the danger from the distorting of messages and instructions, or ‘Chinese whispers’.
  5. It’s about teamwork. There may be one captain but the boat can not function without many men and women on the bridge to help steer it and everyone throughout the boat working together. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s about knowing your role, but it’s also about helping the colleague next to you and recognizing that they needed the help. In other words, you’re only as strong as your weakest link so look out for your shipmates.
  6. Target the enemy. I’ve had plenty of experience watching businesses try to take on multiple issues or competitors at the same time with limited resources. A battleship can not fire in four directions at once. It’s a sure way to use all your ammo and hit nothing. So an effective battleship positions itself in relation to a single foe and directs all its fire on that target until it achieves success. And this is possible thanks to good communication where all the crew know what and where the target is.
  7. Built to endure. This boat can take its share of bad weather and enemies’ attacks. It can be months at sea, and still support a large crew of men and women. It can follow a predetermined course, with specific destinations to ensure time to refuel and restock; and maybe a little R&R. But this is not a boat for recreation, it has a purpose, a direction, and a goal.
  8. Fight like your life depends on it. You’re on a warship, this isn’t a game. Everyone on the boat pulls together as I’ve mentioned above: they apply their skills expertly and ‘man their station’, they communicate clearly and calmly, and action the orders they receive, they help each other out and work together to achieve a common goal.  When times are tough they put everything into it, and they demand that of all their fellow crew members.

OK. You’ve probably guessed that I’ve never been in the Navy! But I did see the film last year, and I was quite impressed with a 50 year old battleship with pre-digital systems and a steam engine engaging 3 alien ships that had come from 100s of light years away with advanced technology superior enough to keep the rest of the US Pacific fleet at bay, kicking their asses and saving the world. So there has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

I’ve professed a love for metaphors before. If anyone out there actually has worked on a warship and wants to correct or add to this one, all feedback gratefully received.

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