Ball Diamond Ball – The U.S. Navy’s Failure To Reorient To Danger

RAM Nav Lights - Navy Ship Restricted In Ability To Maneuver
USN Guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher (DDG 57) lights up its mast to indicate restricted in ability to maneuver (RAM) during night delayed landing qualifications. Photo via US Navy

By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) Collision avoidance requires all members of a bridge team to have certain traits. Observation skills, quick thinking, intuition, pattern recognition and the ability to make and act upon decisions quickly in a complex environment. A prudent watch officer must also be able to recognize when the only good option is to turn the ship around to cut forward momentum.

Are these skills the US Navy deploys (or even recognize)?

Turn the Ship Around! Book On Naval Leadership
Related Book: Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. By L. David Marquet

The Naval Academy leadership book defines Leadership as “The art, science or gift by which a person is enabled and privileged to direct the thoughts, plans and actions of others in such a manner as to obtain and command their obedience their confidence, their respect, and their loyal cooperation”. Leadership is about controlling people and the primary reason the US Navy fosters a control mindset is to avoid making mistakes.

But is it possible for a Captain to control and command the obedience of bridge team while the ship is immersed in a highly complicated vessel traffic situation? Is it possible – with the publication of checklist, policies, and procedures – for shore based Admirals to command the mind and actions of a helmsman seconds before a collision?

The United States Navy, like most large organization, spends a vast amount of time, money and focus on avoiding mistakes. Mistakes are easy to investigate, easy to quantify, easy to manage but focusing on avoiding mistakes takes our focus away from becoming exceptional.

Once a ship has achieved success merely in the form of preventing major errors there is no need to strive beyond the level of minimum competence. There is no need to innovate or excel. When it comes to avoiding mistakes, ideas and thoughts take a back seat to checklists and processes, adherence to the process frequently becomes the only objective, as opposed to achieving the objective that the process was put in place to achieve.

“When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights.” Says Gary Klein, author of Seeing What Others Don’t. “Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes.”

Dr. Klein’s advice is important because he is the top pioneer in the field of naturalistic decision-making, the branch of psychology studying how people make decisions and perform cognitively complex functions in demanding real-world situations. Klein’s insights, published in his award-winning book Sources Of Power are based on observations of humans acting under such real-life constraints as time pressure, high stakes, personal responsibility, and shifting conditions. Humans like watchstanders on the bridge of a warship in the Singapore Strait.

Dr. Klein warns against top down, control based organizations that command the obedience of crew, focus on mistake avoidance and punish followers  not in strict compliance with the rules. Klein recommends that, instead of controlling the actions of followers, leaders empower their men to become leaders themselves. Junior crew members might not have the technical expertise of the Captain or the proven track record of an Admiral but, according to Klein, “good enough” solutions for complex problems under time pressure are much more effective than wasting time to find a perfect solution.

Rather than explore all possible options and evaluate their trade-offs Klein says that effective officers work by quickly run a mental simulation in their mind. If they find the option won’t work, they quickly move on to the next simulation until they find one that matches their observation of the current traffic situation.

As a licensed ship captain I immediately recognized the value of Dr. Klein’s advice the moment I first read it but translating his teachings to the ocean environment proved difficult. How does a ship’s master translate academic ideas into command tactics? And is it possible for a U.S. Navy captain, who operates under a far stricter set of legal and operational codes,  to relinquish control and empower his crew to make decisions and take independent action?

Merchant ship captains are often critical of the US Navy’s watchstanding practices and strict hierarchical structure.  Few are able to share positive comments about the US Navy beyond broad concepts like “patriotism”, “honor” and “commitment”. In narrowing their focus to what they can see through binoculars and hear on the VHF, civilian officers aboard ship are missing some significant advantages to the US Navy’s system.

Navy ships are well manned by a highly trained and motivated crew of enlisted sailors. Naval officers are highly educated and highly screened for a myriad of traits including intelligence, ability, core knowledge and a winning attitude. And the US Navy has an enormous pool of candidates from which to pick its commanding officers. It also has a very large budget. 

Some of these positive traits work against the Navy. A Naval officer is unlikely to pass through the screen of a promotion board if he adopted the advice of today’s most successful silicon valley entrepreneurs to Fail Fast, Fail Often. But these traits, accompanied by a mental focus on the uncertainties of combat, do produce creative thinking at times. And sometimes the negative traits, like strict top-down leadership, allow individual Admirals to protect and incubate the ideas of radical thinkers.

Such is the case with Captain L. David Marquet, US Navy retired who, as Commanding Officer of a submarine, developed a radical new method of leadership that may be the missing link between the psychological research of Gary Klein, innovative communication structures (e.g. Donald Vandergriff’s Mission Command philosophy) and the proven teachings of John Boyd.

After being assigned to command the nuclear-powered submarine USS Santa Fe, then ranked last in retention and operational standing, Marquet realized the traditional leadership approach of “take control, give orders,” wouldn’t work. He turned his ship around by creating a leader-leader command structure… treating the crew as leaders, not followers, and giving control, not taking control. This approach took the Santa Fe from “worst to first,” achieving the highest retention and operational standings in the navy.

“The leader-leader model not only achieves great improvements in effectiveness and morale but also makes the organization stronger,” says Marquet in his bestselling book Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. “Most critically, these improvements are enduring, decoupled from the leader’s personality and presence. Leader-leader structures are significantly more resilient, and they do not rely on the designated leader always being right. Further, leader-leader structures spawn additional leaders throughout the organization naturally. It can’t be stopped.”

Don’t get the wrong impression that the entire U.S. Navy works this way – most American Naval vessels have not adopted the ideas Marquet implemented over a decade ago – but it is important for the civilian shipping world to understand that many new ideas and smart innovative systems of thought and leadership are still developed within the hulls of warships.

Several gCaptain editorials have stated that Pentagon admirals could learn important lessons from the way civilian ships operate (and we are very happy to report that some important people are starting to listen!) but there is also much we civilians can learn from the US Navy. The key to reducing incidents on both sides of the channel is to improve communication and the quantity and depth of interactions between US Navy, US Coast Guard and US Merchant Marine officers.

What is particularly useful about Marquet’s advice is that it provides a framework that can be adopted by large global shipping organizations AND also provides functional advice to ship captains, officers, and crews working aboard vessels of all sizes and shapes.

gCaptain highly recommends Captain Marquet’s book to all readers because every one of you will take away positive and specific advice that can be implemented aboard your ship(s).

The overall takeaway of the book, however, from my perspective as a master mariner, is that the civilian world of shipping has much to learn from the US Navy and vice-versa. The Navy should not only implement Marquet’s ideas aboard their own ships but in improving communication between the Navy and merchant marine.

My overall takeaway as an editor of gCaptain is that the modern Navy of 2017 still has the intelligence, drive, and passion within its ranks to create and test innovative, world changing, ideas. Unfortunately, the Navy shows little ability to recognize and promote the ideas of its own thought leaders.

The current leadership of the US Navy is like a large slow and heavy drillship, technologically advanced but dangerously connected to ancient sources of power… black oil deep below the surface. Today the Pentagon flys the ball-diamond-ball day shape of a drillship restricted in her ability to maneuver, moving forward at zero point zero knots and unwilling to alter her course or position for any vessel or idea that threatens her connection to the past.

Pockets of innovation are alive and well aboard navy ships, in her labs, and within certain classrooms at the US Naval War College and US Naval Academy but few are adopted internally or shared with civilians. The question is: can the Navy’s top heavy leadership ever support the work of those like Captain Marquet, men who have decided to be rather to do.

When will senior Admirals realize that their oath to support and defend the first amendment includes supporting and defending those within their ranks who speak the truth or offer an honest opinion about both problems and innovative new ideas that will make the nation stronger? Will the Pentagon ever Turn the Ship Around to face the new world of complexity and information in which we now live?

I believe the answer is yes. We all have a long voyage ahead of us if we want to prevent future incidents like the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald collisions, we will all have to sail together in one convoy in order to better understand and communicate together.  And I feel hopeful because the Navy has already cast off the first line.

Related Video by Captain L. David Marquet,