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Captain Mike Abrashoff

May 7, 2009

Just reflecting on the day I spent in Boston with Deborah Ancona, from the Sloan School at MIT, who shared ideas on leadership, innovation and improving performance in organisations.  Deborah has developed a new approach, known as X-teams that has been adopted in many of the worlds top companies.  To illustrate, she used a great story about the  US Naval Captain Mike Abrashoff who transformed one of the worst performing ships in the US Navy into one of the highest:

Performance on the ship Mike Abrashoff inherited was dreadful, but in the Navy, he didn’t have the option to hire, fire or promote personnel. What he could do was change the culture to elevate performance – and that’s exactly what he did, making his ship the Navy’s top performer. Publications from Fast Company to the Harvard Business Review have heralded the remarkable turnaround of the USS Benfold and business schools have made it a case study in organizational success. Abrashoff’s book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, is a best seller with over 340,000 copies in print. His follow up, Get Your Ship Together, has leaders telling how their organizations have put his grassroots leadership principles to work, and his latest, It’s Our Ship, highlights the leadership, motivational, and management insights and tips that inspire world-class teamwork.

People at every level in business relate to the idea of being held accountable for results without having the ability to make the rules. Abrashoff shows that’s no excuse for poor performance. Saddled with the Navy’s rules and bureaucracy, Abrashoff shows there are options people can exercise to take control and manage results. In his case, he made a determined effort to see the ship from the eyes of his crew – a grassroots leadership approach. He bestowed a sense of ownership to every crew member, reversed excessive costs and turnover, improved morale and made performance top priority. Abrashoff’s story inspires audiences to change their organizations and instills a renewed responsibility for organizational success.

I took away lots of insights and inspiration for my organisation and thinking more broadly about innovation in local government in England.  

To summarise the Abrashoff message

– Every person takes ownership and feels responsible for organizational success
– The focus is on purpose and performance
– Leaders listen aggressively in order to manage change on their own terms
– Change and innovation are not only accepted but embraced

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