David Marquet’s “Blue & Red Work”
David Marquet is the former US submarine commander that you may have read his book “Turn the Ship Around!” and his famous video on “intent-based leadership,” which is his take on how to transform a passive team of instruction followers into critical thinkers and autonomous decision makers.
In his second book “Leadership is Language“, Marquet introduces an easy to remember “blue and red work” concept to highlight the importance of separating thinking time and doing time in both individual work and teamwork.
Red Work: Doing Time
We continue to be haunted by the ghosts of Taylorism (“Scientific Management,” 1911), and the decades of promoting the human side of the enterprise, learning organizations and reflective leadership show how pervasive the factory model of business is in the workplace still.
Red work is doing, executing, producing so there’s no work that doesn’t involve red work. The problem is the stigma associated with red work.
Marquet rightly characterizes that one key of aspect of red work is the avoidance of “variability,” i.e. the seeking of consistant output and quality. While there is value in reduction of variability itself as that’s the whole idea behind Lean Six Sigma, it becomes a problem when it translates into instructive leadership and “just tell me what to do” followership. Over-emphasis of red work stymies creativity from risk taking; red work dominated workers fear errors as a display of incompetence, and often become slaves to procedures (in psychology we call this phenomenon “learned helplessness”).
Blue Work: Thinking Time
Blue work is time for thinking, exploring, learning, improving.
If red work is about reducing variability, blue work is embracing variability. As in the divergent thinking in Design Thinking, it’s time for being creative and risk taking.
Blue work is also time for decision making and planning. And Marquet’s book makes a particular emphasis that the class separation of leaders and managers as decision makers and planners, and the rest of the workforce as just doers, is a relic of Taylorism. In today’s complex world, the person who is closest to a particular aspect of the customer, product (service) etc. most likely will have the best information to make a decision. So we lead each other and follow each other’s decision making.
It’s All in the Balance of Blue and Red Work
Too much blue work is a problem too. One of the problems of blue work oriented teams is that they often fall into the trap of analysis paralysis, and their red work can lack follow-through thanks to the frequent meddling of blue work midway in execution (“I think we need some more time because we need to review…”). And judging from the popularity of Nike’s “just do it” slogan, Stoicsm and books like David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” there is clearly a population that is frustrated with our general inability of execution and delivery.
From a psychology perspective, “planning falacy” is a real thing. It’s a form of optimism bias and heuristic error that creates the “tendency to underestimate the time, costs, and risks of future actions and at the same time overestimate the benefits of the same actions.”
What we need is a blue-red iterative process: what is planned in blue work is executed without distraction during red work, and an inspection and adaptation process follows in blue work to adjust the plan to deliver with more precision in the next red work phase.
In short, we need to build a process of iterative blue and red work. Both are important, and they need to be done in iteration.
My favorite definition of critical thinking is the ability to engage in independent, reflective thinking. To grow everyone in the team to become critical thinkers, dedicated time for blue work is essential.
Agile Scrum and the Blue-Red Work Operating Rhythm
By now you can tell that this iterative process of blue and red work is very “agile.” Indeed, this book is an homage to agile by Marquet. Although he doesn’t specifically mention Scrum, Marquet makes direct reference to the Agile Manifesto and explains how his blue and red work concept works in the timeboxed sprints and other Scrum events:
Raising Consciousness of Blue and Red Work is Highly Effective in Coaching Stagnant Scrum Teams
As an agile coach, I will sometimes come across “stagnant” Scrum teams – teams that you can feel the collective creative juice isn’t flowing. My intervention approach will typically be around working on igniting the critical thinker inside each team member, and I am finding this blue and red concept from David Marquet a powerful coaching tool that aids this effort.
If you are experiencing that the creative juice isn’t flowing in your team, give this blue and red teamwork process a try.
NB: I have intentionally used the expression “blue and red work” in this article instead of “red and blue work” which author David Marquet typically uses in his book. The reason behind this is because I simply find “think-do” more naturally flowing than “do-think” as a sequence of action.