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Longing for the Endless Immensity of the Sea

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Longing for the Endless Immensity of the Sea

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This quote comes up every now and again in agile circles. It’s almost as if we are saying something like this…

“If you want to transform an organization, don’t drum up people to form teams and write user stories, but rather teach them to long for self-organization and empowered enterprises.” – paraphrase by Mike Cottmeyer

I think much of training in our industry is like this. I think the primary focus of the CSM class is less about agile and more about teaching a longing for the endless immensity of the sea.

What happens though, once I long for the endless immensity of the sea, and now it’s time to build a boat?

Once I desire self-organization and empowered enterprises, what do I do to make that happen?

There is this notional idea that once we see it, once we have everyone on board, once we get a sufficient cultural shift going… people will self-organize the boat.

There is a popular book going around right now called ‘Turn The Ship Around’ by David Marquet. I got to meet David a year or two ago in Copenhagen and read his book.

It’s a good read.

The general idea behind the book is that we should give control rather than take control. That we should create leaders rather than forging orders.

One of the things that I think is missing from much of the analysis of Marquet’s work is the context in which he gives control and creates leaders.

The ship is built. It has an operational model. People have well defined responsibilities within the system. Policies and procedures exist to guide them how to do their job well.

David is not teaching his people to love the sea and empowering them to make all the rest of the decisions by themselves.

They are empowered within a well defined framework, within a well defined context, with clear objectives and training for how to do their jobs.

To that end… I think we’ve asked the world to long for the endless immensity of the sea and the world has said yes. Now it’s time to start developing ship builders.

What does it mean to have an agile operational model? To have well defined responsibilities within the system? What are the policies and procedures that exist to guide us on how to do our jobs well?

This is the stuff of an agile transformation.

It is not enough to long for self-organization and empowerment.

We need ship builders.

People that know how to develop agile systems of delivery.

People that know how to operate an agile enterprise.

People that know how to craft policies and procedures and training so folks know how to do their jobs well.

We long for the immensity of the sea… and that is not enough.

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Comments (4)

  1. Chris Shinkle


    Love reading your stuff. It always gives me lots to think about. Keep it up! :-)


  2. Karen Deonarine

    I just came across a quote by Antoine De Saint Exupery from the book The Motivation Manifesto, and on looking up its meaning, I came across the same quote but outlined differently by Mike Cottmeyer. Since I lead an organization, I found your article quite interesting. I love ❤️ reading and absorbing from all successful individuals. Thank you for sharing. 🙏

  3. Frank Vassallo

    Just came across this quote in Lean Enterprise – How High Performance Organisations Innovate at Scale by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky and Barry O’Reilly – great book, as is your article, thought provoking. Made me think of the number of times I have heard, change your mindset, have a growth/benefit mindset, not fixed and everything will be wonderfully agile ;-)


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