Expert Performance at Sea

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

One of the benefits of having published Peak is getting contacted by people from all walks of life who write to describe how they have used deliberate practice to develop their particular expertise. Sometimes they tell us that they had never heard the term “deliberate practice’ before reading the book, but they had been using a very similar approach because they had discovered that it worked. And sometimes they had heard of the term—generally by running across a description of Anders’ work in the scientific literature or in some popular book or magazine article—and they had done their best to follow his advice. But whatever direction they are coming from, we generally find that  we can learn something new from each of them.

One of the more unusual contacts we have received was from a ship’s captain who had been in charge of some of the largest commercial ships in the world, sailing them all around the globe, and who told us how deliberate practice had played a major role in his success.

Capt. V. S. Parani

For fifteen years Captain V.S. Parani worked for the Mediterranean Shipping Company, or MSC, which is the second largest shipping company in the world. He went to sea at seventeen and worked his way up through the company’s ranks, becoming at a captain at twenty-nine. At that point he was the youngest captain in the company. He later would take various corporate positions, overseeing safety and quality control for a while and later crewing and training. At this point he works for Oceanic Marine Management out of Cyprus, as its health, safety, security, environmental, and quality manager.

But what brings Capt. Parani to our attention here is that he recently published a book, Golden Stripes: Leadership on the High Seas. In it he offers lessons on how to be a better ship’s officer. Although the book is aimed specifically at people who will be in command positions on commercial ships, its blueprint on how to be a better leader can be applied, it seems to me, in pretty much any area. And more to the point, it is in many ways a treatise on how to use deliberate practice to improve your leadership skills.

Capt. Parani did not put it in exactly this way, but the main theme of the book is how to prepare for things going wrong. On a ship at sea—as in many other jobs—the basic day-to-day jobs are relatively straightforward to most mariners. I’m not saying that it’s easy—learning everything you need to know to do the job properly still requires a lot of work—but it’s something that a motivated person can master. This is what we might call “basic mastery”—knowing what to do when everything is going right.

However, it is another level of mastery altogether to be able to know what to do when things go wrong. As Capt. Parani says, the thing that separates the best officers from everyone else is how they respond to the unexpected.

Captain Parani opens his book with an anecdote that illustrates this perfectly. It was his first job as a third officer, and his first day on the job. He was on the bridge of a large oil tanker leaving from an oil terminal and sailing down a river to the open sea. Suddenly the rudder stopped working. Recalling his training, Parani engaged the backup system. Nothing. At this point Parani had exhausted his knowledge of what to do, and the tanker was headed directly toward some rocks. The captain, who was also on the bridge, had no better idea than Parani what to do. To Parani’s consternation, the captain seemed frozen, helpless.

Fortunately there was an experienced harbor pilot on board who made his way to the bridge, assessed the situation, and immediately ordered the engines to be thrown into reverse and the two anchors to be dropped.  The ship came to a stop less that a hundred yards from the rocks.

The experience, Capt. Parani writes, led him to promise himself that he would never again be unprepared for an emergency.

But how to reach that point? This is where deliberate practice comes in.

Learning to be a good ship’s captain is very different from the process one goes through to learn how to play a musical instrument well—which is the stereotypical example of deliberate practice. There are no teachers giving you series of exercises to practice over and over again in order to improve your performance as a ship’s captain. What training exists is pretty rudimentary, designed mainly to get you to basic competency, where you know what you’re supposed to do when everything is going right, along with familiarity with a relatively small number of emergency procedures.

So Parani was mainly on his own as he tried to turn himself into an officer who would be prepared to handle the unexpected.

Although he doesn’t put it in these terms, what Capt. Parani did over his years of working to become an outstanding officer was develop a set of accurate and effective mental representations of every aspect of operating a ship, from navigation to maintenance and from dealing with a crew to getting a ship safely through a narrow passage. He did this by constantly learning. He read everything he could find about operating a ship. He asked questions of everyone, from experienced captains to seamen in charge of maintaining the engines. He sought to understand not just the what of operating a ship but the how and the why—how the different components of a ship worked together to make it run and how things can go wrong, along with why things are done one way and not another. He also asked himself a lot of “What if?” questions, thinking through what the best response would be in different situations.

This approach leads to improvements in two different aspects of running a ship: responding quickly and effectively when something unexpected happens, and, more important, doing whatever is possible to avoid the unexpected in the first place.

The best way to train for the unexpected at sea is to learn as much as possible about how a ship operates—including learning about the environments in which the ship operates—and to prepare ahead of time for the unexpected by imaging the various things that might go wrong and coming up ahead of time with plans for dealing with those things. Although Capt. Parani does not say this explicitly, it was probably this sort of planning ahead that allowed the harbor pilot to respond so quickly when the oil tanker’s rudder stopped responding and the ship was headed for the rocks. More than likely, at some point before that emergency he had imagined a very similar situation and had thought through how he should respond. Emergencies seldom give you much time to sit and ponder the various options open to you and settle on the best one; the best defense against such emergencies is to have already developed a mental model of the emergency and the best response to it, so that you can respond quickly and effectively.

An even better scenario is to anticipate what sorts of things might go wrong and, when possible, act to prevent those things from happening. It’s a sort of invisible expertise. Unlike a dramatic action in an emergency where you know what needs to be done and you do it, this expertise has its payoff when nothing dramatic happens at all. The expertise becomes apparent only in retrospect when you, for example, notice that one captain’s ships are involved in far fewer accidents or incidents than is typical.

In one of the most interesting passages in his book, Capt. Parani describes work he did as a safety manager to minimize how often ships in the MSC fleet ran aground or were damaged by coming into contact with other ships in port. The problem, he decided, was that too many of the ships’ officers had a “Take it as it comes” approach to their duties. That is, they knew what to do as long as everything went right, but they had never spent much time thinking about what they should do to avoid things going wrong.

Capt. Parani got the fleet’s officers to take a more proactive and deliberate approach to bringing their ships into port. He taught them to develop maneuvering plans for specific areas in which they analyzed such things as the wind and current directions, the ship’s characteristics, and speed limits in that area in order to come up with a plan for exactly how to move the ship. He had them practice those maneuvers in a simulator. And he urged them to speak with pilots and other ships’ captains to better understand the complexities of the maneuvers they were contemplating.

After he instituted this approach to planning and practicing, Capt. Parani writes, the fleet’s incidents of grounding and contact damage within ports fell by 90 percent.

To me this seemed to be the key takeaway message of the book for people in nearly any field and not just the shipping industry: One of the most effective ways to improve performance is to develop effective mental representations that encompass the various situations you may encounter along with the best ways to respond to those situations. You develop those mental representations by thinking about the situations ahead of time, analyzing them using whatever data you have available, talking with other people about how they might deal with them, and developing plans based on those considerations. If you can practice your plans with simulators or other means, so much the better. But the key is to know ahead of time how you are going to respond to various situations so that you are ready when they arise.

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