Thursday, November 02, 2006

Announcing: A Little Book of f-Laws: 13 Common Sins of Management

A Little Book of f-Laws: 13 Common Sins of Management by Russell Ackoff, Herbert Addison & Sally Bibb (published 9 November 2006).

Witty, ironic and deliciously un-PC, f-Laws are the hard truths about office life we'd rather ignore. Devised by Wharton emeritus professor Russell Ackoff, now in his 80s, A Little Book of f-Laws both challenges and confirms the orthodoxy of current management thinking. It will strike a chord with anyone who has ever worked in an organisation – whether it is an office, church, school or prison! Crucially, it asks: can management and employees ever work together in harmony to create the mythical 'best organisation'? Or is your office 'The Office'?

In response, award-winning writer and senior executive at the Economist group, Sally Bibb gives her own choice observations on life in the modern organisation. The result is a concise and engaged dialogue between three of the most original thinkers in business today across two generations, two continents and the two sexes.

f-Law: A bureaucrat is one who has the power to say 'no' but none to say 'yes'.

A Little Book of F-Laws: 13 Common Sins of Management is a teaser for the forthcoming Management F-Laws: How organisations really work, which comprises more than 70 f-Laws (published by Triarchy Press on 24 January 2007).

You can read the Little Book of F-Laws e-book at the preview site The main site,, goes live on publication day, 9th November. If you like the book, please feel free to put a link to the e-book on your site.

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Announcing: A Little Book of f-Laws: 13 Common Sins of Management

A Little Book of f-Laws: 13 Common Sins of Management by Russell Ackoff, Herbert Addison & Sally Bibb (published 9 November 2006).

Witty, ironic and deliciously un-PC, f-Laws are the hard truths about office life we'd rather ignore. Devised by Wharton emeritus professor Russell Ackoff, now in his 80s, A Little Book of f-Laws both challenges and confirms the orthodoxy of current management thinking. It will strike a chord with anyone who has ever worked in an organisation – whether it is an office, church, school or prison! Crucially, it asks: can management and employees ever work together in harmony to create the mythical 'best organisation'? Or is your office 'The Office'?

In response, award-winning writer and senior executive at the Economist group, Sally Bibb gives her own choice observations on life in the modern organisation. The result is a concise and engaged dialogue between three of the most original thinkers in business today across two generations, two continents and the two sexes.

f-Law: A bureaucrat is one who has the power to say 'no' but none to say 'yes'.

A Little Book of F-Laws: 13 Common Sins of Management is a teaser for the forthcoming Management F-Laws: How organisations really work, which comprises more than 70 f-Laws (published by Triarchy Press on 24 January 2007).

You can read the Little Book of F-Laws e-book at the preview site The main site,, goes live on publication day, 9th November. If you like the book, please feel free to put a link to the e-book on your site.

Friday, June 30, 2006

My response

Here's my response to Mr Blanik:

"I agree with you in that if any crew member was SURE the Pan Am was on the runway, take off would be aborted. However, the issue of power distance comes into play especially when there is time pressure, a lot of stress and ambiguity.

In KLM's case, Captain Van Zanten was under pressure because of the flight delays. He was sure there was no plane on the runway. Of course, the flight engineer was not SURE and hence he couldn't make a firm statement. Because he wasn't sure, the flight engineer had to keep quiet when he was over-ruled by Van Zanten. But let's say Van Zanten himself had a doubt about whether the Pan Am had cleared the runway. Would he have taken off? Highly unlikely. So the fact that Van Zanten had more power than the flight engineer is significant.

As far as putting another group of people into a flight simulator goes, I would say that what matters is not what happens in the flight simulator. What matters is the mindset of the captain. If a captain has the attitude that he is the boss and hence has more power than the others, he will do what he thinks is right, regardless of the others' opinions. In that sense, putting another group of people in the simulator would have given the same result: the captain would have taken off. That is why I don't blame Van Zanten - I am not a pilot but if I was in Van Zanten's position, I would probably have taken off too.

On the other hand, let's say that captains had to be voted in. I am not talking of voting over an issue at the instant a decision has to be made (such as whether to take-off), but voting for the captain himself. This would not happen in the cockpit, but well before that - ie, when the captain is 'appointed'.

Once a captain/boss knows that subordinates have the power to vote him out, it produces a different mindset - bosses are more likely to listen to their subordinates. If the flight engineer had a doubt, then Van Zanten would probably have treated that doubt more seriously than he did.

This situation is very similar to that of space shuttle Challenger. The shuttle engineers had argued against lift-off, but they didn't have enough data to prove their case. The situation was ambiguous. Their bosses over-ruled them. Again, the bosses were under pressure – several earlier lift-offs had been cancelled and the rocket booster contractors had a billion dollars at stake. In this situation - ambiguity coupled with other pressures, the bosses used their power. The result was tragic.

Hence, in my opinion, power-distance was a significant factor in the KLM/Pan Am disaster. Of course, this factor would not have come into play at all, if the various other factors (bomb scare at the airport, fog, heterodyne etc) hadn't occurred in the first place. "

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Tenerife disaster, revisited

In response to my post on the Tenerife disaster (in which two Jumbo jets collided and over 500 people died), "Mr Blanik" (a nickname) writes:

"I'd like to say that many people, including myself, disagree completely about blaming "power distance" among KLM 747's crew as a factor on this accident. Briefingly, I'd say that if any crew member were SURE the PanAm was actualy on the runway, they would have interrupted the takeoff. You should try putting a captain, a copilot and a FE into a flight simmulator and emmulate a situation where they should elect for aborting an important* manouver based on a doubtfull information from the copilot or theFE. See that by yourself.

*something all of them believe to be a mission.

PS- the copilot was acctualy a DC-8 experienced captain.PS2- sorry about my english. I'm a portuguese speaker."


My response in my next post.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Hierarchy insanity

I received this email from an individual (who has asked to remain anonymous):

"I would like to share a recent experience of rankism I had when working on a new contract for a major UK utility company.

"I was at a handover meeting with a colleague from whom I was to take over the implementation of a project. I was expressing some concern at the timescale/resources which our boss had set and asking advice on how my colleague had proposed to complete the work. "Oh" she said "don't you do the work, get your team to do it for you, that's what I always do.

"The team in question consisted of a layer of first-line managers and clerical staff; I had noticed that they were miserable, overworked and very negative about the Company. When I thought about this advice in the context of the organisation I had observed over the short time I had been there, I realised that this was howthey probably operated right down the chain of command....The Chief Exec had probably told the Director to sort out such and such and the Director (notwanting to do the work herself) told the Head of Function to do it. The Head of Function didn't want to do any real work herself but told theoriginal manager (my colleague) to do it, which she had been doing until I came along, using the same management principle ie pushing it down!

"So I wonder how the first line supervisors had been accomplishing their workload? Doesn't take much guessing does it?

"This particular organisation had an appalling record of performance andcustomer service, but thought they were enlightened in their management mission to sort out a recalcitrant workforce - maybe these indicators were nothing to do with the practice I had witnessed... but somehow I suspect they were. The post-script to this story was that none of the executives involved were old farts - all were under 45, and the function involved was...Organisational Development!"

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Friday, May 19, 2006


Robert Fuller, author of Somebodies and Nobodies and All Rise, has coined a great term: rankism. He says rankism is the mother of all isms - sexism, racism and so on, because at the other of all isms lies a power advantage that one has over another. Of course, it's not power that's the problem, but abuses of power.

Obviously, some people use colour or gender (or whatever it is) to outline their claim of supremacy over others - but lying at the heart of all this is the issue of power.

Viewed in this context, all abuses of power - eg a doctor abusing a nurse, a professor exploiting a graduate student or a boss bullying a subordinate qualify as forms of rankism.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Why Your Employees Are Losing Motivation"

More evidence that managers are the biggest demotivators comes from this Harvard Business School paper. The paper mentions a survey of 1.2 million employees and concludes, "The fault lies squarely at the feet of management—both the policies and procedures companies employ in managing their workforces and in the relationships that individual managers establish with their direct reports."

And then of course, the HBS paper provides the usual solutions - how managers should coach their employees, inspire them, promote teamwork and so on. Nothing new there. These solutions aren't going to make you fall out of your chair. Why not? Because you've heard them all before. And yet, nothing has changed. Why not? Because as I keep emphasizing, the system needs to change. Until that changes, all changes will be superficial.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Minor revision to airplane example

If you've read my manifesto, you will know that I have referred to flight as an emergent property for aircraft. Of course, the environment is also part of the 'system', in that the atmosphere/air plays a big role in flight. The sentence including the environment somehow got deleted from the final version of my manifesto. Apologies for that!

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Monday, April 17, 2006


Gerard Fairtlough (former CEO of Shell Chemicals UK and founder of biotechnology company, Celltech), has written a book called: Creative Compartments: a Design for Future Organization and The Three Ways of Getting Things Done in Organizations He talks about a concept called 'triarchy' - you can read more about it here.

He says, "Hierarchy will not easily withdraw. Understanding, inventiveness, balance and bravery will be needed to shift it. But there is good reason to think it can be shifted. Vast energy presently goes to propping up hierarchy. Releasing this energy for constructive use will bring great and clearly recognizable benefits. It will allow organizations to emerge that are much more effective for getting things done and much better places in which to work."

Also, read an interview with Sally Bibb, the author of Stone Age company at the same site (here's the link). There's one point in Sally's book that I particularly like, and that is the comparison of the corporate world to life in a school playground - often, top managers are "overgrown school kids running companies". This is just so true! Unfortunately for the sufferers, they don't have the stomach to fight the bullies - perhaps the same happened in their schooldays. In a lot of ways, the workplace reminds many of the terrible times they had in school - with the awful knowledge that they aren't going to be able to quit work any time soon. With the retirement age creeping upwards, there is no immediate light at the end of the tunnel for those trapped in the corporate schoolground.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The power to humiliate

With great power comes great responsibility, but it seems to me that some people (well, many people) seem to want to attain power not only to gain authority or make money, but also because it puts them in a position in which they can humiliate others.

Sally Bibb has written a superb article in the UK's Guardian newspaper about Alan Sugar's rude behaviour with contestants on the BBC TV show, The Apprentice. In the article, Sally says, "Those who cling on to that style of managment do so because it feeds their need for dominance and power, and, presumably, because they feel it brings them results."

I completely agree with Sally in that there is no need for Mr Sugar to behave as arrogantly as he does. Given his obvious success, one would hope that he play the role of a mentor, rather than a snarling, intimidating bulldog. I suspect that even if Mr Sugar is putting on an act, he's basing that act on a 'tough-guy' image that belongs, as Sally would say, to the stone age.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

"Do I Dare Say Something?"

The Harvard Business School Working Knowledge site mentions a research paper that's concluded that people are too scared to talk at the workplace, because of bosses and hierarchies.

The research was done by HBS professor Amy Edmondson and her colleague, Professor James Detert from Penn State. In an interview, the professors say, "Perhaps most surprising to us has been the degree to which fear appears to be a feature of modern work life."

They also say, "Turning to the modern economy, most of us depend on hierarchical organizations and their agents (i.e., bosses) to meet many of our basic needs for economic support and human relationships. Thus, fear of offending those above us is both natural and widespread. "

The professors' research was titled "Latent Voice Episodes: The Situation-Specific Nature of Speaking up at Work." Basically, they were trying to figure out why people don't speak up at work, and found that it was because of fear.

I'm sure you knew that already. But thanks to the professors, we now know that 'officially'. Their research just confirms what I said in my manifesto, the emergent property at our workplace is fear.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

The consequences of over-work

Sorry for disappearing for a while. I was travelling and forgot to say this in my previous blog.

Although not directly related to bosses, I saw this great article Be smarter at work, slack off. It has this gem of a quote:

"The physiological effects of tiredness are well-known. You can turn a smart person into an idiot just by overworking him," notes Peter Capelli, a professor of management at Wharton.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Why good ideas are resisted

Here's a great line from Hugh Macleod's manifesto, How to be creative:


This is just so true, especially where bosses are concerned.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Monster's Toxic Boss Contest

Monster is running a 'Toxic Boss Contest' between February 27th and March 31st, and there are already 30 pages of responses.

What does this tell us? That people just seem to be waiting to for an opportunity to vent their frustrations about their bosses.

In some ways, it is extremely disappointing that the top people in the 'leadership' field - such as Tom Peters and Stephen Covey - completely ignore this crucial issue. All the things they talk about - such as wowing customers, being radically innovative and so on, cannot be possible under our current system which produces bad bosses.

As I've mentioned in my manifesto, 'leadership' is a sexy word. And we've been so well trained to not talk about bad bosses, that we prefer to ignore the issue altogether even though it gnaws away at people's insides.

The tragedy is that the people with the most influence in the leadership field don't talk about it either. Perhaps the reason is that almost everyone is told to have a 'tough it out' attitude, and even top people have been well trained from an early age to do this. Hence, they would rather talk about big things like leadership, than apparently wimpy things like bad bosses.

In fact, one person who read my manifesto told me that he almost didn't read it because of the title - he thought, "Oh, not another rant on bosses". He said that if the manifesto was on leadership, he would have read it without a second thought. I suspect he's not the only one with this attitude - that anything to do with bosses is a rant, and therefore useless.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Self-censorship, democracy style

Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of the war on Iraq, one thing seems to be clear: people within the intelligence community (both the US and UK) had serious misgivings about the war and the aftermath.

Why didn't this information percolate upwards?

It's ironic, but today's Guardian newspaper carries two separate articles with quotes involving self-censorship - one in a dictatorship, the other in a democracy. I've already posted (prior to this one) the first quote, and here's the second:

"Wayne White, who coordinated Iraq intelligence for the state department until last year, said he helped put together a National Intelligence Estimate in 2003 warning that "prospects for tamping down the insurgency were unexpectedly grim". Mr White wrote that "the senior official chairing the meeting looked around at his fellow intelligence analysts and exclaimed rhetorically, 'How can I take this upstairs'?" to then-CIA director George Tenet. He argued the resistance to bad news in the White House led to the "temptation among subordinates within the intelligence community to engage in self-censorship". [emphasis mine]

The US is a free system. Why is self-censorship taking place? The answer is quite simply: the CIA organization system is that of a dictatorship, with the usual bosses and hierarchies.

If a head of state wants accurate information, the system that he's getting information from must be a free system. Otherwise, he will only be told what he wants to hear.

It should be the job of an organization like the CIA to provide the head of state with accurate information. Once they provide that information to the head of state, it's up to that person do do what he wants with it, even perhaps ignore it.

But the problem with a dictatorship system at the workplace is that it actively prevents accurate information from travelling upwards. The results, as we've seen in the shuttle disasters, and now the Iraq war, can be disastrous.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Self censorship, dictatorship style

There's this article in Britain's Guardian newspaper, about Belarus, "an authoritarian, often forgotten corner of Europe."

Pulled out a couple of quotes about Belarus - how different is it from our workplaces?

"Self-censorship is the strongest weapon." [emphasis mine]
"Sack three people and 100,000 are scared."

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Great quote

Organizations and leaders who want to achieve great things need to really understand this:

"Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash."

- Harriet Rubin

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Problems with authority?

One of the things that a subordinate who cannot work with a boss is sometimes told, "you have problems dealing with authority figues", or that "you don't know how to take orders."

The problem is not dealing with authority figures or taking orders. The problem is WHO you take orders from. If you've elected someone, you're more likely to take orders from that person.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Wolves in sheep's clothing

The worst bosses are, in my opinion, not the ones who are conspicuously autocratic, abusive or loud. Because with them, you know where you stand. The worst ones are those that Sally talks about her book, The Stone Age company. She describes them as, "very autocratic, but in a gracious, gentlemanly way." Such a boss is, "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Why are these bosses the worst kind? Because you think you can offer your opinions or be proactive. And after you take action, you find out that the boss really doesn't like the fact that you have a mind. After that, all hell can break loose - you can be ostracised or even lose your job.

Given this reality, this has terrible consequences for the company. Sally lists several, including the fact that people stop thinking for themselves and that they stop bringing new ideas. But most destructive of all (for the company), employees "spend their time on activities that will please the boss, instead of on things that will please the customer." (emphasis mine).

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bosses can be like abusive parents

In her excellent book The Stone Age Company, Sally Bibb makes a point that hits home to anyone who's had a terrible boss. She says, "It is like living with an abusive parent or husband; there are periods of calm where they are happy and not picking on you, but you always know that at some point it will start again. The price of putting up with it is high, and it is constant."

Sally makes the other point that HR is of no help either: "It is a commonly held fallacy that if you have a problem with your boss you can go to HR and they can help. Most focus on policy and policing, and the majority haven’t got the courage to stand up to badly behaved bosses."

This echoes what I read somewhere: That HR is designed to protect your boss from people like you!

More on Sally's book later.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

A big thank you to ChangeThis

In the space of just three months after my manifesto was published on ChangeThis, there have been over 4,800 downloads of my manifesto. I've received emails from people as far apart as Norway, South Africa, Australia, the US and the UK. I doubt if this would have happened as quickly through the traditional route of getting a book published.

Before I wrote the manifesto, I planned to write a book on dictator bosses. But there were several obstacles:

1. I was a first-time author
2. I needed to find a literary agent
3. Although my aim wasn't to make money, the money is in fiction (think Harry Potter), not non-fiction. Hence, literary agents specialising in non-fiction business books are few and far between.
4. The literary agent needed to sell the idea to a publisher
5. There is too much legal stuff involved
6. You may not believe this, but some agents and publishers still insist on interacting by regular snail mail (ie proposal and manuscripts have to be sent in hard copy!).
7. You have to spend a significant amount of time and energy marketing your book.
8. Most of all, according to one book on getting your book published, the time-scales involved are 'geological'.

Obviously, there are tons of business books that are published. But for the effort involved, I wasn't sure if it was the right route for me. Since my aim was not to make money from the book but spread an idea, I wondered what to do. Luckily, I discovered ChangeThis, via a link on Tom Peters blog.

While I would still love to have a book published, ChangeThis offers a fantastic route to people who want to spread an idea. In that sense, ChangeThis perfectly achieves Seth Godin's goal.

Hence, I'd like to publicly say a big Thank You to the folks at ChangeThis (and 800-CEO-READ who own ChangeThis). To anyone contemplating writing a manifesto, I can't recommend ChangeThis strongly enough.

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Ideas on implementation (2)

Dave Ellison writes:

"First and foremost, while many governments have already proven the success of the concept, there must be experimentation within the business world with successful, breakthrough results. In other words, just as software vendors typically provide a 'proof of concept' prior to winning any large corporate contracts, so must this idea of elected leadership in business be proven. The best opportunity to do this would be to either create a small, privately funded company, or target non-conservative industry leaders who control smaller (perhaps struggling) subsidiary companies to 'pilot' the idea.

"Once an understanding of the existing system and functions are known, the new model can be developed. As is the case with various different democracies around the world, each business would have to have a unique model that best supports their culture and values. That said, each system would have to include something comparable to a Constitution, a base set of irrevocable laws/rules/principles that govern the fundamental process, created by representative groups and approved by the majority. Additionally, there would have to be some set of controls around corruption. Not to say that corruption isn't present in corporate dictators today, but this will be likely be a primary fear of the business owner(s)."

Thanks Dave.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Dilbert cartoon - spot on!

If you haven't already, take a look at this Dilbert cartoon. It perfectly describes the dictatorship system behaviours of bosses - and colleagues!

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Patients die because junior doctors are too scared of their bosses

This article says that 98,000 people die in the US each year "from medical mistakes caused by cultural and systemic problems. In many cases a junior member of staff saw the error being committed but was too afraid to speak up. Bullying by consultants is rife in health services, many of whom fit the Guru profile. [Examples: #1 #2 #3 #4 #5]"

It's frightening to see that people are dying in such large numbers simply because subordinates are scared of their bosses.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ideas on implementation (1)

Scott Brenner writes:

"A well-defined set of steps an organization can follow to put a new team structure in place would help avoid a lot of false starts and urges to go back to the way things were.

"Second, some proven successes using the new system. Organizations are more likely to adopt a new way of thinking if they can see proof from a "guinea pig" who's gone before them. Nothing breeds success like success."

I think this is the way to go - start with baby steps, and then take things from there. Doubtless, issues will arise, and we can't predict what those issues are in advance. Hence, it's going to be more of a guided missile approach as opposed to a 'ready, aim, fire' approach.

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Being a King vs being a leader

I just want to emphasise a line from Don Blohowiak's post (that refers to my manifesto), a line that perfectly describes the human lust for power, vs the need for effectiveness:

"It’s good to be King. It may well be more effective to be elected Leader."

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Tom Peters "sayings" on leadership

Tom Peters is someone I admire greatly, and I read his blog every day. However, it seems to me that his ideas of leadership are defined in the usual terms.

In a recent post on his blog, he says he was asked to provide some sayings on leadership. So he gave several such as "Dream. The Only Worthwhile Reality.""Beware Those Who Agree With You." "Seek Dissidents. Nurture Dissidents. Cherish Dissidents."Enthusiasm, the Ultimate Virus." "Technicolor Times Demand Technicolor Actions." However, Tom doesn't say anything about leaders being elected. The closest he get is, "Leaders 'do' People. Period." (you can get the full list from his blog,

Tom asked readers of his blog to provide their sayings, and most responses were along the lines above. This is a common perception everywhere - that leaders are people with a bunch of certain skills/attitudes. In short, when you ask "who is a leader?", you get the answer to a different question, ie, "what skills/attitudes should a leader have?". The answer to "who is a leader" is simple: a person who's been elected.

The problem is, with the current mis-perception of leadership simply being a bunch of skills and attributes, we get less of real 'leadership' and more of real 'dictatorship'.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Wishful thinking?

"Dr Yoshio Maruta, CEO of Japan's Kao Corporation, says that if your finger gets cut, every organ in your body than can provide support to it would automatically do so, immediately. That is what is needed in an organization. Whenever one unit or an individual faces an opportunity, a problem or an issue, anybody in the company who can help must do so without having to be asked. "

- Quoted in the book Managing Radical Change (Sumantra Ghoshal, Christopher Bartlett and Gita Piramal)

In the current system, what are the chances that your organization or team are going to help you in the manner described above?

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Buy Your Boss?"

Don Blohowiak of the Lead Well Institute asks, "Would you willingly pay your boss -- out of your own pocket - for the help that he or she provides you?" (read his article here)

Don also says, "If you aren't sure if your colleagues value you so much they'd gladly pay for your services, ask them. And listen closely to the answer. If they say they would pay you, ask why -- understand the value you deliver. And if they would not, ask what help you could deliver that would be worth paying for."

I think the underlying question is even more profound: do 'leaders' at work even consider themselves people who provide a service? In most cases, they see themselves as people in power over subordinates, rather than people in power to HELP subordinates.

Again, as I've said earlier, we need to take a systems view, so that leaders ask these questions of themselves automatically. And if they don't, subordinates are automatically empowered to ask their leaders these questions.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

"Why Employees Should Lead Themselves"

In a sense, leadership is about people having a say in leadership itself - ie, that they have a voice. This interesting article says,

The result is a sense of ownership that delivers the biggest benefit of all: a collective mind and spirit that comes through in the music. "

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'Leadership potential'

One of the things that many companies look for - and MBA programmes - is something called 'leadership potential'. Exactly what is this? No one asking for 'leadership potential' defines it clearly. Leadership, even today, is somewhat of an abstract term - everyone has his/her own views of what it should be, but there's no generally accepted definition.

If I was looking for leadership potential, I would simply ask the candidate - how many times have you been elected to positions? And how many times have you been re-elected? In all other cases, rather than 'leadership potential', they're looking for dictatorship potential.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Empowerment and other fallacies

One of the things that companies - and bosses - say often is that they 'empower' their employees. It sounds fine in theory.

The problem is that the extent of empowerment depends on individual bosses. And even then, you never know to what extent you are really empowered - you might go off and do something thinking you've been empowered, only to find yourself in deep trouble. Hence, you don't often know where you really stand - do you actually take intiatives, or make the right noises but do nothing? In some ways, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

In some ways, it's better to have an explicit dictatorial culture. You do what the boss says. That way, there's no scope for misinterpretation. But unfortunately, what we have is a half-way house - not explicitly dictatorial, yet not explicitly free.

I'm sure NASA employees have been told that they're empowered. But as we've seen, that's really not the case.

The only way out: change the system, so empowerment becomes inevitable - it's not in the hands of the boss.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

More on the space shuttle...

Astronaut Mike Mullane (referred to in an earlier post) has distanced himself from the article that called the shuttle a 'deathtrap', stating he was misquoted. That said, he re-inforced his comment that NASA culture discouraged freedom.

I mentioned in an earlier post that astronauts worry about things like job security. I was wrong, because Mike says they don't. He says it goes way beyond job security - it goes into the very heart of who they are, the very reason for their existence. In that sense, the stakes are even higher and hence, astronauts are even less likely to say what they feel. Here's what Mike had to say (taken from a discussion thread at

(Excerpt from Riding Rockets, The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, Scribner, copyright 2006 by Mike Mullane.) “Astronaut concerns about the shuttle’s “operational” label, the lack of an escape system and the passenger program should have been heard by every key manager, from Abbey to the JSC Center Director to the NASA Administrator. But they were not. We were terrified of saying anything that might jeopardize our place in the line into space. We were not like normal men and women who worried about the financial aspects of losing a job, of not being able to make the mortgage payment or pay the kids’ tuition. We feared losing a dream, of losing the very thing that made us us. When it came to our careers, we were risk adverse in the extreme. Effective leaders would have done everything possible to eradicate that fear. George Abbey, the JSC Director and the NASA Administrator all should have been frequent visitors to the astronaut office actively polling our concerns and each visit should have started with these or similarly empowering words, “There is nothing you can say to me that will jeopardize your place in the mission line. Nothing! If you think I’m doing something crazy, I want to hear it.” I had experienced this form of leadership many times in my Air Force career. I saw it during an F-4 mission with a General officer. I was a 1st Lieutenant—and terrified. I had never flown with a Flag officer before. But this man was a leader who understood how fear could jeopardize the team and did his best to eliminate it. As my foot touched the cockpit ladder, the General stopped me and said, “See these stars,” and pointed to his shoulder. “If I make a mistake they won’t save our lives. If you see anything that doesn’t look right on this flight, tell me. There’s no rank in this jet. Flying is dangerous enough as it is without having crewmembers afraid to speak up.” It was an empowering moment. The astronaut office desperately needed the same empowering moments, but they never came. Fear ruled—a fear rooted in Abbey’s continuing secrecy on all things associated with flight assignments. We kept our mouths shut.” [sentences in bold - emphasis mine].

Mike states that he is not criticising the current NASA administration, but the pre-challenger one. The tragic part is that it took two shuttle disasters to get NASA to sit up and take notice. Again, as I keep stating, the system needs to change. Otherwise, we're going to get more disasters, until we get that message.

(Please email me your comments at

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Prison experiment link

To learn more about the prison experiment (including a slide presentation and video clips), click on the link below.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

How nature works

If organizations claim they have to work in very complex environments, consider nature. How on are things like bodies or plants able to cope with mind-boggling complexity and changes that happen in nanoseconds?

How does nature work without strong command-and-control structures and heroic 'leadership'?

Here's the answer:

"You can't look at something like self-organization or complex adaptive systems in science, no matter what unit you're looking -- plants, molecules, chemicals -- without realizing that this is a kind of democratic process. Everybody is involved locally and out of that comes a more global system. "

- Meg Wheatley, The Berkana Institute

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Google's way

Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, has written an article giving 10 golden rules that Google will live by. One of those rules is:

"Strive to reach consensus. Modern corporate mythology has the unique decision maker as hero. We adhere to the view that the "many are smarter than the few," and solicit a broad base of views before reaching any decision. At Google, the role of the manager is that of an aggregator of viewpoints, not the dictator of decisions [emphasis mine]. Building a consensus sometimes takes longer, but always produces a more committed team and better decisions."

Schmidt has got the right attitude, obviously. But unfortunately, attitudes can change, and often do. And attitudes change most under the heat of battle - as the Tenerife and Shuttle disasters show. You might be willing to take consensus along the way, but under pressure, you succumb to the temptation of dictatorship behaviour.

Hence, as I've stressed earlier, the system needs to change. Individuals come and go, and attitudes come and go - so it's the system that's got to work properly.

(You can read Schmid's full article at

Monday, January 23, 2006

What's the role of a boss?

Strangely, organizations don't ask this question: "What's a boss's role, in terms of his subordinates?"

Does a boss have duties/responsibilies towards his/her subordinates? I mean things like communicating clearly, passing on information, setting clear expectations, motivating and so on. In short, bosses have to add value - if they don't, why have them? Just like employees have objectives, managers should have objectives for each subordinate - ie, how are they going to add value for their subordinates?

Currently, managers aren't explicitly expected to add value, so by default, they do the job of policing. They become policemen or dictators. HR is of little or no use. As Sally Bibb's wonderful book points out, "It is a commonly held fallacy that if you have a problem with your boss you can go to HR and they can help. Most focus on policy and policing, and the majority haven’t got the courage to stand up to badly behaved bosses. "

(Please send your comments to me at

Sunday, January 22, 2006

"Shuttle a deathtrap, says astronaut" (Headline in Britain's Observer newspaper)

More evidence of the dicatorship culture at NASA:

In today's Observer newspaper, veteran astranaut Mike Mullane was quoted as saying that "Only janitors and cafeteria workers at Nasa were blameless in the deaths of the Challenger seven. Columbia was a repeat of Challenger, where people had a known design problem and launched anyway."

Why was this? Again, the answer is scarily mundane. Mullane said, "It's not like other jobs, where if you get frustrated you can go in to your boss and say "Shove it!" You can't do that at Nasa because there's no other place to go fly shuttles."

Think about it: employees are too scared to tell the truth to their bosses, because they won't be able to find another job!

Forgive me for sounding naive, but I thought NASA would make sure its employees don't have to worry about mundane things like job security, because they should be worrying about things like mission safety. Instead, it's horrifying to know that NASA employees feel that their jobs are on the line if they speak the truth!

You can read the full Observer article at,,1692139,00.html

(Please send your comments to me at

Friday, January 20, 2006

The use of the word 'leader'

Several people, after reading my manifesto, have stated that I'm arguing that leaders should be elected. While that sounds right, there's a nuance that they seem to be missing - I'm not saying that leaders should be elected. I'm saying that by definition, leaders ARE elected. No one is a leader UNTIL elected. Until such time that someone is an unelected 'leader', that person is a dictator.

What I'm saying is simply this: don't use the word leader unless that person is elected.

(Please email me your comments at

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Tenerife disaster (continued)

So why did the KLM captain take off in such a hurry? As in the case of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, the KLM captain was also subject to pressures.

Both the Pan Am and KLM jets had in fact been diverted to Tenerife, after a terrorist bomb exploded at the original destination - Las Palmas. Both were long-haul flights from LA (via NY city) and Amsterdam respectively, so passengers were tired. Moreover, the captain of the KLM flight was aware that his crew was fast approaching the time after which they would not be allowed to work - flight regulations stated that the crew were allowed to work only a fixed number of hours per day, so that they would not be fatigued.

Hence, the KLM captain was worried not only about the tiredness of his passengers, but also whether they would be able to fly at all. Under this pressure, he ignored warnings that led to the disaster.

As we've seen from the NASA cases, pressure seems to bring out the worst in bosses - perhaps not in terms of their behaviour, but in their dictatorial attitudes.

Hence, it's crucial that 'leaders' are elected right from the start - so that genuine leadership behaviour - not dictatorial behaviour - becomes a part of their person. We can only guess, but if Captain Van Zanten knew that he would be accountable to the flight engineer and the co-pilot, he perhaps would have aborted take-off as soon as the engineer questioned him. Morever, the engineer would have pressed his case more forcefully, rather than taking the captain's answer lying down.

(Please email me your comments at

World's worst air disaster - hierarchy plays a part

Yesterday, I watched a National Geographic programme on TV that analysed the world's worst aviation disaster.

In March 1977, two 747s collided on the runway at Tenerife aiport in Spain, killing 583 people. One jet was that of the Dutch airline KLM, the other one Pan Am. The KLM jet was taking off while the Pan Am jet was still on the runway, directly in its path. The KLM lifted off, but its bottom hit the top of the Pan Am.

There were several reasons for the disaster, including fog on the runway and mis-communication between the control tower and pilots.

However, there was an instant at which the disaster could been averted. The KLM flight engineer questioned his captain when he began taking off without confirming with the control tower that the Pan Am was off the runway. The co-pilot asked the same question too, initially. The captain, focused on the take-off, said yes, and continued with the take-off. In fact, the captain hadn't been cleared for take-off by air traffic control.

Both the co-pilot and flight engineer were obviously junior in rank to the captain of the KLM flight, Jacob van Zantent. The captain was highly regarded by his employers - so much so that his photos were featured in the airlines adverts.

The fact that the captain was not just higher in rank but was also highly respected meant the flight engineer and co-pilot did nothing after the captain over-ruled them.

The investigation report released by the Spanish civil aviation department stated, "The fact exists that a co-pilot not very experienced with 747s was flying with one of the pilots of greatest prestige in the company who was, moreover, KLM's chief flying instructor and who had certified him fit to be a crew member for this type of aeroplane . in case of doubt. these circumstances could have induced the co-pilot not to ask any questions and to assume that this captain was always right."

For more on this, see and

(Please email me your comments at

Monday, January 16, 2006

Related reading

The Stone Age Company (Sally Bibb)

Companies need to change: they are outdated and ineffective in the way they are run and they are losing out in the increasingly competitive world of business - that’s the view of Sally Bibb, author of this thought-provoking and controversial book, which challenges leaders to think about their organizations and how they should be managed.

The ‘Stone Age company’ is an uninspiring place to work – it is an organization that has practices that don’t work anymore. It talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. It is characterised by hierarchy, controlling management techniques, managerial bad behaviour and spin. Is your company like this?

Too many companies have these characteristics without even realizing it let alone admitting to it. Read this book to identify your company’s weak spots and find out what needs to change – before it’s too late.

This book is a wake-up call. It will inspire leaders to reinvent the way businesses are run, encouraging them to turn their organization into a different type of company: a company that thrills its customers, is innovative and efficient, is fun and energizing to work for.

Using examples of successful organizations including the Innocent drink company, WL Gore, Timberland and Southwest Airlines, and her own personal experiences, Sally Bibb shows what innovative companies do and how they do it.

Written in a clear and inspirational way, unlike traditional management books, The Stone Age Company is a book that all managers, leaders, employees, and shareholders should buy if they want to succeed in today’s fast-changing business world.


(Please email me your comments at

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Inviting suggestions for an implementation plan

We're not going to get from A to B without a plan to get there (ie, an implementation plan).

What I suggest is that we come up with a plan together, like the programmers did with Linux. So if you have any suggestions, ideas or thoughts, email it to me at - I will publish your suggestions on this blog, and attribute it to you. (If you don't want your identity revealed, please say so.)