Sunday, August 01, 2010

UK's NHS tries to gag doctors

More evidence that the workplace is a dictatorship (fear) system - this time from the British National Health Service (NHS).

Millions spent on doctor 'gagging orders' by NHS, investigation finds

Some key points from the article:

Nearly 90 per cent of severance agreements hammered out between NHS trusts and departing doctors contain confidentiality clauses

At least 170 doctors in England and Wales agreed such a settlement with the trust employing them – backed up by pay-offs totalling more than £3m.

31 trusts simply refused to disclose the size of the payments

The point is, free systems do not want to gag their employees - rather, they would do everything to encourage them to speak out.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Where do the laws of a system come from?

Below is a very insightful take on systems - it's guest post from my friend and fellow Systems Thinker, Biren Shah.

I have been informally studying man-made systems (as opposed to the naturally found, complex, self-organising systems). And the most intriguing, confusing, frustrating and enraging thing I find about our systems (that is, our understanding of systems, and the practice of designing and building systems) is the rules and laws we use; thinking foolishly (and convincing ourselves) that they will help us gain control over the behaviour (and thus, outcome or results) of a system.

We have succeeded in convincing ourselves that rules and laws are what govern a system... drive a system... and give rise to a 'fixed' behaviour of a system. But like everything else, we have it topsy-turvy. We design and draft laws, to define the system... and create all the chaos and confusion that is the hallmark of our human systems - economic, social, educational...we have never stopped and wondered, if the above is true, WHO (or what) implements the rules - how are these rules followed, when there is no one single, central, governing feature or creature.

If we observe natural systems, we will see that rules, or laws, are followed and implemented by the whole system itself - the system constituents (both: the components, and the WAY they interact - the processes). There is no 'police' - a dedicated, separate governing part. That means, the rules and laws of a system are the property that arises BECAUSE of a 'coming together of specific components, in a specific way'.

The rules, or laws, are actually the emergent property of a system. They do not define (that is, make) a system; rather, they are a feature of the system.

The other important thing we can make out is, these rules do not reside (as knowledge) in the components of the system, but they arise, and thus reside, in the system - the complex interaction. That is, a lion does not know the law of 'the survival of the fittest', simply because, there is no 'law'. 'Survival of the fittest' is a property that emerges in our planet's natural world, out of the way the whole natural world interacts.

In other words... laws (what WE call laws) arise out of the system... the system does not arise out of the laws. So, why don't we see this? Recognise this?
We are focused on the behaviour - the 'emergent properties' - of a system. But we assume that those properties are 'designed' (and not 'emergent'). and then hastily move on, never stopping to wonder about who or what 'designs' this system.


What I am noticing is... that BECAUSE we look at life (and thus systems) from the 'fear' perspective of helplessness... and victimhood, we NEED to feel in control... we WANT to be in control. This 'control' perspective colours the way we perceive the behaviour of a system. We are focussed on finding WHAT controls the behaviour of systems... what makes it predictable? And as soon as we can find an answer, an explanation that sounds rational, we hastily move on.

And so, we convince ourselves that the laws are 'written in stone' - fixed - for that particular system. We don't see that the 'laws' are a result of the complex interplay of the system's components. and since both, the components and the interplay, are ever changing, the 'laws' may also change in accordance.

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Monday, May 31, 2010

Air India plane crash in Mangalore - probable cause

For those who aren't aware, an Air India aircraft crashed on May 22 2010, resulting in the deaths of 158 people. The accident took place in Mangalore, a city in southern India.

Essentially, the aircraft overshot the runway and plunged into a valley that lay just beyond the runway. Weather conditions were apparently not ideal; moreover, the runway is what's called a "tabletop" runway, leaving little room for error.

As I watched news of the accident unfold, I hoped that a probable cause was NOT that the co-pilot warned against landing, and being over-ruled by his commander. Why did I hope this? Because a rather similar thing happened 33 years back, resulting in the world's worst aviation accident (more on this later). If it was a probable cause again, it would mean the lessons hadn't been learnt.

Unfortunately, my hope doesn't appear to match reality. According to a newspaper report, the co-pilot of the Air India aircraft twice urged his commander to not land, but go around and try landing again. The co-pilot was over-ruled, and the commander tried landing the plane - with terrible results.

This problem - of the co-pilot or junior crew members being over-ruled by the flight commander - is not a new one. In fact, the airline industry has a type of training called CRM (Crew Resource Management) to ensure that commanders don't make arbitrary decisions. Yet, it happened on the Air India flight.

Worse, this happened 33 years back and was a factor in the world's worst aviation accident, in which 583 peopled died. In that accident, two 747s (belonging to KLM and the now defunct airline, Pan Am) collided on a runway in Tenerife, Spain. The flight engineer on the KLM asked his captain if they were indeed cleared for take-off, and if the Pan Am had cleared the runway. The captain brushed aside his engineer's warning, and continued taking off - with the Pan Am still on the runway. (The Tenerife disaster is a case study in my book).

Of course, disasters are not just the result of a commander over-ruling a junior. Typically, multiple factors are involved. In the Air India case, the airfield itself has issues; in the KLM's case, fog covered the runway, so visibility was poor.

That said, the human factor is a hugely significant one - and it's important to remove the human factor in these accidents. Specifically, it's important to remove the fear-factor - or the power-abuse factor - in cockpits. CRM is meant to neutralize these issues - but it doesn't. Why not? Simple. Because CRM does not take into account the power imbalance between a boss and his subordinate.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

French man robs bank to take revenge on bad boss

There's an article in the UK's Guardian newspaper that talks about a French man who stole millions of Euros from a bank, to take revenge on his bosses (read the article here).

The article quoted the man saying, "I had a problem with my boss. It was not the right choice." Further, "As I was single I couldn't have holiday during the summer, they didn't pay me all my hours, we were not respected. I respect the law but at a certain moment I crossed over to the other side because of all these injustices."

I obviously don't condone the crime. That said, it's amazing the extent to which people are pushed by bad bosses, so much so that the 'victims' are willing to commit such crazy and drastic acts. Underlying all this is the sense of utter powerlessness on the part of subordinates.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Exit interviews

When you leave a company, your organization's HR (Human Resources) department will typically conduct an "exit interview" - an interview in which they ask you questions related to why you are leaving. This is usually an exercise in futility - first, the questions are designed to ensure you give bland answers. Second, the vast majority of people do not tell the truth because they don't want to burn bridges. So this ends up being a back-slapping exercise with answers such as, "I'm leaving for other opportunities" even if this isn't the truth.

And here's one question that HR never asks, even in an exit interview:"Are you leaving because your boss is terrible?"

Why HR doesn't ask that question, even though it's probably the most valid one?

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My ChangeThis manifesto

As of today, my manifesto on ChangeThis is at no. 3 on the list of "Recently Popular Manifestos", ahead of the manifestos of the likes of Tom Peters and Seth Godin.

While I'm obviously pleased, the bigger message is this: bad bosses are a real problem, which is why so many people are reading my manifesto. Even today, when hierarchies are supposedly flatter and bosses are "leaders", bad bosses continue to create enormous amounts of stress.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Brilliant Dilbert cartoon

There's a superb Dilbert cartoon today (May 7th). Check it out!

The cartoon simply and clearly shows how bosses ultimately wield power - through the appraisal.

(If you have any comments, please email me at You can get more information about my book and reader comments at

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The role of VIP weight-throwing in air crashes (continued)

In Sunday's post, I spoke about the death of Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, in an air crash, and a possible reason for it (see post below).

A couple of days back, I read a Telegraph newspaper report that said Mr Kaczynski had a bit of a history in over-ruling pilots:

In August 2008, Mr Kaczynski "shouted furiously" at a pilot who had disobeyed his order to land his plane in then war-torn Georgia for safety reasons. He later tried to have Captain Grzegorz Pietuczak removed from his post with the Polish air force for insubordination, however, Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister intervened. Captain Pietuczak was later awarded a medal for carrying out his duties conscientiously for his refusal to land having judged the risks.

Mr Kaczynski was lucky in 2008 that he had a strong-willed pilot; this time round, he apparently wasn't so lucky.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The role of VIP weight-throwing in air crashes

The recent death of the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, in an air crash has again put the spotlight on the power equations in a cockpit.

Mr Kaczynski (and a host of senior figures) died when their plane crashed while trying to land in thick fog. What went wrong? According to this report in the Independent newspaper, 'VIP syndrome' is being blamed. Apparently, because of the bad weather in the area, air traffic control directed the plane to land at another airport. But the pilots didn't listen and continued their approach to the runway. Why didn't the pilots heed the warning?

The suspected reason (as of now): The President wanted to ensure he would be able to attend a function they'd gone for. So he over-ruled the pilot.

Viktor Timoshkin, a flight safety expert, was quoted as saying, ""Air-traffic control told him to take the plane to Moscow or Minsk. I'm certain that the pilot will have told the President about this, and got a firm reply that the plane must land in Smolensk."

The President was the boss of the plane and he over-ruled his subordinates, the pilots. The result was a disaster for everybody. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that something like this has happened. The world's worst aviation accident (the collision of two 747s at Tenerife), in which over 500 people died, was partly caused by the captain's refusal to listen to his flight engineer. The engineer had warned that another aircraft (invisible in a dense fog) was on the runway, right in the path of his own aircraft. The captain didn't listen, and the planes collided.

In India, a chief minister of a state was recently killed when his helicopter crashed in bad weather. Here too, the pilots didn't want to fly, but the minister insisted on doing so, so he could attend a function (the same as the Polish President).

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Friday, April 02, 2010

“Life as the wife of a Lehman Brothers banker”

I’m no longer surprised by stories of controlling and dictatorial bosses. But an article about the wives of those who worked for the now dead financial firm, Lehman Brothers, really got my attention.

The article, published in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, is called “Life as the wife of a Lehman Brothers banker.” The article talks about a book, “The Devil’s Casino”, written by journalist Vicky Ward, who reveals the horror of life at Lehman. The article says:

There was an annual summer jaunt to the Fuld’s ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho. Not for this lot relaxing walks and jovial team bonding; the weekend was planned with military precision. Ward writes that the men were expected to wear “khaki pants and either a golf shirt or button-down”; Fuld believed that sloppy dress equalled sloppy thinking. The women had to pack “pretty dresses, jewellery, and Manolo Blahnik shoes” as well as hiking gear for the day. This annual hike was so gruelling that one wife turned up with a fake plaster cast in an attempt to get out of it. To her horror, another wife had turned up with a real cast on, but still planned to do the hike. “The wives were just as competitive as their husbands,” says Ward. “If anything, they were more political.”

Even worse:

Yet Ward says she found the roles that the wives were expected to play “chilling”. There is one particular episode in the book that stands out in this respect. Karin Jack, the wife of executive Bradley Jack, recalls the moment one of their children had a seizure. That day some of the senior executives and their wives were due to go and look at a house that Joe Gregory, the company’s then chief operating officer, was building. “We were using Joe’s helicopter,” says Karin in the book. “But I said, 'I have to take my son to the paediatrician.’ So they landed the Sikorsky near our home and waited for me, and they were not leaving without me. Can you imagine the pressure? I have this really sick child, but I know that if I don’t get on that helicopter it’s going to hurt Brad.”

What stands out is that absolute obedience was expected. In the Q&A section on her book’s page on Amazon, Ward says:

You cannot run a major securities firm without tolerating dissent or change at the top. Lehman’s “one firm” culture that made it so great when it was a tiny sub-division of a much larger entity became its nemesis when it was a stand-alone investment bank. Anyone who disagreed with Dick Fuld, or more importantly, the firm’s day-to-day manager Joe Gregory was either fired or quit."

All this – expecting wives to stick by the firm’s rules, intolerance of dissent and so on – brings only one word to my mind: dictatorship. But then, Systems Thinking shows us that these behaviors are only to be expected.

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