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Malicious Intent or Unintended Consequences – The Sarabhai Fix


There is a story I read in a book by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

Kalam was working on some satellite project as a project manager. He was in charge of mechanical work and some other project manager was in charge of electrical work. The deadline was near and both the project managers had completed their work and were ready to demo to head scientist, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai.

Vikram Sarabhai showed up. All the people were in the room. The electrical team and mechanical team had put their work together shortly before. Sarabhai inspected the assembly, and proceeded to press the switch. Once, twice… nothing happened. Both the teams were red faced with¬†embarrassment.

Sarabhai walked away and asked the project managers to meet him the next day. The next day, both the project managers showed up in his cabin, fully prepared to take heat.

Sarabhai was staring out of the window.

“Your problem is not people, or not machines.” He said.

“Your problems is that the mechanical engineering team and electrical engineering team are working in different locations. This job requires far higher level of interaction between the teams. So we need to put both the teams at onc place to make sure this does not happen again.”

This is the power of good management. Humans will always make a mistake. The organization structure, systems and policies must be resilient and proactive enough to first – prevent a human mistake, or if not – help it catch, expose it as early as possible.

Often times when I talk to people, they describe a particular incidence when something did not work well. May be it was telephone line not repaired for a while, or a doctor’s diagnosis gone wrong, or the Mumbai railways not running on time. The conclusion of the discussion is mostly a complaint about negligence or corruption. In reality, more often than not, they are describing an unintended consequence.

Many of the reported cases of corruption and negligence in news and media, are in fact not corruption or negligence at all. They are problems in policies, or organizations and management structure. (Or problem somewhere else , but fixable using changing organization, management or policy.)

Treating them like a product of malicious intent in fact creates a poisonous atmosphere.¬†Assuming that this is a fallout of malicious intent generates so much social ill-will, opposite of social goodwill, a whole spectrum of negative emotions like anger, helplessness, frustration in mind of everyone hearing or reading it. This lack of social goodwill creates a heightened perception of risk, which in turn encourages people to do corruption in order to cover their own risk. So by seeing corruption when there isn’t, we create more corruption.

I write software for living and often times my software does not work as it should. When I write code, I have full intention to make it work fine and make the user happy. But often times the software comes across a condition not considered by me in design and it fails.

Why people automatically jump to conclusion of malicious intent? Is it because treating an inconvenience as unintended consequence requires us assume that somehow this inconvenience is fixable and we have a responsibility, at least partial responsibility to fix it? Perhaps report it and follow up? It’s just easier to assume that someone is purposely screwing it up, so there is nothing to be fixed. Because people can’t be fixed.

We need insightful people like Sarabhai, who traced a root of technical problem to organization structure. It’s because of people like him that India has pretty good space program today. But if we lack insightful managers, what are all the IIMs and tonnes of management colleges in India are doing?

We need to fix things, fix it like Sarabhai.

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One Response

  1. Thanks for sharing such a nice information on “management colleges in India“.

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