Diversity, inclusion and systemic leadership: A conversation with Rakesh Maharaj

June 9, 2021



In this podcast, systems thinker, and renowned business and safety specialist, Rakesh Maharaj speaks with Nippin to explore how social anthropology, systems thinking and systemic leadership applies to safety within and across organizations. The conversation is a collection of personal experiences about diversity and inclusion and how it informs their thinking and practice. To find out more listen to this podcast.

Further information

Nippin Anand [00:00:06] Here’s a podcast with someone who I met very recently on LinkedIn and decided that I really wanted to do a podcast with him. His name is Rakesh Maharaj, and I’d let Rakesh introduce himself and tell his unique story that led him to become what he is today – a systems thinker and a very successful entrepreneur.

We start with some very personal experiences before we start to explore systems thinking and a very specific kind of leadership which Rakesh calls ‘systemic leadership’ that we need in organizations today. I found this discussion so interesting that I went back to revisiting systems thinking during the weekend and started reading some of the original work in this area dating back to 1940s. So I hope you will enjoy this podcast and if you do, please share it with others in your network to help them learn and grow.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:01:08] One of my all-time gurus in terms of my practice is the late Prof. Russell Ackoff and he was a prolific writer, systems thinker and consultant in the US and I was thinking about how I might introduce this session and introduce myself during this session and my mind went back to one of the recordings of his on YouTube where he introduces, he starts off by saying “Joining a session such as this where you’ve had such amazing thinkers in their respective fields is like watching a pornographic movie after sex i.e., the session is an anticlimax”.

Nippin Anand [00:02:05] Good I like that.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:02:09] Do you? Well, there you go. I think it’s appropriate. I thought it was it was a fantastic opening comment of his.

Nippin Anand [00:02:17] Great and why do you say that? Just to open up the discussion.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:02:20] Well, the reason that I’m saying that is because listening to the previous guests you have had on your podcast are incredibly distinguished and leaders in their fields and here I am an average consultant working out of the nether regions of Manchester advising clients in my own little bubble, who did not have anything to compare against the achievements that these Harvard professors and authors and writers and world-renowned specialists have to say on the matter. So unfortunately, or well, fortunately they preceded me and everybody else is in and enjoyed the delight that they have provided so me coming along at the end of it means ultimately the climax has been reached and my sessions are a bit if an anticlimax.

Nippin Anand [00:03:12] I think very unique, and I think it’s been extraordinary. So never underestimate yourself. You never know when you’re going to come up with.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:03:27] This is true and I agree with you on that point. Let’s just put it this way you know the notoriety of Rakesh Maharaj in the international environment is not anywhere close to the Dr. Longs and the professors of the world.

Nippin Anand [00:03:40] Well, we all have to start from somewhere. But also, I increasingly find that sometimes it’s also very dangerous to be in that position where many professors have reached. I’m not talking about Ackoff or any other big names but I think there is an inherent problem in this something I’m increasingly thinking about is that we often think about like academics as people who are deeply knowledgeable about video of expertise but they’re also very blinded to the blatant things to the rest of it. Then in the pursuit of proving their theory sometimes they become so blind to the obvious things keep rejecting everything that comes in the face of what they want to see the reality. So, I think we talk about confirmation bias, for the lack of a better term, or cognitive dissonance and I think this is an equally important issue in academia, in the world of research and expertise as it is with anyone who’s a novice.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:05:08] I agree with that point to an extent I do believe that as a researcher particularly a senior researcher, you have an ethical obligation to ensure that your research design does lend itself to its own criticisms of universality. So, can it apply to all circumstances? Is it generalizable? Is it valid in each of those general circumstances or not and so on and so forth? If you are an honest and ethical researcher you would tackle those biases as part of your dissertation or thesis whatever it is that you’re writing and you become aware of it so that when it’s subject to viva examination then at least you are able to extol balanced view of the strengths and weaknesses of your research. But I completely understand the point that you make. In fact, taking the same thinking and moving it into organizations it was Ackoff who actually said that “The lower the rank of managers the more they know about fewer things, the higher the rank of managers the less they know about many things”.

Nippin Anand [00:06:22] Indeed, something to think about in this world regarding the balance between specific and the general in management practices.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:06:32] When we first connected about four weeks ago, we immediately struck a chord with each other on the basis of and the fact that we’re both Indian and the fact that we’re both working in the safety field and we both come at it from different directions and naturally the conversation at that time led to ideas about diversity and inclusion and you’d ask me in an incredibly poignant question which has been ringing in my head repeatedly and raised my level of consciousness and the question you asked me was “Do I detect any exclusionary behavior on the basis of race in my profession?” and I said to you that in the UK it was not something that I’m aware of.

So let me explain why I said in the UK because now I go into my introduction as to who I am and my background. Well, as you know I’m a fourth generation Indian South African born and bred in South Africa. Born in the very early 70s and for those listeners who follow South African history will know that it was right in the middle of the apartheid era where there was deep racial segregation in almost every aspect of society. So having been born in that environment grown up in that environment, schooled in that environment and initially trained academically in that environment to then come to the UK there was a huge degree of desensitization to racism because it’s something that we accepted. Simply because it was the way of life.

So training in the UK I training in South Africa I trained initially as environmental epidemiologist as well as occupational health and safety professional and occupational hygienists because the technical degrees were pretty unique in the way they were structured and that they enables the student to give a comprehensible holistic – a word that will be using very often a holistic view of safety and health from the medical health perspective from the occupational exposure perspective and the environmental perspective.

I thoroughly enjoyed that but having come to the UK to pursue a Master’s degree, I very quickly learned that each of these are separate streams and separate disciplines and having begun a Masters in epidemiology I quickly realized that it was not for me as a young student living in London, trying to live off a stipend whilst also attending university proved to be incredibly difficult. So t  the job that was easiest for me to land was in helping safety because the bar was so low and is in many respects so low so in the late 90s I worked as a compliance based practitioner in and around the south east.

But very quickly I began to realize that what I was doing was adding layers of control onto organizations that were inherently dysfunctional and I felt uncomfortable about it because I couldn’t quite articulate it at the time. I could not quite articulate what I what was happening what I was feeling what I was sensing. After every client that I’ve met I’d spend time reflecting upon the work I was doing with them and asking my support value to have I added and more importantly, is that value sustainable or is it just something that’s delivered on the transactional basis creating the veneer of compliance that we call it today and then move on? That made me incredibly unsettled but little did I realize that what was beginning to happen somewhere in my limbic brain was this conflict between my Health Sciences training which forced me to look at a body as an ecosystem which are within transferring into an organization and I couldn’t see that organization being in a position of homeostasis in balance and equilibrium.

I would always find that the organization had issues and challenges and here I was asking it to do more things often without having to have access to more resources for them to do. Thankfully in the early part of 2000 I was asked to join what was then the largest regulatory defense practice environment health and safety defense practice in the UK and in Europe and I started working on some major cases involving workplace fatalities. In these organizations who all happened to be blue chip or listed businesses as you would expect what else would you expect if they were to pay you know lawyers fees at a rate of GBP 400 – 600 an hour. it’s certainly not going to be an SME me but with these organizations we found some interesting characteristics all of them had incredibly well resourced safety teams who we use all of the tools in the safety toolbox and perhaps even more and BBS was making an entry into the market at that time add significant pace and many of the client organizations I was working with had embraced BBS either by bringing in very expensive consultants or adopting it for their own application internally but the common question that I was confronted with when working with boards often running panels of inquiry into workplace realities is that – we have such talented people, we invest so much into our work force, safety is our number one priority, but can you tell us why we are still enduring fatalities on the ground?

I thought initially it was a very misplaced question. But after a lot of investigations and this question being put to me time and again, I began to find a pattern.  A common thread of uninformed management decision making. This the time when they had to make a decision, not necessarily thinking about it’s consequences. I decided to look at and purse this type of thinking. One of the universities offered systems thinking in their MBA degree. I enrolled myself and sat on my very first module on applied systems thinking, which was interesting enough is about looking at businesses as ecosystems so you can get to the bottom of dynamism, boundaries, change and complexity. It immediately caught my attention. I feel in love with the subject. I wish I could have gone back to those investigations which this new knowledge. Nonetheless, I’ve been using it on a more retrospective investigation and transformation. So much of my work is around energy businesses globally to bring about harmonization as far as possible within the realm of respecting different nationalities, social structures etc.  particularly with those with high appetite with mergers and acquisitions.

The goal for the discussion today is about diversity and inclusion and it is certainly a topic that many people have turned into a profession. All you have to do is run a search on LinkedIn and Google for diversity and inclusion specialists and consultants and you will find a platter of these emerging which I find rather interesting and I do think that organizations do need help with regards to that but having to live through an era in a country with the most limiting laws and ways of life brings a whole new dimension to the concept of diversity and inclusion. As a young child not being able to go to a beach to surf because it was the sole reserve of whites, not being able to go to the toilet when you’re out in public because it was the sole reserve of whites, not being able to enjoy the best educational facilities in the country which is in itself a rather interesting point and I’m going to digress ever so slightly did you watch a program on BBC One last night it was actually called, Subnormal – a British scandal which was about the educational system that the Caribbean immigrants were confronted with in the UK when they brought their families over where their children were categorized as subnormal and therefore sent to subnormal schools. So, growing up in a very racially driven and racially segregated society meant that the first time I was able to enjoy the friendship of somebody who was not my color was when I went to university.

So it is almost accepted when you look around you see people of the same color and if somebody else of a different race group entered your environmental came into classroom or walk down the street they would certainly look out of place and indeed as you would if you were in their society. So it was incredibly interesting because in 1982 in fact when the country abolished apartheid and Mandela was released in 94 when he came to power which saw the country go through some major change I then found myself the opportunity to leave and it wasn’t because of those reasons but rather to progress my academic development.

Coming into the UK almost felt as though I was in a very emancipated environment and very quickly all of those thoughts about racism and my past had almost disappeared I would be talking to people of different colors on the street and engaging with them at work and advising clients on a 1 to 1 basis. I enjoyed the meritocracy and as a result of that completely desensitized to this idea of racism I didn’t feel ostracized in anyway. I didn’t feel disadvantaged in any way I actually felt as though there were new opportunities opening. So having said that being a young Indian safety professional in a country where there aren’t many, at the time was incredibly emancipating.

I found my clients respected my advice. I found that people who I engage with in a professional level where incredibly open and welcoming and I say that in the main because following our discussion four weeks ago, I began to reflect back over the last 25 years or so believe it or not. And I can also identify little pockets of experiences that I’ve had over the years which now when I think about it with the diversity and inclusion lens on, I began to wonder whether those little pockets of experiences might have been racially motivated. Of course, I can never be too sure and it would be wrong for me to judge it but it does make one wonder. But it also then also makes you more aware of what is happening in the future and what is happening presently just by being open to the idea that people may be viewing you differently. So yes, that little two- or three-minute discussion we had that then was in an eye opener an extent that you wouldn’t believe or imagine.

Nippin Anand [00:21:51] I would like to understand a little bit more from you Rakesh, that did you ever have an introspection of why people were being so humble so generous, giving you that space and to express yourself to put your views across. Did you ever think about that why that was happening?

Rakesh Maharaj [00:22:27] Yes, I did and I put this down to cultural developments. As a young boy growing up my parents as of many Indian parents very supportive of their child’s educational development, self-development and general development. My parents played a huge role in providing me with the confidence to develop myself and be the best that I can be at whatever I did. The reason that I say this is because coming into a new country beginning to learn the new ways of a completely different world and having the ability to be adaptable meant that I could apply myself in a very value adding way to whomever it was that I worked with and I constantly worked at that ability to be better and better and better and better. So rightly or wrongly, I think introspection into why people were so open and so respectful and so welcoming was, I believe down to the fact that I always went the extra mile. I always made the effort to do the best that I could possibly do in those circumstances. I guess the most important thing for me was never to lead any one of my clients into a false sense of belief about anything. So, what I mean by that is when providing advice, when providing solutions, when having general discussions, being truthful and honest about what are the outcomes of taking those on board what are the risks and what are the threats and what are the opportunities and empowering the receiver of that information to then make their own choice in an informed way are the reasons why I believe that I earned the respect of those around me.

That’s a one-sided view, of course, because in any exchange there are you know there are many perspectives as there are people involved in the exchange. So, the one thing that I can’t do no matter how hard I introspect is try to understand from their perspective, why they would be so open to having somebody like me from a different country, a different background, different training and education and a different worldview advises them about their organization and their business and more importantly their compliance plan.

What do you find, Nippin and if you don’t mind me turning that question back in your direction, what are your perspectives and experience in terms of working with a typically white country where you from a colored perspective might stand out from everybody else?

Nippin Anand [00:25:56] Interesting you say that I would love to hear more from you because this is really about you but anyway you ask the questions I will I reflect on that little bit. So, this really goes back to my own childhood, my upbringing, me being the eldest son in the family lots of responsibility but also by virtue of which fulfilling which I earned a lot of respect and recognition to the point it started to kind of shape my identity or who I am. My father was not a very responsible person so I took the responsibility of doing more than what I could do at a very early stage in life. I left home when I was 17. So, it was a very different context in India we were quite up in the hierarchy of social classes. In a lot of ways, I was a privileged one so I never really thought about the idea of racism which is so embedded in the Indian society in the way that I did when I came to this country to give an example, when a child is born the first thing, I asked is not better the child is healthy or not but how fair is the child. So, from that perspective we would see transmigration of low-cost labor in India and people from Bihar and from other parts of India coming up to north and being abused as these are biharis and these are these are Telugus but seeing all this, that there’s a problem there I never thought about it that way because it never affected me like it did in your case and if it did it was mostly if you like I was I was under the receiving end at least of this of racism.

But that experience quickly changed when I first came to UK. It changed but it’s changing very conflicting ways also. So me and my wife, my wife was heavily pregnant, we were in Nottingham and we were we were we were expecting our first baby. I was standing at the bus station waiting for a bus and then there’s two half-drunk kind of women they come and they start to abuse me and my wife to say “You Pakis, you come to our country you rape our daughters” I think there was some something really very pervasive on the media in those days there was some problem that with immigrants and it was a very I think it was in Bedford if I remember correctly there’s a big news although when the BBC that there was there was some issue with immigrants and then abusing and raping white females.

So we became the target of that of that very heated and abusive kind of finger pointing and my immediate reaction was my wife was in the middle and they were on the other side and I was on the on the other side of my wife. So I told her you come to the other side because my instinct was to protect her from being physically harmed in any way. So, I did that and they kept on talking and they kept on abusing us, all sort of foul language and I just try to ignore it to the point that an English gentleman – an old couple they came and joined us in the queue. At one stage guy I think he just couldn’t it because this is these women they won’t stop and he said to those two drunk women, “Could you just stick your bloody tongue in now enough is enough”.

They apologize to me you know I’m ashamed of what has happened to you this is this should never happen in Nottingham. That experience left me very confused in some ways very depressed also very relieved in other ways I know. This is humankind and the easiest explanation for many years I must give to people is there is there is no such things like racism, there are good people there are bad people in it really depends on the situation. That was my experience for some years you know you experience all these things and try and make sense of it but there is no clear answer so you kind of come back to the same thing it depends everything is contextual. Well, it’s not. This is the power of cultural anthropology that I’ve been studying for some years now and I started to see too many competing themes in anthropology which is you can understand a culture on the basis of political social evolution, social Darwinism or you can understand it as in the way of cultural relativism.

So social evolution or going the evolutionary part you could see that there are cultures that are less evolved than others that there is such a thing like an uncivilized in the civilized culture, savagery barbarian and civilized culture and then you so you have this measurement scales kind of things where you can actually measure the maturity of a culture and what I started to realize was that that idea is utterly rubbish. It has no meaning at all it is again somebody’s way of saying that some people who live in the Antarctic are poor some people who live in slums are more miserable than people who live in more advanced parts of the world. But when you go into cultural relativism, you start to understand culture in totality. Culture is set of beliefs, values, principles certain models it takes up that if you try to understand them within a particular setting it all makes sense and it helps you understand how sophisticated that culture is which looks uncivilized or outdated from the outside, how sophisticated that culture is from inside and what you are trying to measure is an outsider’s perspective who is so distanced from that.

So, in anthropology you constantly try to understand this strange and try to understand the rituals and the practices of that extreme setting and you come to the conclusion that it’s not any better or worse it’s just a different form of life. From that perspective and I look back and I look at my experiences on these years I have come to the conclusion that this there is no there is a strong tendency but many of us to look at look at the other person as a product of social evolution that and not so much relativism so to answer your question that’s where that’s how I started to shift my thinking.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:34:33] Really fascinating because there was a lot in working just said that really resonated with a particular experience of mine that you have just triggered as you were talking.

In 1997 I had the occasion to go to Prague and I flew on my own I was a relatively young chap then. Flew into the country and alighted of the aircraft and walked towards the customs control and handed over my passport. Now I’m not sure whether the airport has changed since then but back in 97 the customs control at the airport had these customs officers sat behind in little boots behind bulletproof glass and next to them, they were turnstiles. So as you standing in the queue you would find the person in front hand their passport under it would be examined by the customs officer, you would then hear them press the button and hear a single click and then a buzz and the turnstile would open and the walkthrough.

So happened that I was lost in the queue on that day ’cause I was sat at the back of the aircraft and I don’t think I really helped myself because I was wearing black jeans, black turtleneck jumper, a black leather jacket and black boots. So, it certainly didn’t help myself and guess what as I approached the customs officer, I handed over my passport and it was carrying a South African passport at the time, handed it to him he looked at it and looked up at me and looked at the passports again and looked up at me and I was not expecting to hear a single click, except I heard click click click click click and a red light flashing above his booth and he directs me to look behind. So, I turn around and I see four policemen obviously airport police pointing AK 47s at me, ready to escort me from there into the airport police area and asked me many questions about what I was doing there and the legitimacy of my visit despite the fact that I had the appropriate visitors visa to enter etc. and that was quite an unnerving experience of you know living in apartheid South Africa had never had an experience like that go to a country like Prague where I’ve never been before to find that I was subjected to that. I can’t begin to express how far my heart was from jumping out of my mouth completely. But nonetheless almost fine they let me go and I entered the country, spent the night at the Pensione and I thought well you know it took me an entire day to get over their unnerving experience.

So, I was out on the town on the second day I attended the meetings I was supposed to and I thought that I would enjoy the delights of beautiful Old Town and Newtown in Prague and I got into the tram. I think it was a station number 2 if I remember correctly and I got as I was getting onto the trams one of these old trams that did not have any softened cushion plating on the inside of the transit was just or hard metal and all very exposed. There was this lady who was pushing her baby in a pram, carried it onto the trench and there was a position at the end of the trail where you could stand so I was I was still holding on to the railing and so was she and she had forgotten to apply the brakes on pram and if anybody has been to Prague and been on those trams you will know that the drivers do not have a sense of speed or can’t find that the breaking system on it because they drive pretty fast and they take turns equally as fast and guess what on this occasion it sent the pram flying to the wall and so what I did was instinctively put my hand between the baby’s head and the metal side to prevent an accident and she immediately saw what happened she pulled the pram away and dusted the baby’s head off. So, that was Day 2. One piece of music on my recorder as a young 13-year-old of good king Wenceslas. Up on a hill top in old Prague where the old king is actually buried in a diamond studded chamber and I was looking forward to my final day.

I arrived there and bought a ticket for a guided tour. Halfway through the tour I stopped there and the guide of the group comes and says to me – can I have a chat with you? I go like yeah sure and he says may I have a look at your ticket for this tour? I had it by this time and I challenged him that – why do you want to see my ticket? He was like no I want to see your ticket. So, I was like well why me? Why did you not ask another person? Well because someone in this group has said that you haven’t bought a ticket and that you’re just tagging on. I said Well that’s just disgusting and showed my ticket and he apologized and walked away. So that experience has provided some food for thought for many years and continues to do so and have had many conversations about it. One very common place in society today and I believe that is ignorance. It is not racism but them being ignorant of not understanding that makes them feel naturally defensive. It makes them come from an unknown place or a place of fear. That began to make a lot of sense. When I started doing cross boundary work for clients and social anthropology, one of the commissions I had worked with was to help them devise a harmonized system of safety management. You can almost imagine the questions that went through my mind about the concept of risk appetite. Risk appetite is spoken about quite widely. But I really wanted to take risk and safety out of the equation. I wanted to know why people behave the way that they do. I took this to my client that we can frame a harmonized system of management. We can be harmonized if we do the same thing in the same way. Apart from that it just would seem like system sitting on the shelf. I respectfully suggest that we change the scope of this commission.

Let’s understand the local organizational culture and whether the employees have an adherence to the national culture or the organizational culture. That would give you an idea on a location-by-location basis – where the greatest challenge of harmonization is going to be and where your common approach is going to work and that led me to the work of Geert Hofstede. His work has been central to helping our understanding on how our societies and cultures work or are relative to each other. His cultural dynamism as you would know. I hear your other guests talk about power distance. But it is not only power distance. It is also masculinity or femineity of a society, individualism vs. Collectivism, high indulgence vs. Low etc. It helps in understanding how those dimensions work in society and systems of management i.e. hierarchal vs. emancipatory. What we seem forget when working in the west is that nationalistic societies, they don’t function like us. Many of them need hierarchal structures to maintain some form of order. Otherwise, there will be anarchy. What is very interesting is that I had a conversation within one of my clients in Hong Kong and he posed such an interesting question. We were talking about the behavior of the west vs. east in terms of organizational behavior and safety management in particular. We were talking about how BBS may gain traction in western societies rather than eastern societies. He posed a very thought-provoking question – How would you deal with the situation here in Hong Kong where we have a traditional Chinese orientated society characterized by the need of hierarchy, the need for direction or to act upon in a subordinate way – high collectivism, high power distance, long term orientation meaning the need to be in control of what’s going to happen next. So, you have the older generation in Hong Kong who are like that. But now you have the generation X and Z who are the anthesis and are adopting the norms of the west. You have these two groupings within the organization – What is the system of management that you adopt then?

I did I am little research and came up with situational leadership, and also leadership where you delegate or others may say as a transformative style. Then you have the theorists who would say that people in leadership roles in Hong Kong would learn to adopt the contingency principle I.e., change according who the audience is. To me they look like cop out answers because there is a particular leadership that works well is systemic leadership. They do not primarily focus on the social dimension. They focus on the organization as a total ecosystem and make those individuals aware of what effect they have on the total ecosystem and then create a common shared vision by pulling the levers at a system level rather than a personal level.

It’s absolutely essential to recognize that safety is inherently an outcome of what businesses do. If we want to change what businesses do then it isn’t the safety tool that needs to change, it is going to be the business level, leadership level, systems level intervention that will have a sustainable effect on safety outcomes.

Is there a similar effect on the way you have done investigations previously, Nippin?

Nippin Anand [00:50:21] Yes, it’s a topic we can talk about for many hours. Essentially what you’re asking is what type of leadership works in a chaotic world. I like the way you drew out the topic on Gen Y and Gen Z. There is no one size fits all but also would that be usual thing the situational humility and would that be an appropriate strategy in such instances? You’re absolutely right we need to have an understanding of the business context I keep saying this that but the safety profession in many ways when you look at the organogram itself it becomes very quickly apparent that the safety sits outside of everything else and safety has very little understanding of the ecosystem as you call it, I love the term by the way. So having an appreciation of the business context and what the needs of the different stakeholders are both internal and external interdependencies within the system, mapping out those interdependencies, sensitivities is the first point because when we say leadership we really mean? what no matter how much we want to run away from this term but essentially what you’re looking for what is some for some meaningful control that would really work so that control could become effective if you understand how the wider ecosystem operates and actually to turn some of those constraints into to a huge opportunity for yourself in many ways if you have an appreciation of the wider context.

How many times have I seen accident investigations where we go on a very narrow strand, we want to find a cause and want to treat the cause and we have no idea how the implications of that problem are going to be in the wider ecosystem. It’s very complex. I would never do an accident investigation without understanding the wider business context. The same thing goes for audits. Audits today have such a disjointed report produced at the end of the day because we try to impose the standards onto the organization rather than understanding, those parts of the audit to verify how the organization operates. The most useful way for me is to be like “listen, I’m first of all here to understand how do you as an organization operate and can different departments get together with me and explain, how do you interact with each other to produce value to a customer. That is the point to start and understand the wider ecosystem to understand if that leadership exists to understand what control really means. Is it control for control itself or control for the sustainability of the organization.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:54:39] You brought to my mind a phenomenal quote by Russell Ackoff on the point of auditing and he talked about it within the context of continuous improvement. He said, “the more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become and it is much better to do the right thing wronger, than the wrong thing righter and if you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.” Many organizations today are looking to right the audit as a validation of what they have written down. Not to validate the audit whether what they’ve written down is going to deliver the course of action on the journey that they wish to travel. So, the audit does not focus on the system, and the system function with organization goals focuses on compliance, if the system design is flawed, we as auditors are reemphasizing the need to continue to do the wrong thing.

Nippin Anand [00:55:55] I would like to offer a perspective here and I don’t think we are so concerned about compliance and I don’t consider it as a dirty word. The problem isn’t compliance, the problem is conformance. What we are striving for is conformance. Compliance is that here is a management system and I want to understand how it connects with the purpose of the organization. While I am interest in seeing that people are complying or not but I am also interested in to see what makes it difficult for people to comply with the process and what we can do differently to connect the process with the purpose. So, I don’t think that the problem is not with compliance, it is with the term conformance. We often get mixed between the two.

Rakesh Maharaj [00:57:01] I would like to offer a slightly different view on this. If an organization is not designed to achieve its objective or purpose, it might still be very easy to comply with it and you’d be able to confirm that it has been complied with. But there is still a fundamental dysfunction. We need to differentiate between compliance, conformance and system design. The system design helps us understand whether we’re doing the right thing right. Whether right or wrong, comes with compliance or conformance. When clients ask us to conduct audits today, I spend a lot of time looking at the design of their system rather than going and looking at people figuring out if they are following procedures or not. Pre-covid one of my clients were like aren’t you going to go on sit and what people are doing? My response to that was well how do I know that what people out there are actually doing the right thing for the business and he was like, yeah, that was the safety team that put it together.  And I ask the question again, how do you know whether that’s the right thing for the business and he was dumb founded.

Nippin Anand [00:59:07] I used to work for a certification agency and how we would define non-conformance was procedures not being followed or procedures not being followed adequately. I have ended up into heated arguments with clients to tell them that the procedures are not designed adequately which makes it difficult to conform with. Very rarely you see that being raised as a non-compliance. Compliance goes both ways, if you look at any system today. The reason for that is that firstly, a lot of it has got nothing to do with regulatory, legal or business compliance. It is mostly to do with the fear of losing control. It is the illusion of control and it reminds me of a baby hugging a teddy bear and sleeping. All you have is the teddy bear that you want to hug so tightly.

Rakesh Maharaj [01:00:53] It is perceived comfort. It takes an event to push an organization out of the normal zone and realize how out of control it really is. When you’re investigating a fatality, it becomes incredibly material in front of you. What I find with conformance and systems is that these are all manifestations of organizational and operational design. One example in high hazard sector is this outlook that everything has to be done very well but some things have to be done better than others. No matter what safety or control measure you think have in place, the very nature on how your business is functioning in practice really determines what this outcome is going to be. No matter what is written down, if it is not much the dynamism and the way that the organization truly functions, then forget about conformance and compliance. You are playing with two things I.e. the competence of people on the ground and number two, luck.

Nippin Anand [01:04:00] It is the question of when, isn’t it? It has been such a lovely disucssion. What would be your final words and also if people want to contact you where would they get in touch with you? I’d definitely want to have many more conversations

Rakesh Maharaj [01:04:59] What I want to conclude is by saying that if we truly believe that the concept of systems thinking then we have to embrace multiple perspectives by being multi-dimensional I.e taking different views and perspectives into account. Diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance. Mahatma Gandhi put it in his words saying, “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization. So, people would like to get in touch with would be through Armsaacademy.com or free to google Rakesh Maharaj or even directly on LinkedIn too.

Nippin Anand [01:06:55] That was an amazing discussion. I really enjoyed talking to Rakesh.

So how do you understand systems thinking and what is systemic leadership? Let me give you an example. Suppose you and I look out of the window, the same window and see the world outside we will never see the same thing. Well we will see the trees and the sky and the clouds (depending on where you live) but we don’t quite perceive it the same way. If I was looking out with my son or my nine years old daughter, chances are that she gets excited by seeing the sun because it’s her day off. I might, on the other hand, get depressed because I have work to do while the sun is shining and I can’t go out to enjoy it.

So when two people see the same thing, they don’t experience the same reality because reality is dependent on our sensual perceptions – what we make of what we see. And that depends on our background, experiences, prior understanding, values, principles, belief systems and in an organizational context our goals and targets. And in my view, this is the most powerful influence in organizations today – how our goals and targets influence our view of the world.

What is also interesting is how we impose our views of the world on others. Since I am more powerful than my daughter I will want her to believe that sunshine is not really a good thing. This is the second problem. we see the world in a certain way and we expect others to follow our truth when we are in a position of power.

And what systemic leadership does is, it encourages us to look at things from different perspectives and to appreciate the diversity of viewpoints so that we can understand the world, we can understand the problem better. We don’t use power to impose our view, rather we use it to create the space where diversity of viewpoints leads to effective understanding of the problem. once we understand the problem well, solutions are easy!

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