First Do No Harm

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My first career breakthrough came when Jim Crompton, then Chairman of the Defence Research Laboratories in Adelaide invited me to work with him. To be his first-ever, executive assistant. Crikey. I wasn’t a scientist, or a technologist. I thought of myself more as a managerial ‘jack of all trades.’

When I stood outside his office, there in my late 20s, my nervousness must have been obvious. Jim’s secretary Phyllis said, “Richard, he’s only a man. And, he’s good at answering questions. So, don’t assume anything, just ask.”

Great advice from Phyllis. It wasn’t too long before Jim said to me, “Richard, you always ask the hard questions. And, if you want an answer you’ll have to go to Canberra.”

After 30 years of asking hard questions, I was working in Canberra as part of a 3-year reform program. You might have noticed how, as reform takes shape, details accumulate until the accumulated detail takes over. Each segment of reform builds a life of its own. People become their organisation and one story becomes many stories. Well, that’s where we were.

The questioner in me dared to ask, “What’s the narrative here? How do these things fit together now? And, why can’t the leaders answer me?” This time, the questions were thrown right back at me.

That was another ‘oh shit’ moment, for me. I now had the task of constructing a model and a narrative for an ‘integrated’ program that was no longer integrated and I had not designed.

The model I constructed was adequate as far as models go [1]. The narrative struck accord with the Program Director, sufficient to brief the top executives and an external adviser, a director on the Board of one of the big-4 banks in Australia.

As my client and I told the story, there was visible movement. Executives uncrossed their arms and became more engaged. When we finished, they all sat back in their chairs, thinking not speaking.

The external adviser leaned forward, gave us a kind compliment. And, then said to the group that he’d been talking that morning about a problem in the bank. It had been a problem for over a decade for want of a model and a narrative that conveys the story of where the issues fit and how it affects life amongst the other parts of the bank.

He looked the executives in the eye and, pointing in our direction, said they must all learn to tell this narrative around the model. He said, “It’s the story of the business you’re in. It lets people see the story above the complexity of this business because it brings the pieces together to be talked of as a whole.”

Right then, he had me hooked on the power a viable systems’ approach I had used to design an integrated model of the whole enterprise and use it as seeds for the narrative to reach into every part and explain the relations among them. It also told me how rare this knowledge is. And, how long problems can last if you don’t engage in this kind of deep, systemic thinking.

It also reinforced how critical it was for me to ask the hard questions.

I had NO RIGHT to be wrong, or to be doing the wrong thing

Uncoupling interdependent elements is the wrong thing

Putting them back together is harder.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The few people I’ve met who are great at systems thinking and systems practice (in the fullest sense of those terms) are people who have become a ‘jack of all trades’ lifting themselves out of their specialist discipline to become trans-disciplinary.

Yet, for the most part, the education system drives us to being and staying functional specialists, for that is what has been valued most throughout the 20th Century.

In This Century, the journey from being a ‘corporate functional specialist’ to a leader as a ‘specialist in the life of a living enterprise’ requires a deep general education.


Lessons from Medicine – Educate to First Do No Harm 

If you’re a medical practitioner, you know this already. You signed up to ‘first do no harm’ with the Hippocratic Oath.  


You’re lucky. Seriously lucky. You became a general practitioner of medicine before you specialised. The rest of us were taught to specialise first. We lack a deep general foundation and that is hurting us all.  


Before general practice, as medical students, you learnt the frameworks of life. You learnt the full anatomy of the body so you could describe the systems, the sub-systems and the relationships among them.  


In the business of running complex enterprises, we yearn for such a complete understanding.  


You learnt about the heart and lungs both in their parts and as the engines of the circulatory system. You know how they shift nutrients and oxygen to every cell, returning the waste of each cell to the organs that dispose of it – carbon dioxide out the lungs, urine from the kidneys and bladder, chemicals through the liver and ultimately the intestines. You learnt the consequences for life of the whole before taking action on any part.  


In business, we outsource most everything that isn’t ‘core’. We uncouple interdependent things and wonder why there’s a gap between strategy and execution or a breakdown in governance that ensures profit wins attention over people. 


In medicine, you learnt about the brain and the central nervous system in order to understand how control is exercised throughout the body – both autonomously and with choice.  


In business, we’re taught management and accountability in order to keep control over what and how things are done. Control is a gift granted by those in power. It’s very rare that people are given the freedom to be autonomous actors in a complex enterprise.  


You learnt about psychology and societal norms in order to understand how beliefs prompt behaviours behind chronic illness.  


In business, we blame culture without placing enough value on the fundamental behaviour of honesty. And, we wonder why chronic issues remain despite our best efforts to drive reform.  


As medical students, you learnt the essence of life and living before you were first authorised to make systemic interventions on the living. You assume a right to a second opinion. 

In business, we want to be first and trust any mistakes will teach us the lessons of life. We assume a right to be fail. 


When you graduated as a general practitioner, you became a “specialist in life.” Later, as a specialist, your profession recognised the need for specialists to refer people back to the general practitioner to guide our full health, wellness and well-being.  


In business, we graduate and specialise immediately. As we progress in management and leadership, we strive to be generalist integrators of functional specialisations. But we don’t have the generalist foundation in how these complex social systems operate.   


Medical professionals have done the generalist work. They can meaningfully reframe their profession from being just a generalist to a ‘specialist in life’. In business, our journey from specialist to generalist is a challenge. 


Our Journey from Specialist to Generalist is a Challenge 

 Growing up in a western society, we see specialists as the highest mark of any profession or vocation. They’re peak authorities. They’ve done the work to dig deep into a niche in life and become a Neurosurgeon, a Queen’s Counsel, a Chartered Engineer, a Master Plumber, a Chef de Cuisine, a Professor, a Thought Leader, a CEO, a Statesman, a Master at Arms… etc.  


General practitioners of medicine, then, are peak authorities as our ‘specialists in life’.  


Our education systems give us a foundation to achieve any specialisation of our choosing. When we trust the system, we learn more and more about less and less. We become specialists in our profession.  


Yet, as we gain higher levels of authority, we generalise in order to manage and lead with accountability and responsibility. So, we aim to create ‘T-shaped’ people – long in a specialisation and broad in general management.  


The challenge of specialists becoming generalists without a deep generalist background is that we’re “a mile wide and a half-inch deep’ on most things except our specialisation. Hence, we’re encouraged to put the time in to doing ‘deep work’. Deep work to create or recouple interdependencies that previously we had broken.  


‘Deep work’ is hard work. In reality, how much deep work gets done?  


We’re not medical practitioners. Unlike them, we haven’t put a deep general foundation in place before we specialised. Does it matter? I think so. 


How many CEOs deeply understand the anatomy of their enterprise, the relations among the parts, and the deep psychology of their people before they prescribe a new philosophy, a new psychology and a new set of practices to make an enterprise agile?  


By the time corporate functional specialists become CEOs, we don’t have the time to gain the generalist education we need in a deep and meaningful way to effect systemic interventions. Generalist education has been deeply undervalued, to be acquired in small pieces along the way.  


No wonder that corporate and industrial catastrophes occur. No wonder regulators find themselves caught short. No wonder governments come back with ‘Big Stick’ legislation. No wonder there are so many consultants, skills trainers, leadership experts and gurus selling services. No wonder we feel as if we’re gap-filling not transforming. All of these are part of the problem and the solution, but who knows which part is which?  


When we’ve all been stuck in an education system of the last century, it’s no wonder so many of today’s practices are not meeting the needs of This Century.  


Climate change is not the only grand challenge. Solutions to climate change require us to work in parallel to improve our education on systemic intervention.  


Educating Everyone as ‘Specialists in Life’ – Fast  

 Generalists reframing themselves as ‘specialists in life’ is a lesson for us all. But, there’s a catch (…three actually, but let’s look at them instead as calls to action). 


Call to Action 1 – Now – Subscribe to ‘First Do No Harm’ 

Most of us do not belong to professions or vocations where the ‘First do no harm’ philosophy is explicit. And that’s our first call to action. Professions will find this hard.  As individuals, we can act.  


As individuals, we can subscribe to the outcome – ‘First do no harm’ – and then make sure our every action supports it, right through our lives – in our own behaviour and then how that ripples through our family, our community, our business or enterprise, and how we engage at the national level and globally.  


The biosphere of Planet Earth is a closed-cycle system supporting life. Nothing can be thrown away. Where is away? The biosphere of Planet Earth is home.  


‘First do no harm’ is a mindset that will drive us to reduce our use of plastics, pesticides, petrochemicals and all other pollutants of our biosphere. We need stop the tragedy that is common in the lack of care about who and what we harm by living in the way we do. 


If we don’t do this, if you and I don’t do this, there is no point doing anything else. We are accelerating human extinction if we do not change our ways of thinking and practice in This Century.  


Call to Action 2 – Long term – Systemic Intervention on Generalist Education 

Our education must build our literacy, numeracy and deep general education necessary before we begin making systemic interventions in the ways of the world. Otherwise, leadership remains a license to kill. 


We need to know the anatomy of life on Planet Earth and the relationships among the parts to understand the full consequences of our decisions before we make intelligent choices about how we think and act in This Century. It’s ‘deep work’ but done early, it’s no harder than the ‘specialist work’ we’re doing now. 


My friend John Corrigan, a thought leader in education, is doing deep work advancing education with student feedback on teachers, vertical development of students and teachers and a viable systems’ model for integrating these elements into a school system and scaling up into an education system (I’m assisting John with the viable systems thinking).  


This will take time. John and I will say more in the coming months to spur a conversation on reforming education for This Century


Call to Action 3 – Now – Use What We Already Know, but Most Don’t  

We can’t wait for the current generation of students to reach tertiary level education to start thinking and learning this way. We can’t then wait for them to complete a further seven years of tertiary study before we license them to design and practise systemic interventions every day.  


We need a better way to fast-track how we gain a deeper generalist understanding. We need to become ‘specialists in life’ in our own professions too.  


We will never achieve a deep generalist understanding by using singularly a reductionist approach. We need to augment our thinking with ideas and methodologies to include pluralist and coercive issues, alive in the social fabric we’re working on and working with. 


There’s been a relatively quiet progression in the thinking, practice and engineering for systemic interventions, beginning with Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory through systems sciences, systems engineering and complex systems governance. These domains contain many proven ideas and methods that make it humanly possible for us to address the global grand challenges as if they were ‘moonshots.’  


But too few people know what is available, nor yet how to apply it now. 


This will be my Call to Action to serve you with knowledge and stories from my experience in these fields over the past 40 years. There’s been highs and lows and I’ll share them all to help you move quicker to a deeper generalist understanding, absent in much of today’s teaching. 


Ask the Hard Questions – You Have No Right to be Wrong  


You can join the Call to Action: Subscribe Here to make sure you engage directly about the hard questions that help you make more informed choices in your systemic interventions. 


This is my aim over the next year in This Century

[1] “All models are wrong.” Box, G. E. P. (1976), "Science and Statistics" (PDF), Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71: 791–799, doi:10.1080/01621459.1976.10480949