Thejus Chakravarthy – Make Work Suck Less

Thejus Chakravarthy – Make Work Suck Less

My guest in this episode is Thejus Chakravarthy, an operational consultant that focuses on people, process, and technology, in that order. Currently, he says he has his hands full as the full-time COO of one company and a C-suite consultant for another. His primary focus is on how we can make work suck less. To that end, he spent 15 years designing instructional systems, the last 5 years expanding into operational systems, and wrote Brushfire and The Flywheel and The Lever.

In this episode we talk about why operations is the place to make the structural changes in organisations to make work suck less and why systems thinking is the underlying key to it all.


Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.

Andy Polaine 00:09

Welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation, head on to changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service design and innovation consultant, coach, trainer and writer.

My guest today is Thejus Chakravarthy, an operational consultant that focuses on people process and technology in that order. Currently, he says he has his hands full as the full time CEO of one company and C-suite consultant for another. His primary focus is on how we can make work cyclists on to that end, he spent 15 years designing instructional systems, the last five years expanding into operational systems, and wrote Brushfire and the Flywheel and the Lever. Thejus, welcome to Power of Ten.

Thejus Chakravarthy 00:55

Thank you, Andy. And I can’t help but blush every time I hear that intro because it makes me sound a lot more together than I feel.

Andy Polaine 01:02

That’s the secret of my coaching experiences. Everyone thinks that. So we connected online, and then we’ve had kind of back and forth mostly sending each other articles. But if I can’t believe this, you know, a new piece of research that confirms something we’ve known all along, right. But before we get to the work bit, I want to ask you this. So how did you start in designing instructional systems lead to or maybe help you think about what you’re doing now?

Thejus Chakravarthy 01:31

Oh, well, that’s actually it’s kind of a weird trajectory. So my undergrad was psychology because I was always fascinated with, you know, what’s going on inside people’s heads, because I couldn’t figure out what was going on in mind. And so I started going down, like courses and taking classes, I never really had a specialisation during my undergraduate. And then I happen to take a class in industrial psychology. And I thought, hey, I’m a really bad counsellor. Because I have this tendency to simply say, Well, why don’t you just do this? And that’s not at all what good counsellors should be doing. And they’re supposed to help guide you. And as a coach, and you know that, yeah, you’re not supposed to tell somebody what to do. They’re supposed to come up with the answer themselves, and you’re supposed to guide them to their personal answer, and I’m terrible at that. But industrial psychology was the opportunity to basically say, oh, no, you should do this. But why? Because I say so. And because we’ll make more money. And who are you going to argue with? But it turns out that was in college. I didn’t know any better.

But one of my professors actually said, you know, what you might be interested in Instructional Systems Design. And I said, Yeah, Scooby Doo voice. But she actually pointed out that one of the biggest challenges in business is changing behaviour. And a lot of people in businesses don’t realise that the only way to change somebody’s behaviour is not by like penalising them, or firing them or yelling at them, or, you know, giving them taking money away from them, it’s actually by altering their behaviour, or altering the environment in which their behaviour occurs. So I went down that rabbit hole, and going down the Instructional Systems Design rabbit hole taught me things like oh, well, there’s actually certain parameters and certain ways to be sure that you’re altering behaviour in a way that you won’t. And of course, as is often the case, eventually, I got to the point where I was altering behaviour against the system. So there was the hierarchy, there was the business process in place, that was the Oh, we’ve always done it this way. And my counterpoint was, well, why are you making me build a training class, when all we have to do is change the size of an icon to reduce the level of the number of errors we’re seeing? Because that icon is too small, and most people are missing it? I can’t teach people to see better. But you can just change the size of the thing. Why are we talking about this? This is a non issue. And that, of course, is the reason why it took me 15 years of just banging my head against that specific kind of problem before eventually said, You know what? Maybe I’m done fighting it from the instructor side. Maybe I need to switch over to changing the systems themselves, rather than continually having this argument because training departments tend to be sucked under HR departments and HR departments tend to be marginalised when it comes time to talk about business process, because the assumption is the HR person is not thinking about it in terms of cost benefit analyses. They’re not thinking about it in terms of what what’s the overhead of this, what are the knock on effects of making this business change, right? Are they there to look at HR, they just do you know, sexual harassment training, and that’s it, onboarding, yay, and 401, k’s and Retirement and Pension planning, not, hey, wait a minute. If we change this business process, we actually save money and save time in all these other attendant business processes. So that’s what eventually got me to looking at operations and for the past five years that’s it’s kind of been like, the last 15 years have been a nightmare and I’ve woken up. Of course, now broken up into brand new nightmare. which is operations? And as we both talked about over the last couple of years or a year, has it been a year? It’s been about? It’s been about a year. Yeah. Yeah. With just oh my god, have you seen this thing? Oh, my God, I can’t believe this thing. I can’t believe somebody would do this on purpose. Did you read this thing about Northrop Grumman? Did you read this thing about Raytheon? Wait, did you know about this thing about McKinsey? I had no idea. And just, you know, so that’s that we tried and, you know, talk this out over a podcast, rather than continuing to scream at each other in, you know, in our own private internet problems.

Andy Polaine 05:31

Yeah, inflict it on everyone else. I guess we come at this from different perspectives in some respects, but it’s also very the same. So I generally come at it from outside of the operations perspective, in the sense that, you know, I’m trying to kind of, well, I mean, my main focus now, especially in the coaching is to make people’s work lives much more humane. And for people to actually resolve the dissonance between the role they’re playing at work and who they actually are, that’s ultimately kind of want to try to do, where I think we overlap a lot is, you know, and you’re obviously kind of looking at that for the internal side of things of operations as of getting inside the machine. In a way I think we’re big overlap is our interest in, in systems thinking and seeing that as a systems dynamic, you know, that we are, I am trying to kind of help people resolve that dissonance often, while they’re very workplace, their reading is trying to create more dissonance. And obviously, you’re trying to kind of do what you said, which is, hey, you know, I can’t just train people out of a structural problem.

Thejus Chakravarthy 06:30

And I think that that’s why we were put in touch with each other. Because we were both attacking, what is sort of a fundamental problem in work and a fundamental problem that people are grappling with and have been grappling with since basically the beginning of the industrial era, to be completely honest.

Andy Polaine 06:46

Well, yeah. And so we it’s hard to get to this and actually talk about some of the stuff you’re just talking about with that kind of behavioural change and stuff without getting into Taylor, and without why later on in Gilbert, and some of your writing you then talking about in a milligramme, and also the Prison Experiment. So where to start. So I might ask you about bushfire brush, fire, sorry. And the flywheel and lever which one of those did you write first?

Thejus Chakravarthy 07:12

Oh, so I released them Brushfire, then Lever and the Flywheel. But I actually wrote all of it at once. And then then I kind of looked at and I said, “Okay, this is a lot to just cram into just one.” Calling it a book is generous. I prefer the term screed or treatise or pamphlet, maybe…

Andy Polaine 07:32

White paper. Yes. pamphlet is probably the is a good template. Kind of where you would you’d be in some of your own printing press, you know, Town Square handing these out. Yeah. Alright.

Thejus Chakravarthy 07:46

Soapbox screaming sandwich board, the whole thing.

Andy Polaine 07:50

I have to stop you there though, because they are not they’re not soapbox screaming. They are actually also practical, I think. And that’s, that’s what’s good about it. You actually don’t just say, hey, look, here’s the problem and scream. You’re actually provide a way of approaching these things. That’s why I was interested because I felt like if anything, brushfires is a little bit more of the kind of what as the name suggests, burn it all down, is a little bit more so boxy, or a little bit more squiddy than a flyer, another lever, which is much more kind of operational. Right.

Thejus Chakravarthy 08:19

And that’s why I had to split them out. Because I realised that were brushfires more of a philosophical understanding of, well, why do I have a problem with this? And why is there a problem? And how can we approach this from a mental sort of emotional, psychological, okay, I was gonna say spiritual, but I don’t mean spiritual, but sort of approaching it from what’s going on inside in those few pounds of putting that rattling around in your skull. And maybe there’s some thought processes that you can quickly lock into, and just keep in your head to help you deal with everything at work. But I had that folded into well, here’s some basic steps that I think could help make a workplace more efficient, that I think could streamline some general business processes from a very fundamental level. So we’re not talking about like, well, what software should I use? Should I use NetSuite? Should I use this? Should I, you know, talk to somebody at Blackbaud? No, I’m not talking about that. And I’m not talking about, like, how do I integrate Microsoft Teams into Google documents or something like that? That’s irrelevant. What I mean is, well, what is your process? How are you rewarding your employees? How are you tracking success or failure are using metrics? And what are those metrics actually measure? And I figured by separating the two of the sort of internal aspect, and then the here’s the playbook. By separating the two, it would be easier for people to pick up whichever side of the coin they landed on.

Andy Polaine 09:42

Yeah, so one is the gateway into the other.

Thejus Chakravarthy 09:46

Yeah, exactly. And so I figured, well, let me put up the one that I feel most concerned about first. So I felt most concerned about the brush fire book because I felt that Okay, wait, maybe that’s a little that’s a little hand wavy. It’s a little You know, a little too. It wasn’t. Here’s a, here’s a series of steps that I think if you try, you’ll see benefits too. And then you can try the more complicated steps but it’s Lagos, you can build whatever you want. But I felt like brushfire was more like here’s some paint in here’s a canvas. And we’re going to talk about impressionism now.

Andy Polaine 10:18

So what’s your central thesis? Or could you summarise kind of brush fire? Because there’s actually there’s a little bit I’d like to read out first because there’s it’s on like page two I think was which is probably actually page one of it or page, you know. It’s right down the bottom, we say, and it resonated with me an awful lot, which is wasting an investor’s money isn’t a crime. wasting an employee’s time is for every team spending hours to do something that should take minutes. There’s a child wondering if they’ll see mom today, for every shipped product that is just managed to hit the deadline. There’s a young man trying to keep his hands from shaking, because hasn’t slept in 48 hours to start from this very, very human point of view. But what is the what is the sort of fundamental thesis of brush fire?

Thejus Chakravarthy 10:59

I think, if I had to, and again, I’m terrible at this sort of thing. That’s why it took me years to work through the books and edit myself down as most of my friends will tell you have a tendency to wax rhapsodic, who’s a nice way to friends that we just talked too much as a better way to say that. So brush fire is sort of me trying to grapple with this almost unmanageable level of rage I feel when talking to people who just are trapped in a cubicle, like I cannot rationalise, like that sort of dehumanisation. I cannot rationalise the kind of just when people are products and people are cogs in the machine resources, resources, right. So I grew up in India, I was, you know, I was a child, when I saw like, I was maybe four when I saw my first dead body for God’s sakes, which now when I tell my American friends are like, Oh, my God, that’s so horrible. Meanwhile, when he talked to my Indian family, like Yeah, and they go on with their day, I just have to do these things. But I remember very clearly, watching some a child my age, have to go into the trash and pick up garbage and then carry, you know, scraps of tin to somebody to some other slightly older child and sell it to another slightly older child until eventually, they could sell all the tin to some tinsmith and make a little bit of money. And then I was like, Oh, my God. And so when we came to America, that, you know, oh, my god, we’re in the land of plenty. We’re in a place where this is not like, we don’t see that sort of reduction of a human being to a cog in a machine. And then I started working in an office. And I saw it again, except I saw, like, you know, somebody who was getting close to retirement like a 65 year old, who’s cubicle was decorated with pictures of their grandchildren. But they’d been there for so long that they’d worn parts of the desk away from where they left their hands, it turned to human being into veal. And then once I learned that what they were doing was simply automatable. Simply something that computer could have been doing something, you basically turn to human being into George Jetson just hit this red button. And that’s your job, except you didn’t let him do it at home. And he wasn’t there with you know, with his dog, Astro. And Jane, his wife, he was trapped in a box smashing a button, as though that was the true expression of a human being and that, that that that still pisses me off. So I wrote a book about it. So basically, I wrote brush fire from the perspective that if you ever are in a job, or you have the luxury of dictating what a job will look like, for somebody else, and you don’t start from the perspective that human beings are capable of a lot more than you think they are, and are capable of breaking your expectations, then you failed horribly. And so you have to have a framework to harness what is in effect a random variable power source, which is what people are a constant power source, something like a gasoline powered engine or a turbine is very easy to manage. You know, Henry Ford proved that, you know, everything was powered by one, you know, turbine, but variable forces and variable abilities like human beings don’t work in one straight line. They work in multiple dimensions and multiple timeframes. So if you can’t harness every aspect of a person, then you’ve basically failed as a business, you’re kind of curtailing their abilities and thereby curtailing your ability. So it’s a failure on both sides. You’ve reduced a person to a resource, and you’ve prevented your ability to use that resource by simplifying how you use people. And that’s all Yeah, it’s it’s inefficient on both sides. And that’s what pisses me off. And that’s why that’s why I wrote brushfires at the very least, this is a philosophical or mental model, the structure of mental models that should allow you to understand or allow you to see that it isn’t as simple as you know, sit in your queue. You push your hit the buttons and you do your job. It should be a let’s talk about this.

Andy Polaine 15:05

So you’ve got this metaphor and that of the brush fire of it kind of burning through a forest. It doesn’t burn the canopy, it just kind of burns through this lower level of the forest. And that clears away a lot of undergrowth or overgrown forest floor, making space for new growth to happen. And you know, it’s it you state very clearly, you know, this is a violent process. Why does it need to be a violent process? First, the first start is because, you know, I can see that I’m and I can understand it. But I can also imagine people saying feeling that oh, that’s not for us. That’s too extreme.

Thejus Chakravarthy 15:37

Ryan, right? I think. So my stance on it being a violent process is, it’s hard for people to realise how hard change is, if that makes sense. Like it’s changes. I mean, by its very nature, human beings were very change averse, like we’re risk averse, or change reverse. It’s something that people have to warm up to, it’s something that people have to be brought into. So I’ve known a lot of addicts in my life. And you know, some of them have had their moment, call it a moment of clarity or rock bottom. And then after they have their moment, they have now this urge to change, they now have this desire to be different. But you can’t let a company that is the livelihood of hundreds or even dozens of people hit rock bottom before you make changes. So you have to make the change. Before there’s a taste for it before there’s a desire for it. You have to make the change as fast as humanly possible. Because you’re literally changing the basic fundamental nature of a company. And people don’t like to think of it this way. But luckily, I mean, one of the silver linings to the to the somewhat dark cloud of the lockdowns, plural, and hopefully we won’t have another but case counsel looking funky. The thing is that people realise that, wait, I don’t have to be physically in my office to do my job. Well, you actually never had to be. I mean, we’ve had the internet for a while now. We’ve had smartphones for a hot minute. What made you think your job requires you to be in an office? And in fact, some people are like, Oh, we’re more productive when we’re not in the office? Yeah, yeah. A lot of people have been making that arguments.

Andy Polaine 17:20

Oh, we’re more productive when we when we do go in. Because there’s a very specific thing. And it’s sadly precious time.

Thejus Chakravarthy 17:29

And so right now, there’s a lot of companies who have inadvertently, you know, kind of fallen into the fallen into my lap into my evil plan, where basically, they’ve somebody, somebody, somebody throw a match in their, in their, in their in their forest, and now it’s on fire. And a lot of them are like, Oh, my God, how do we save all of the underbrush? We want you back in the office? Well, but, but why? Well, because we need to manage you will. But we’re still having the same outputs that we needed to. So why are you Why do you need me here?

Andy Polaine 17:58

Yeah, and this has been the interesting thing, I think of a lot of this, you know, and I guess also underpins the great resignation. You know, this idea that most of the arguments for why people need to get back in the office are from managers who feel they need to control yeah, there’s, you know, there are reasons for getting together. It’s not that kind of offices are de facto a bad thing. But it’s kind of, I mean, if you actually one of things I do with in coaching is say to people like, Okay, can you remember, a really good day, you know, or a week, we had springiness step afterwards? And what were you doing in that day a week. And then that’s the kind of thing to focus on, because that’s what energises your mind. And it’s different, for example, exactly. But you know, and some of it might be a while we were actually kind of really up at the whiteboard and collaborating. And it’s really great. For other people, it’s like, well, you know what, I actually got the time to sit on my own and think about this thing very deeply and focus for

Thejus Chakravarthy 18:50

a few days. And what’s fascinating is the same person doing those other tasks, like the person who says, I had a great day, because we got up on the whiteboard and collaborated, or I had a great day because I had time to myself. You could reverse them. And they could say the exact same thing. They could say, well, usually I like to have time to myself, but today was better because I got a chance to work at a board. And then maybe they their energy was drained because of something else. And then they say, Oh, well, I’d rather have a date of myself. And in a workplace that rigidly dictates, you have to be in the office, you have to be at this whiteboard. You have to sit down and think to yourself, no matter how you structure that it’s still a failure, because it doesn’t it can’t function in a rigid structure. Yeah. Because everybody every moving part and everybody is going to be a little different every day. And again comes back to a few homogenised people then you make a mistake.

Andy Polaine 19:44

Yeah. Which, you know, this this comes back to this thing wherever we’ve talked about quite a lot. I’ve also talked about it before on the podcast of you know, management practices being predicated or basic just copying Industrial Age factories, right? Taylorism and Taylorism, which is, you know, this idea that people are inherently our employees are inherently dishonest and lazy. And that’s the first sort of fundamental kind of idea of that. And then the things that we’re doing a complicated rather than complex and so we can break those down into small parts. And then unskilled labourer can be told to do that small piece of work over and over again. And then ask smart kind of manager people managing

Thejus Chakravarthy 20:27

this, aren’t we? Aren’t we such a wonderful people here, the one

Andy Polaine 20:31

we’re the brains behind it are going to put it together. And we’re the ones who have integrity and stuff. And so it’s obviously heavily I mean, you know, Industrial Revolution in England at the time, and it’s heavily heavily influenced by the class system to plus, as we know, Taylor fudged his data, right?

Thejus Chakravarthy 20:46

Oh, God, so much of his data was fudged. I mean, it’s it’s almost, it’s almost a running joke. And at least it was when I was doing it in my undergraduate, which at this point is, is roughly 20 years ago, because I’m elderly. But it was it was almost a joke where we would say things like, Okay, well, we’re going to start studying at the beginning of the semester, these theoreticians, we’re going to read their papers, we’re going to read their books, we’re going to study and dig into their work. And then by about after the midterm, when we just finished passing an exam, proving that we understood them, the turnaround would be like, oh, yeah, by the way, here’s why all of them are wrong. Just like literally, with around ran through. Exactly. It’s like you studied all this, you memorise all this, we’re sure that you understand this great. Now, here’s how all of this is wrong and horribly, horribly inaccurate. And here’s the new research that shows that that it’s actually in a completely different direction. It’s Lou. It’s so annoying.

Andy Polaine 21:39

So that was 20 years ago, right? So yeah. So why does work still suck?


Oh, well, if I had to put a word to it, I’d say it’s because there’s more money and more safety and more security in maintaining the status quo than there is in reexamining things. So even when you look at software startups, my favourite example is to look at something like Google or any of the fangs. Right? So they started off as a relatively small company, but because of the nature of the internet, because of the nature of scale, without cost, without additional overhead, or minimal overhead, because servers are cheap, and people are not. They managed to reach critical mass where they could when they had to start asking questions like, Well, how do we motivate our programmers? Well, when it was five guys, and you gave them shares in the company, they had a literal vested interest in the success of the company. But now you’re people paying people a salary, and all of a sudden, you’re like, well, they don’t seem nearly as motivated as the guys who had shares. So we have to find different ways of motivating them. Well. Guys, you’re just like, did you not see how that math didn’t work out? Okay, well, then how do we manage these people? Well, here’s a stack of management books written by people going all the way back to Taylor, here’s Good to Great, it’s totally work for you trust me, you know, do Nielsen ratings, this will work, trust me. You know, here’s stacks, and stacks and books of how to manage people. Here’s a Harvard Business Journal article about management, here’s people with MBAs in management, and they’re just going to keep maintaining the status quo, even in a digital brand new company, and then just recapitulate the problem all over again. And I think the issues are really apparent when you start looking at things like the CEO, Dan price, who’s hilarious and wonderful in my eyes. He’s the one who said, I gave all my employees 75k. And every employee at his company makes I think, like, 75k. And he makes not that much more. And at the time, people said, Oh, my God, how could you possibly run a company like this? Oh, turns out he’s got incredible, great retention. He’s got incredibly, like his employees are willing to bend over backwards to help him. They’ve done incredibly well. And he hasn’t changed his policies. It’s just like, yeah, no, we’re gonna pay you what’s considered a pretty decent living wage, and we’re just going to, you know, empower you to do your best. And that simple dynamic. If you tried to do that at Amazon, I’m pretty sure Bezos would catch on fire. Yeah, and I’m pretty sure that you know, you’d see you’d see Elon drop dead in his tracks, if he even considered the idea of, oh, well, maybe I should treat all of my employees as well as I would like to be treated. So I think the main reason is power control and the safety that comes from being rich and powerful. You don’t want to unnecessarily rock the boat by saying, well, all my employees are as good as I am and I am no different than they are. Because that requires a certain level of…

Andy Polaine 24:43


Thejus Chakravarthy 24:44

That’s a good way to put that.

Andy Polaine 24:45

Yeah. It doesn’t. It doesn’t necessarily go together with what is considered the correct characteristics of an entrepreneur, right? They’re not known for their humility, right?

Thejus Chakravarthy 24:57

Red in tooth and Fang, you have to be able to fight And I mean, you destroy your competition.

Andy Polaine 25:03

Yeah. And so I mean, that’s the other thing I saw that sort of language around that of kind of destroying and crushing and killing it…

Thejus Chakravarthy 25:10

Hyper masculine. It’s exhausting.

Andy Polaine 25:13

So listen, you know, on, you’ve got that kind of very human side in the Brushfire, although you’ve also got it in the Flywheel and the Lever, but explain what the flywheel and the lever are, because you quote Donella Meadows in there as well. And few other well known in the system’s thinking world. You approach this from a systems perspective. So you know, what’s, what’s the kind of thesis behind that? And what is the flywheel and the lever.

Thejus Chakravarthy 25:42

So I’m glad you mentioned in Atlanta Mattos because my god, I love that woman’s work. I recently recently just got a hard copy, not just digital copy a hard copy of the limits to growth. I think it’s like the third edition. And it’s without sounding too nerdy. It’s basically my soaking in the tub read like it is, it is the book I read. When I’m like, Oh, I’ve got some time to myself, I’m gonna let some candles I’m gonna put on some soft music. I’m gonna cuddle, you know, snuggle into bed and read this this glorious book, which is, you know,

Andy Polaine 26:15

I mean, the only thing that I get with it is, you know, someone was writing about this in the 70s, while she wasn’t late 60s and started to this late 60s was the first one. And it’s, and here we are, you know, just thinking.

Thejus Chakravarthy 26:28

And, yeah, I think Did I say I don’t know if I did. But there’s a there’s actually a recent paper, I want to send the last six months, where somebody basically took the exact framework that they did for the first edition of the book and updated with modern with modern datasets, and said, Yeah, remember how they said there was like six potential branches, we’re down to three, two of them suck. And one of them, if we work really hard, we might be able to pull off in terms of how things might turn out in terms of how the limits to growth, kind of like tape around sort of plateau. And I was like, oh, Kay, I’m gonna need to read that third edition because I read that first edition. I don’t know how many years ago, but when I read it, I just said, Okay, I’m gonna go in the corner now. And I need a minute to myself. But after reading that most recent paper, I was like, Cool. You know what third edition, I gotta catch up. Anyway.

Andy Polaine 27:19

So I want to capture that. So that’s that fear of I want to get in the corner. I mean, part of me wants to just sort of go in the corner and cry and give up, right? Because you kind of think, well, this is the district describe the kind of the complexity and the system’s nature of it. But also they describe the dire nature of, of what’s going on in the world. And it kind of very quickly hits that thing talking about behavioural change where this is too much. This is beyond one, my one single person’s perspective, what can I do about this? So I’m not gonna do anything? That’s obviously the problem that we kind of raised with? Well, almost everything in the moment. Yeah, everything in life. Yeah. So I’m gonna go onto social media and just rant about it. And that’s it, you know,

Thejus Chakravarthy 27:59

which is great. I mean, some people like like, standing on their soapbox in the middle of the town square and screaming, but I don’t find that to be necessarily useful, right.

Andy Polaine 28:05

But in the firewall in the lever, it’s, it’s quite practical in that sense. And that’s why I sort of, I think what’s interesting about you and your work is you’re coming from it not from sort of hand wavy stance, but there is, you know, coming from from this operational perspective. And so, I will get you back on to what is the flywheel and what is the lever.

Thejus Chakravarthy 28:23

So starting from my understanding of instructional systems, I eventually reached the point where I realised that instructional systems follow certain protocols and follow certain rules of thumb. And so I said, Well, what other systems design is there. And so I got to lean manufacturing certification, because I want to learn how lean manufacturing work, because hey, that’s another system. And that’s another way to approach how things connect, took a bunch of other courses, a bunch of other classes, and then eventually, kind of tripped over my own feet into Donella Meadows work. Basically, I think the route I took was by way of Banerjee and two flows, work on poverty and economic and the economics trap, which is fascinating reading. There’s also a free course of it on edX, which I highly recommend. It’s because it’s free, and why not? If you’ve got time, might have to learn it. So once I started thinking about it in terms of okay, this is this large problem, work sucks. Nobody in their right mind says, Oh, I love my job 100%. So why, and what about that framework? Can we look at and say, Well, if you change, if you move this parameter over this way, or if you change this workflow in this way, if you tighten the spigot here and open it up over here, then the flows of everything are such that it should clear out this problem, just by its very nature. So without any additional human effort without having to have a policy without having to have a hey, let’s all get together and do a ropes course together or let’s have a company meeting where we sit down, you know, in a big conference table We talk about your problems. Well, why don’t we just change the business process so that it prevents the bad things from happening and supports the good things. And so that’s where it came from. It came from this idea that and so the flywheel is what I call, just basically having a process that develops and maintains momentum, and inertia. And the lever is the term I use to basically describe the processes you have in place to tighten or loosen parts of your flywheel. So I think of the lever as the intervention. And I think of the flywheel as the company. Because if you do it, right, and if you do it, well, there will be times where you’re wasting energy. In the sense of, we’re, we’ve got all of these people, and we’ve got all these outputs, but they’re basically hanging around doing nothing. And that’s fine. That’s great. Because when you think they’re hanging around doing nothing, that’s the time when people are the most creative. Like people are creative as hell in the shower when they have space. And exactly when they’ve got space to think and space to breathe and space to conceive. And maybe, if you’ve if you’ve got enough downtime, and people are people like, oh, well, you know, we don’t really have any deliverables this week. No, we don’t. We’ve got a bunch of them next week where you’re caught up. Yeah, I’m caught up, we got some breathing room. Hey, you know, that was his problem. We were running in, like over here in this other part of the company. I think we can solve it and probably only take us a week. Oh, well, let’s go. Let’s go take care of it, that everybody wants that. That’s like the thing that businesses say, Oh, we so desperately need people who can do that. We want our employees to take the time to do that. Well, but you’re also giving them very restrictive, like 40 hour week timelines and flooding them with 50 hours of work. When are they going to find the time you want them to just stay up late? Yeah, you want them to stay here longer. They’ve got kids, or, in my case, they’ve got a dog. Right? They’ve got pets, for God’s sakes. But so the flywheel would be once you started, once you start getting a pace in the company. You can just like a bicycle, you can take your feet off the pedals, and you bicoastal go, and then maybe put your feet back on the pedal, and you put a little harder for little sprint, and then you’re let go, and you’re still travelling faster. It’ll take you a little bit of time to decelerate, but you’re still moving fast enough. And that’s what a company should be. It shouldn’t be, we’re going to be going going going all the time. Well, that’s how people burn out. And that’s how companies burn out. And that’s how you waste Money and waste time. And if you waste an investor’s money, fine, you’ll get more than me, you’ll be fine. But if you burn out half of your staff to meet a deadline, why do you think you’ll be able to meet the next deadline without burning out your staff again? And how many times can you burn out a human being before they go? Oh, yeah, I’m not coming back. Right.

Andy Polaine 32:48

So a mechanical flywheel is something that evens out. Energy. Really? Yeah, spikes and dips. Yeah, it’s it’s a big weighted thing. Normally a very heavy flywheel that, usually I mean, it’s a very industrial age metaphor, actually, isn’t it, but usually it you know, as it’s turning, it starts to gain momentum. And you can add speed to it or break it or, you know, slow it down. But it’s got a smooth kind of rotation all the time, which is very systems thing, right, this idea. And then one of the things that I thought was brilliant in, well, in all of that work, Donella Meadows describes it very well as his ideas you can, you can push on a lever, you know, and achieve something like do the example she gives, like GDP growth. You know, that improves lots of things. But if you keep pushing on that lever, you know, it goes in the opposite direction that you start ending up, actually, you start doing harm, but because you’ve seen it do good, you just keep pushing in the same direction, Kenny, we need more of a more of and obviously, you know, growth is is the biggest problem. So how does this manifest in in workplaces that you because you’re talking about the necessity for this feedback loop?

Thejus Chakravarthy 33:54

Well, I think that what you and I think it’s sort of a matter of experience. I’ve been lucky enough. And I chalk this all up to just hideous luck. Over the decades, decades is right? I’ve worked in a small startup software company, it was one of five people in a guy’s basement, we made our own beer in the fridge. That’s how small the company was to working for the US Coast Guard, which at the time, I was managing the learning management systems for 127,000 Coasties, out of the headquarters in DC. And I’ve seen scale. And I’ve seen I’ve worked at a law firm. I’ve worked in a medical insurance company, Medicare insurance company. I’ve worked in all of these different verticals. And in almost every I work for nonprofits, and in almost every case, the issues that I see are that there isn’t enough upward communication, in the sense that upward communication is valid. What I mean by that is far more likely than not, especially in a western maybe just American I could be wrong could just be only in America problem. The top down mandate of what you should do is sacrosanct. Whether or not it’s followed exactly, is where the trouble kicks in. So even with the military, if a captain said to a lieutenant, I need you to do this, the lieutenant would then possibly do it, or possibly follow the word like the, the literal letter of the of the order, or possibly delay it, because they don’t think it’s as important. That’s military. Yeah. And that’s true in, you know, and God forbid, you’re talking about a corporate situation where some VP and another VP have a problem with somebody else, like, pretending that they’re better than me and taking my resources and making me look bad from the CEO. And then the CEO gives gives both of them the same order, like, hey, we need to do this. Okay, great. Now they’re going to fight at cross purposes, and there’s going to be all this other problem. But going down the chain, those VPS will tell their managers and those managers will tell their line staff, you just have to follow what we were told to do. But if the line staff if the people who are literally at the bottom of the company, because if we’re talking about a hierarchy like that, they see it as the item at the bottom of the company, they’re not thinking about it in terms of, well, I’m the base of this company, if I don’t work, nothing else happens. So they just feel like well, I’m being told what to do. I’m getting pressure from on high. And then I have to deal with customers who may not appreciate or may not like what I’m doing. And I gotta deal with that. And so they’re sandwiched. And I think the core problem of that feedback loop is, those people aren’t given enough authority, autonomy or accountability, to push back up the chain and say, Hey, VP, so and so you wanted us to do A, B, and C, if we do A, B, and C, it will cause these problems. So we’re not going to do it. Unless you can figure out a way to bypass these problems. Here’s all the documentation, here’s all the here’s all the valid arguments, here’s our reports, here’s our datasets show us where how we can improve this, or push it up to their manager and say, Hey, we’re not going to do this, because this will negatively impact all these other things, or we need to talk about this more thoroughly. You’re asking us to do A, B, and C, but the CEO is unaware that C is actually contradictory to the efforts of this other department. That’s doing one, two, and three. And he may just not know, and just be be unclear to him. So I’m not saying that it’s necessarily Malicious from top down, I’m saying it’s an issue of focus, it’s an issue of understanding a CEO should not be concerned with what the hourly, day to day efforts of the person answering the customer service line is. But they do need to know that if that person says hey, the policy you just put in place has pissed off 80% of the people I talked to, they need to know that. And they need to change their policy.

Andy Polaine 37:44

So if you’re, you know, in many respects, because the ones at the top, I guess have the power to kind of address the structure more than anyone else. But if you’re someone a bit further down, you know, and in that scenario that you’ve described, not necessarily the person on the front line, but certainly the kind of middle manager rank or, you know, kind of VP level where you often hear yes, yes, yes. But we just need to do this, it just needs to get done right now. And just, you know, it has to be done by this ludicrous, arbitrary deadline, or, and then the return comment is, well, okay, well, which one of these is a priority? They’re all priorities, which means nothing is obviously, what can you do when you’re at that level, because I imagine some of the people listening to this, you know, a lot of designers, a lot of design leaders and managers and people like that, who are in that position where they are under enormous pressure to hit velocity, water to run out of velocity, have usually far too much stuff on to actually do the stuff that they really should be doing and give it the focus again, and often seems to have those conversations are going, you know, I think this particular conversation that design people have with certain business people if I can kind of make that crass, which, because design, people tend to see things not always but often see things a bit more systemically or at least questioning the question behind the question. Right, and say, Well, you know, actually, but this doesn’t make sense why we’re doing this, right, and then met with that kind of fairly hard answer about Yeah, just needs to be done. Just do it. This is this is what I’ve decided, or this is what someone else, you know, someone else has decided is the thing to do. You know, what can you do at that point?


So I tend to look at those kinds of situations the same way I look at puberty, okay, you know, in the sense that you do what your parents tell you, and then when they say, Well, you will do what I say, as long as you live in this house, or you will do what I say as long as I’m, you know, I’m in charge. And then you go through puberty, and during that time, you’re yelling, you’re screaming, um, I can’t, I can’t think of a single person who went through their own adolescence without lashing out at their parents because that person is probably a psychopath. Because that’s I mean, that’s, that’s the nature of that’s the nature of adolescence. You’re supposed to get mad at your folks, which is something I keep reminding my friends who now have adolescent kids, I’m like, no, no, no, you’re you don’t remember what it was like when you were their age. Do you think we were terrible people? But the reason I bring that up is when you’re in a workplace scenario and you’re in a workplace situation, you you’re being given a mandate, and you’re being told you need to do these things, because I told you so I think that none of people take that moment where they realise, hey, you’re a self actualized person, you are your own person, what’s the worst they can do? fire you. Okay? Is there only one job in the world? No. So the problem is that it’s this, again, going back to the fear of change. And I’ve been in that position that you just described several times. And rather than just saying, I’m just not going to do it, fire me, if you have a problem, which to be FERS needlessly aggressive, and needlessly confrontational, I usually point out what you just said, which is, well, which of these is priority will all of them are priority, you do realise that’s a, that’s a logical, I need to know which of these I need to prioritise. and in what order because we only have a finite amount of resources that we need to deploy appropriately, here are the resources I can deploy. And one of the challenges are that if you try to approach a operational argument, from a systemic perspective, and you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t see the system, you can’t make them see your point of view, it’s just impossible. Like they don’t see that level of scope or scale that you’re seeing as a designer. But what you can do is understand that what they’re seeing is minutia, what they’re seeing is their immediate lane of information, and just use that against them. Because you can see the bigger picture, you know how to kind of sidestep the problem and laterally solve it will then use your skills against them, but in the same skills that they’re used to seeing. So let’s use the example of we have all these priorities, we don’t have enough resources, simple, codified our resources, make a shopping list, these are how many employees I have, these are how many hours a week they have, these are how they have divided out their time. And this is this is the end result, I cannot push them further than these number of hours, why can’t they work overtime, cool, you’re gonna give me the budget for that. What we want them to do this cool, gonna give me the budget for that, just turn it back on them, let them fight their own fight, because what you’re dealing with is you’re trying to create an environment, almost a biosphere. For your people, you’ve been given the probably the greatest gift, a person can give another person in your workplace, which is I want you to stand for your employees, I want you to be the person that protects these people. I want you to think about these people and what will make them happy. And that’s your job. That’s your job. As a manager, your job as a manager isn’t to well, I’ve finished all these reports. And clearly we can, we can see an increase of 5% in the profitability of our department. That’s fine, that’s a tan wavy, the thing is, your job is to make sure that they that their workplace doesn’t suck. It’s just that simple. If you can do that, you will have the best functioning team in the company, I can almost guarantee it. If they don’t show up to work hating themselves, they’re probably going to do better. So protect them by thinking of round your opponents. It’s not chess, it’s checkers, they’re playing checkers, and you think they’re playing chess, but you’re playing chess, just think around them and solve kind of turning them in on themselves, Aikido style.

Andy Polaine 43:17

That’s a pretty good place to wrap it up. I think it might just made me think that this is one of the biggest crimes of industrialization was to put the managers offices sort of not on the factory floor. Right? Yeah.

Thejus Chakravarthy 43:29

White Collar, blue collar, that whole argument,

Andy Polaine 43:31

Well also you know, just separating people from the results of their decisions, and arguably, you know, I mean, that’s also when when the military goes wrong, the Second World War First World War kind of examples of that where there’s this sort of distance from generals to the kind of to the frontline water. Yeah, there’s I don’t in general, like kind of military metaphors. But I think one of the interesting things about that was you wrote it in one of your pamphlets was this idea of what’s what’s understood at the centre of that is actually in, in more on the kind of field of battle, chaos reigns. And so there’s this kind of giving up of the idea of certainty giving up of the idea of clarity, you know, and the famous plans are useless but planning is invaluable quip.

Thejus Chakravarthy 44:15

And no plan survives contact with the enemy exact probably my favourite quote from Mike Tyson is everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face. Yeah. And, and so to that end, like the thing I find galling, I guess it’s the word infuriating is probably more accurate because my face turns pinkish, is this idea that generals know how to win wars will defeat me, may may be able to make that argument. But the fact is, it’s soldiers who win wars, it’s soldiers who win battles and with enough battles won, you win the war. And I don’t like using military analogies either. But especially after work Getting with the military and realising. Maybe it’s not as clean as I thought it was. But the the idea that you can pay somebody for their time, right? You’re literally trading hours of their life for a mile. And then you’re going to waste those hours. I can’t handle it. I just mentally can’t wrap my head around the cream because right that’s just that’s, that’s a surefire way to make me just flip a table and scream at the top of my lungs is just like, oh, yeah, so we have this person, they push the button. For what? You have to push the button once a minute, every minute, for eight hours a day, they take an hour long lunch break, and then they come back the next day. And they do it again. Five days a week. Cool. Cool. So how do we burn this building down? Like where’s where do we get the matches? Where to find the gasoline? Like I can’t, I can’t. There’s no, there’s no solution for you, you horrible people.

Andy Polaine 45:54

So listen, where can people find you online or more of your thinking? Where can they find those two books as well? Pamphlets?

Thejus Chakravarthy 46:00

Oh, I’ll give you the links. I do have a website. It’s atrocious. It’s just they just and on there. There’s a link to her Sinise and also to some other stuff. I’m terribly not online anymore. In fact, I don’t have social media to speak of. I’m barely online. My website is in the drop off, man. Yeah, I, I just I mean, I plan to eventually change these things. But for right now, it’s just placeholders and stuff. But if anybody wants to reach out to me, my you know, my email is We’ll give you the links to that as well. And emails, the best way to reach me anyway.

Andy Polaine 46:36

Great. Well, thank you so much for being my guest on Power of 10.

Thejus Chakravarthy 46:40

Thank you so much, Andy.

Andy Polaine 46:43 As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to Power of Ten. My name is Andy Polaine. You can find me at @apolaine on Twitter, or where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter Doctor’s Note. If you like the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others find us. And as always get in touch. If you have any comments, feedback or suggestions for guests. All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.