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A parable - The Long Black Cloud


Some readers will be offended by this story. If you feel offended, it's probably because you see yourself as one of the characters. In other words, you are caught up in the system.

Working in a system

When you work in a large system it is difficult to understand the impact the system has on you. When you're inside, it's just the water you swim in. In a system we behave like the system says we should. This observation is not new, for years systems scientists have been telling us that in a system people will not do what they know is right, they will do what the system is setup to make them do. At the moment the public sector system is causing good managers to behave in bizarre ways that are damaging workplace morale.

Research by Hudson in New Zealand and Australia (as published in the NZIM Managers Update) shows that 25% of employers believe workplace morale has dropped since the current downturn and 44% of workers think it has.

You've been warned. Read on at your discretion.

The Long Black Cloud

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a long black cloud fell over the land ruled by King John.

The long black cloud caused all sorts of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Where once the skies were clear and people could see where to go, now it was dark and cold and frightening. People who used to be kind, friendly and collaborative began to think only about themselves. They became short-sighted and small-minded.

Even King John was captured by the influence of this long black cloud. Canute-like, he raised his hands against the long black cloud. He called his public servant leaders together and demanded line-by-line reviews, a cap on F.T.E.'s and a relentless search for efficiencies. The public servant leaders shook in fear and their hands trembled.

The next day, across the land, the public servant leaders gathered their own people together and demanded total control over expenses. "Any expenses from here on, need my personal approval. We're in survival mode! No more conferences. No more airfares. No more training. No more F.T.E.s. And take the painkillers out of the first aid boxes."

The best people looked at each other in dismay. They had seen this happen before and they weren't prepared to wait it out. "We joined the public sector to make a difference," they thought. "With power close to the grassroots, we had a fighting chance; but not under command and control!" If they were replaced, it was by others less knowledgeable and less committed.

The good people tried to reason. They said things like: "Our people are crying out for leadership. There's never been a better time for training. When the cloud breaks, we'll need them for competitive advantage!" Others said: "We made a commitment with other agencies to be present at this conference. If I pay for it myself can I go?" But it was all to no avail. The public servant leaders were resolute. Survival was at stake. And people within a system find it hard to resist the system.

The poor performers didn't mind too much. They didn't do much anyway and now no one expected it. Whereas before there was some expectation of customer service and innovation; now these were non-subjects. Also, when they got a headache they could now take half an hour off to go to the pharmacist to buy a pill.

The managers, with outputs to meet and F.T.E.s to reduce, found the answer in contractors and temps. Sometimes it was the best performers rehired. "Of course it makes no sense," they said, "But we didn't make the rules!"

Within no time, the best performers had gone, the good performers were frustrated and angry and the non-performers were so busy looking busy that whole organisations stood still. Tens of thousands of people and billions of dollars of assets idled at best and often went backwards. Within a few months the long black cloud came close to destroying the single most important advantage within King John's public sector, its friendly, helpful front-line service delivery. All this happened when King John's citizens needed support like never before.

Then one day, a few months after it arrived, the long black cloud just disappeared. Initially, King John was over joyed, but soon his happiness turned to anger. "Our citizens have a right to much better customer service!" he stormed. "Why is our public sector so unresponsive? Why is it so shortsighted? Where are the long-term strategies to help my citizens? Why do we have so many contractors and temps? Perhaps we need new managers or a super-department!"

For more on systems thinking...

Bruce Holland
Virtual Group Business Consultants
Phone +6421620456 or Skype Bruce.Holland
Web site:

Bruce helps large mature organisations be more focused, fast and flexible. Places where people have more depth, connection and meaning. "Liberating the Human spirit at work"

Bruce helps large mature organisations be more focused, fast and flexible. Places where people have more depth, connection and meaning. He is one of New Zealand's most experienced change agents and is the founder of Virtual Group Business Consultants Limited.

"Liberating the Human spirit at work."

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