Fixing a Sick System

Last week, I wrote about the sick system I experienced in my last job. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this system is the norm at startups. What I imagine though is that most startups produce or fail fairly quickly. They don’t often have the funding to run a sick system for long so the sick system is a “necessary evil” that they believe to be short term. If they aren’t careful though, it will become the routine.

Most companies with sick systems didn’t start off with one. They started with no process so there was nothing to impede them. They mistakenly kept running that way after they were established.

Likewise most companies don’t know they’ve got a sick system. They mistake the attachment of their employees for devotion. Or they interpret as the “Apple way” and love the ego trip. They think it’s okay to be an asshole.They think process and order will kill the magic.

They think their sick system is special.

For the health of the company, they must eliminate the sick system. Until they do, they’re just one bad launch away from total failure. So here’s how they do that.

To eliminate it, a company must establish process. They must write it down for everyone to follow — up to the president.

Once the process is in place, stop the culture of blaming the person executing the process when something goes wrong and instead examine the process. If a launch goes badly, look at where the process failed and fix that. No name calling. No expletives. Just a rational look at the process.

The company should establish sane working hours. Like 37signals pointed out in their book Rework, the workaholics burn out. They also set a terrible example for other employees.

The company should establish autonomy for their employees. Individuals have to own their job to want to stay in it. Sick systems hate autonomy. It’s the opposite of control. In a sick system, the denial of autonomy is built in.

The company must be truly open and transparent. Share sales goals and figures. Share web analytics with the whole company. Let everyone know if it’s a good month or bad.

Openness ends the culture of fear and the wild speculation when bad news happens.

But here’s the hardest part: someone has to start saying “no.” If you want to simplify things, if you want to restore sanity, you have to refuse tight deadlines, long hours, ridiculous requests, and general illogic.

Unfortunately, most people who accede to management and have the position and responsibility to say “no” do not refuse crazy demands and thus perpetuate the sick system. Those mid-level managers have been placed in what my father calls “golden handcuffs.” They are paid so much or given such perqs that they do not want to risk their jobs by refusing an order. This assures the system rolls on.

Pulling yourself as an employee out of a sick system is difficult work. The system destroys your time and your motivation so you find it hard to focus on getting out. But that’s your only option when you realize management isn’t changing things.

On the other hand, though it requires discipline to execute the culture change from sick to healthy system, it isn’t truly difficult. It just requires a focus on simplicity and openness and a willingness to change. It also requires the balls to say “no.”


I’ve written a book about working well called good.simple.open. If you like this piece, you might like the book. Buy it now. Or visit goodsimpleopen.com/book to read sample chapters.