INSIGHT

Navigating Crisis: Ten Lessons of Strategy

In conversation with Jay P Desai, Founder & Managing Director of UC STRATEGY

At a recent peer group forum session in Bangalore, Jay P Desai described a long and harrowing ordeal with the judiciary that his 85-year-old father Dr Desai faced over three decades. A recipient of several prestigious awards, including the Padma Bhushan, Dr Desai rose from a humble background in a small village in South Gujarat, to become the most respected oncologist in India. His world, however, came crashing down when a powerful bureaucrat filed a criminal and civil case of medical negligence against him way back in 1989. When the lower courts ruled against Dr Desai in 2011, Jay decided to take over the matter and drive it himself, applying his strategic consulting skills to the legal problem. Eventually, the longest medico-legal case in India’s history spanning 29 years was ruled completely in Dr Desai’s favour at the Supreme Court. The process re-enforced ten important lessons of strategy.

The crisis…

Pushed to the wall …


… but giving up was never an option

In 1989, a senior bureaucrat sued eminent onco-surgeon Dr Desai for medical negligence leading to his wife’s suffering. Dr Desai maintained that the patient was not his nor was he the one conducting the surgical investigation; he was merely consulted for a second opinion by the doctor who actually performed the surgery. What followed was a long and painful court battle that lasted nearly three decades. After having appealed to four lower courts previously, by October 2012, he was burdened with a criminal conviction, as well as civil suit damages against him. He was now down 0-4 in the courts. The Supreme Court (SC) was his only hope for both the Criminal and Civil matters. At this juncture, his son Jay Desai, decided to re-strategise the game-plan. Dr Desai was eventually acquitted of all charges, in the Supreme court but the final victory does not take away from the enormity of the struggle he had to face as he traversed the long corridors of justice.

…and the lessons it taught

When the going gets rough…


…the resilient get going

Aside from the criminal case – which resulted in a day’s simple imprisonment till the rising of the court – and the civil matter (amounting to Rs 8 million in damages), Dr Desai was threatened with medical-license cancellation and potential withdrawal of the Padma Bhushan by his opponent’s vindictive actions outside of the courts. The case was also subjected to constant media visibility, which brought with it infamy. Before appealing to the Supreme Court, Jay re-oriented the overall plan, applying the fundamental principles of structured thinking, negotiation strategy, decision-making and strategic thinking, to what he believed to be a gross miscarriage of justice. The process was built around ten pivotal lessons of strategy:

  • First, in dealing with a stressful situation like this, it is vital to keep emotions like fear and anger at bay and to move from the sense of angst to one of awareness, and ultimately to action.
  • The second lesson was restructuring the legal team and setting up a programme management office to ensure seamless co-ordination between lawyers, counsel and the support team.
  • Third, mobilising all stakeholders was critical – this included the doctors and staff Dr Desai had worked with, the patients he had treated, as well as friends and associates. The stakeholder analysis was central to understanding the forces at play in the background.
  • Fourth, he organised the effort around various work streams, such as the Civil case, the Criminal case, the public relations strategy and the personal strategy.
  • The fifth crucial aspect involved classifying and documenting every piece of information and evidence from more than two decades of court trials that Jay had at his disposal. Copious notes of every meeting with stakeholders ensured that no critical ‘To Dos’ were left out.
  • Sixth, Jay used all the structuring skills learned over decades, to create detailed slides on the chronology of events since 1989. The intent was to ensure preparedness and make sure the lawyers were properly briefed at each stage of the court battle. Issue maps – which illustrate the underlying structure of a problem – were drawn, to prove that Dr Desai had not treated the patient and had given a globally accepted best practice opinion.
  • Seventh, decision trees were drawn out to develop an understanding of the possible consequences of every decision and probabilities were assigned to the outcome of every possible action, to determine which path of action to take at every stage.
  • Eighth, Dr Desai extensively benchmarked the opinion he had provided to conclude that the advice was in line with global clinical practices in this situation.
  • Ninth, the importance of continuing your life’s work relentlessly, despite all obstacles was highlighted when Dr Desai published a voluminous tome on ‘Practical Clinical Oncology’, all the while continuing his surgical practice while fighting the losing court battle.
  • Tenth, the ‘never give in’ spirit that Dr Desai demonstrated exemplified the true meaning of resilience and grit. The 85-year-old doctor often said, ‘You do not age because of grey hair, a cataract, or creaking joints, you age when you compromise on your principles and stop believing in the truth.’

All’s well that ends well

Justice terribly delayed, but not ultimately denied…


…and strength of conviction paid off

In January 2013, the Criminal case was moved to the Supreme Court. A feature of the Indian judiciary is that when lower courts give a unanimous decision regarding a certain matter, the SC often does not even admit the case for hearing. Fortunately, this matter was granted admission and ultimately in September 2013, Dr Desai won the criminal case. This implied that his medical license and Padma Bhushan were now secure.

The next step was to win the civil case. In 2014, Dr Desai appealed to the Mumbai High Court again and won. The civil case eventually went to the SC in April 2016 and in that too, he emerged triumphant. The penultimate step was a review petition, which was dismissed in Dr Desai’s favour. The final battle was winning a curative petition in September 2018 filed by the opponent, which was also dismissed. The victorious journey from 0-4 to 5–4 took seven years of appeals; a culmination of a three-decade battle against injustice.

What we can learn from this harrowing personal experience is that even though the doctor had to run from pillar to post to seek justice and the problem seemed insurmountable, his resilience and grit got him through in the end. Never losing hope, even in the face of the most adverse conditions, is the key to a full and final victory.