INSEAD Participant Interview

The importance of testing your assumptions 


Dr Seif S Al-Abri

Director General of Disease Surveillance and Control, Ministry of Health, Oman

Why did you apply to the Middle East Health Leadership Programme (MEHLP)?

A colleague of mine had attended and so I read up on the programme.

I was very interested in the programme outcomes as I had seen how my colleague’s mind-set had changed and how he had begun to think of the healthcare sector with a business perspective.

Were there any challenges in your career that the programme could help you with?

Before attending the MEHLP, I was working in hospital management. I didn’t really like it and felt I wasn’t getting the best experience out of it. I stepped down to practice my speciality as a consultant. It was at this point that I found out about the programme and thought it might give me new ideas and help me with my leadership skills.

What were your key learnings?

There were many. A few that stand out are:

  • Always test your assumptions: am I assuming or is this a fact?
  • ​The importance of planning
  • Recognising the achievements of team members

How important are programmes like the MEHLP?

Very. They help open your eyes to new and innovative ideas. Ideas, which you would miss if you don’t mingle and interact with other people outside of the day-to-day workplace.

The MEHLP gives you the opportunity to learn from the other participants. The good thing in the case of the programme is that these participants come from the same cultural set-up. Indeed, most of the participants were from a Middle Eastern country. As such, we share a lot of the bureaucracy and the hierarchies.

Speaking to the other participants helps you think about how you can come up with a new idea, a new project and find your way around the way of implementing it and making it a reality. That part was really very helpful.

At the same time, the programme helps you reflect on the day-to-day and helps you reflect on what you want to become in 5 years’ time, 10 years’ time.

Did the programme give you tools and techniques to help you perform well in leadership roles?

One of the things you have to build within an organisation is culture. Culture is a major driver of improvement. Not just for the organisation, but also for the development and synchronisation of teams. When I moved into the Ministry of Health, one of the things I emphasised was this and properly communicating our strategy.

Are there areas you are now more confident in?

When I moved into the Ministry of Health there were many programmes running, most of which operated in silos. I wanted to change this and help integrate and interlink them.

I also wanted to run these programmes in more of a scientific way. I wanted to force people to test their assumptions. Many things had been done just because someone said it had to be done. What I wanted was for people to question decisions and projects. Are they scientific, cost effective and cost efficient? Are they really meaningful or are we doing it just for the sake of collecting data?

What people don’t often appreciate is the amount of pressure and resources projects demand from people. By interconnecting them, you help ease this pressure. Giving the projects a sense of purpose has also improved stakeholders’ sense of ownership. It has also improved productivity and the synchronicity between the Ministry and the health services at a regional level. We are now asking the right questions.

Whatever we do right now, we always bring in the stakeholders and those who are involved in the projects from the start so we can build these up from the regional level. It all has to be built on a strategy. All the stakeholders have to have a say from the beginning. We have started building teams and processes which bring more collaborative work.

What are some of your current projects?

I recently worked on an incident command chain for public health emergency events. Also infection prevention and control service and HIV. I helped devise strategies, guidelines, policies, procedures and training for people in health institutions. In 2016 we ran an audit of the outcomes of the project, with the results showing massive improvements in outcomes among HIV patients as well as massive improvements in management.

Any other projects you are involved with?

I am currently involved in an e-surveillance project, in other words the entry and management of patient data. In the past, the clinicians had to inform regional health authorities. The system we have put in place can do this automatically. No need to fill in reports as the data is extracted directly. This has cut down the paperwork and paper waste. What this system has also done is cut down by 60% the time spent by clinicians when entering data. The expectation is that in the future, this figure will rise to 80%. It’s a great achievement and something we are very proud of.

Are the ways in which the programme helped you manage your projects differently or better?

It helped in my collaboration with external stakeholders: those in different projects and training. It allowed me to target my collaboration as per the needs of our programmes and projects.

What I noticed is that there are often projects for which there is no outcome. If I am to bring people out of the regions for training and projects, how is the project going to change their style of work? What will the workshop bring them when they go back to work? How will the workshops help our programmes? Our advancement? What will be the impact on our own programmes, on our own plans, on our own strategy?

So, the programme helped me focus on metrics, instead of conducting things for the sake of conducting them. Whatever we do, it should benefit the person attending and it should benefit us. When they go back to work, it should add something. It should have an impact (for us and them).

The MEHLP also helped me to understand that we must test our assumptions. We run many programmes. There has been a process that has been in place for years. Some of this you need to question. Do they add anything? Did you analyse the data? Did you find it has an impact? Or do we think it helps? Sometimes we sit down and look at it closely. Let’s look at the data over one or two years. Even if we think it has an impact. Even if we look at the cost efficiency and the cost benefit, is a programme worth it?

Was the networking on the programme helpful?

I learned a lot not just from the lectures, but also from the discussions and group work – from listening to the experiences of others in the programme, from similar cultures. I met colleagues from Oman, from the Ministry of Health. It was the first time I’d met them and it was interesting hearing their questions and learning from these. It helped me think about the performance of the Ministry.

How important is innovation in healthcare?

Very, very important. It is an indispensable quality for leaders in healthcare systems, especially nowadays with globalisation and a fluid workforce. In the GCC region we have many non-nationals.

The proliferation of information through social media and the wider internet has meant patients are better informed. This means we have to be aware of the latest innovations in healthcare. Where is technology right now and how can we best use it? Can we cut down costs? Can we improve the quality of what we do? Can we improve our efficiency? Can we use technology to improve the learning and education of our staff? Can we use it for the promotion of healthcare amongst patients in communities?

We must also make use of innovation in the prevention of diseases, rather than just treating diseases. How can we get the data using the current developments in IT, in artificial intelligence and machine learning?

In diseases surveillance, typically, the clinician notifies the region and then they notify at a national level. I always ask if I can get this information myself, without going back to the clinician. Can the machine get it for me? This would cut down the workforce and the stress placed on the worker. Can I get data from different sources which will help me predict what will happen and as such help me in planning my workforce, planning new projects and planning new services, and be proactive in preventing infectious diseases epidemics.

Interested in INSEAD's Middle East Health Leadership Programme? Have a look at the Middle East Health Leadership Programme web page.

The Middle East Health Leadership Programme is the result of the Trust’s longstanding partnership with INSEAD to provide management education for healthcare professionals. INSEAD is a Flagship Partner within the Trust’s 2020 strategy and a key component of the Trust’s goal to advance knowledge and innovation in seeking to transform health care systems. The Trust works across the Europe, Middle East and Africa region in making a difference in human health through multiple social impact interventions. Currently within the Trust’s partnership portfolio there are over 70 active programmes run with partner organisations. For more information about the Trust and its activities, please visit

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