Why I Love Bureaucracy: Why We Should All Love It

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Mindful Bureaucracy

I love bureaucracy!

Wait, what?!

Yes, that’s right. I love that thing we all love to hate.

Bureaucracy brings structure, discipline, consistency, predictability and efficiency to an organization’s operations. Instead of creating ad hoc processes as we go, we use bureaucracy to establish a clear path and guidelines for how to operate. Without it, we have chaos. So what’s not to love about bureaucracy?!

Mindless bureaucracy, that’s what.

Mindless, dogmatic, untested and unchallenged policies and procedures. That’s the worst. When we explain why we do something by saying, “because that’s our policy” or  “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” we have bureaucracy run amok.

Where Bureaucracy Happens

Speaking of bureaucracy, our organization’s management team recently raised concerns about our meeting-heavy culture. Everyone felt we were going to so many meetings that it was difficult to find time to get any real work done. As part of dealing with this issue, we researched best practices for making meetings more focused, purposeful and efficient.

During a follow-up meeting, we reviewed and discussed the merits of a new structured meeting template. The template established a guide for meetings using topic categories such as “status of open action items” and “short-term successes, opportunities and threats.” We then discussed the pros and cons of adopting the template as the format for managing future team meetings.

One of the team members raised a concern that the new format felt “antiseptic.” He explained that he enjoyed the relaxed, free-flowing meeting approach we’d been following to date. He feared using the new structured template would stifle the team’s otherwise lively and thoughtful exchange of ideas.

Ultimately, because we developed the new meeting template in response to concerns about too many and inefficiently managed meetings, we decided to give it a try. However, we made the decision with mindful attention to the potential downside of imposing a more structured and disciplined format. And, in order to address the concerns about the new template, we added another item at the end of the agenda: Did we achieve our meeting objective? What is one specific suggestion for improvement?

This meeting improvement process may sound boring, but it represents mindful bureaucracy –  the kind I love. We took an organizational and management challenge and worked to develop a solution. Most solutions to organizational and management challenges involve developing and implementing new structures and processes that everyone agrees to. If they take hold, new structures and processes eventually become policies and procedures. These are the signs and guideposts that help us operate effectively.

Inviting Tests and Challenges

The problem is we often forget the original reason why we established the structures and processes we now follow. Losing track of the underlying purpose of our policies and procedures is a fundamental organizational risk. In order for bureaucracy to work and be the kind we can love, we must invite challenges and push back. If the guidelines we are following don’t make sense to us, they may need to be changed or updated to reflect our current context and environment.

It is a mindful bureaucracy that responds to and addresses real needs and eagerly welcomes challenges and tests over time.

 

This blog does not represent official policies of the Corporation for National and Community Service or those of the U.S. Government.

Jeffrey Page is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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9 Reasons Why We Should Kill the Bureaucracy

Management expert, Gary Hamel says it is time we kill the bureaucracy. He recommends a new approach called Management 2.0 where people move from guardians and gatekeepers to joiners and enablers.

Over Management
Some of us work in suffocating bureaucracies of multiple management layers. It is difficult to get our high level bosses to listen to us because they are too busy managing other managers.
Creates Friction

Due to these multiple layers of management, our ideas and suggestion have to run a gauntlet of multiple decision making levels which stymie innovation and creativity.

Distorts Decisions
Bureaucracies concentrate power in senior executives who suffer from functional fixedness bias. This type of bias limits the use of something only in the way it is traditionally used. You probably have heard this bias expressed in the phrase, “That is not the way we do things around here.”

Misallocates Power
Bureaucracies tend to award political savvy. As a result, those who know how to play the game are often promoted over those who are more capable. Style over substance rules the day in these kinds of organizations.

Discourages Dissent
Bureaucracies create power structures and relationships that discourage dissent. People are often afraid to speak up in this type of work environment particularly if it involves bad news. The emperor has no clothes in a bureaucracy.

Misdirects Competition
Bureaucracies force their members to look at the wrong scoreboard. Since they know that promotions, career advancement and ideas are based on political advantage, employees embrace a “look after number 1” mindset. Colleagues end up competing against each other as teamwork, collaboration, and coordination fall by the wayside.

Thwarts Innovation
Bureaucracies overvalue experience and undervalue unconventional thinking from newcomers and external sources. Self-preservation takes over in bureaucracies by creating blind spots that miss opportunities for improvement.

Cripples Initiative
Bureaucracies generate overly safe environments that reduce risk taking. According to leadership consultant Margie Warrell, bureaucratic workplaces do 4 things regarding risk: (1) Over estimate the probability of risk failure; (2) Exaggerate the consequences of that failure; (3) Under estimate the ability of employees to handle risk; and (4) Down play the cost of not taking risks.

Obliterates Differences
Bureaucracies centralize decision making and force compliance with obscure rules and procedures. This reinforces an obsession with policies, programs and systems that focus on past performance rather than adaptability and flexibility fashioned by an evolving workplace.

You may say why reform bureaucracies and bite the hand that feeds us. Remember we are what we eat. So let’s kill the bureaucracy before its toxic menu eventually kills us.