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Managing Bureaucratization

Controlling an organization is difficult. The larger the organization, the more complex is the process of control. We don’t think about it too much, but what we are trying to control are changes that naturally occur.

The drivers of changes are many and can be hidden in the layers of the organization. The internal drivers include missing expertise, emerging expertise, rule changes, quality of work life, staff shortages, new staff, staff exodus, self-management, miss-fitted management, process ambiguity, process choke points, and disjointed communications. The external drivers of change include increased customers, customer ambivalence, increased demands, divergent demands, product diversity, market diversity, diffused locations, miss-fitted services, laggard services, austere budget reviews, contextual dependencies, and mission shifts. How we react to change drivers affects the organizational health, innovative, and employees’ satisfaction with work conditions.

In large organizations, especially those without an organizational architect, we end up with many dispersed efforts at controlling change, and in some cases, an over control of changes that has negative consequences. The process is bureaucratization–codifying structure.

The challenge for current and future leaders is in how to manage bureaucratization while avoiding problems of operational friction, underutilized employees, and unnecessary costs.

When we respond to change factors, we want to optimize the operational and personnel development, including the awareness and discretion employees need to be performance leaders. If bureaucratization restricts employees’ information needs, it can, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard argues, inject “systemic organizational weaknesses by creating subtle sabotage through the resistance of employees that believe they are powerless in the bureaucracy that manages them.”

Do you recognize bureaucratization when it is happening?

How have you or could you managed bureaucratization better?

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9 Comments

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Profile Photo Joe Williams

This is a tough one, because Government tends to drive towards more rules, regulations, and law with little to no incentive towards divesting those that add little, no, or destroy value. Government also tends to attract disproportionate numbers of people whose natural talents lay in designing and implementing systems. The first step I’d take is to attract people with natural talents towards modifying systems, specifically towards reviewing existing systems for return on value and simplify or eliminate those systems that fail to deliver value. The second step I’d take is to legislate a “sunset clause” on all rules and regulations, such that unless acted upon to refresh, they would expire.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

First, I think bureaucratization is inevitable as an organization grows. I’m not sure where to place the tipping point number of employees, but there comes a time when an organization needs to start adding more structure and processes to sustain it’s efforts. I might even put that number as low as 4-5 employees.

Second, I think bureaucracy has a reputation as a dirty word…but it doesn’t need to be. One definition I found was “specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority.” Without these management elements, I think we tend toward chaos…and are ultimately less productive as a result.

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Profile Photo Josh Nankivel

I think you hit on the primary root cause with your comment about not having an organizational architect. This doesn’t need to be a single person, but the organization as a whole needs a whole-system focus and not the silo approach which results naturally when not tended to.

Lean Government is the best answer I’ve seen. Treating each of the separate outputs as products to the consumer and mapping the current value stream for each product is a great place to start. Making the entire process from beginning to end (not just within a single department) and making it transparent to everyone involved is the only real way to make lasting improvements, and create a learning culture whereby incremental improvements are the norm instead of incrementally getting worse over time.

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Profile Photo Patrick Fiorenza

This was an interesting post, thanks for sharing. Lots to think through in the post, I couldn’t agree more with the quote below from your post, I think you hit the nail on the head:

The challenge for current and future leaders is in how to manage bureaucratization while avoiding problems of operational friction, underutilized employees, and unnecessary costs.

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Profile Photo Paul Alberti

One of my favorite quotes is – A common organization separated by an organizational chart. Possibly one of our greatest problems is we implement programs and applications based on existing organizational smokestacks and not as an holistic organization.

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Profile Photo Steve Richardson

David, I just saw this, so please forgive my late post. Just over a year ago, Routledge published my book on this subject: The Political Economy of Bureaucracy. The main lesson is that policy makers and managers of large governmental organizations must realize they are dealing with people, not machines. None of us likes being controlled, yet many of us are surprised that our plans to control others are not fully embraced and automatically executed. Moreover, the reaction to failure caused by overly prescriptive methods is often more rules – which of course further antagonize the bureaucrats and paralyze the system. Managing complexity requires flexible connections that allow component agents room for limited autonomy, exchange, and learning.

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