Run aRound Red Tape

True Confession: Yes, I’m bureaucrat. I prefer the term, civil servant — though that implies work is civil, doesn’t it? Au contraire. If I could give you one visual image to describe my experience in the government, it would be this one of Catherine Zeta-Jones from the 1999 movie “Entrapment”:

Catherine Zeta Jones in Entrapment

No. I don’t look at all like Catherine Zeta-Jones, but I often feel like this trying to navigate around and through red tape (people and/or process) that separates me from “the prize” — which I would define as project success.

Red Tape can be as entangled as the red string you see in this scene from “Entrapment,” yet worse as the unseen laser beam-type.

As we face new projects in 2010, I want to offer a few tips I’ve learned on how to avoid the trip wires that prevent progress — all without changing any of those things outside our control — the rules OR the players.

So…does that make me Sean Connery in his role as the wise old teacher to Catherine Zeta Jones? Hmmm. Not a flattery image image. But wait, he WAS James Bond, after all!

Beth’s Run aRound Red Tape Tips:

1. Don’t expend effort trying to change what you can’t change. Figure out what you can change, and get busy.

Rarely can we change the rules or the players in the federal government — except every four to eight years as the political tide sweeps out the evil and wonderful, only to bring in new wonderful and evil — depending on your political persuasion.

We simply can’t control external forces. Manage them, influence them, maybe. Control them? HA! The only REAL control we have is how we act, react and create within our personal realm of influence.

If you think about it, manure is the foundation of many a lush garden. Nasty work, but great results. So get digging (and hold your nose until Spring)!

2. Reconnaissance is king. Get to know the players AND process!

A little bit of homework goes a long way. Consider a few of the following questions.


  • what is the current accepted practice/process that affects your idea,
  • what reasons/rules (perceived or real) underpin the current process,
  • do the rules exist as tradition, best practice, regulation or statute (statutory mandates are the only real show-stoppers),
  • what stands in the way of success, and
  • what needs to change to create a path for success.


  • who has what to gain if project moves forward,
  • who has most to lose if project moves forward,
  • who is allied with whom,
  • who will ask what questions, and
  • what are the answers to the questions you expect them to ask.

3. Flag the “no” people.

You know who I’m talking about. (Perhaps you’re one of them.) These are the people who always say ‘no.’ No matter what.

Early in my career I worked for a manager who instructed me to follow his strategy for getting work done: “If you don’t know the answer, the answer is ‘no.'” I, on the other hand, always believed that if I don’t know the answer, then the answer is: “I don’t know. I’ll check.”

Many who say “no” think they are stopping me from doing wrong. I give them credit for wanting to do the right thing. But, how helpful is it to only know what NOT to do (red light)? I’d rather know what I CAN do (green light). Traffic signals exist to safely manage the forward flow. Look what happens when traffic lights break down….

A “no-mentality” is like a frozen red light. Avoid “no” people at all costs.

4. Find the Game-Changers.

Here again, you know who I’m talking about. You may be one of them. Individuals who make things happen. The influencers. Change agents. They may not have a “title,” yet each is uniquely poised to crack open a window or door and move the process forward.

Plot your path using entry points they offer.

5. Arm yourself with knowledge before entering the conversation.

Refer back to all the above.

6. Create a path past “no.”

Once you know where the roadblocks are, figure out a way around them BEFORE you run headfirst into them. Here are a few options:

  • Convert the ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ with good facts and figures.
  • Convert the ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ through artful diplomacy and persuasion. (Pretty please leave blackmail OFF the table!)
  • Find a way around the ‘no’ by persuading other influencers who are game-changers.

7. Plan for success with saboteurs in mind.

I really hate to put this on my list, but I must. I’ve learned hard lessons in passive-aggressive business practices in my years in the government. I can’t speak for industry. I’ll just share what I know. And I know this:

No great idea is grand enough to survive sabotage.

I don’t really buy the old adage: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. I don’t want them close — especially if they are of the unpleasant sort. However, I urge you to be aware of them.
Ignore saboteurs at your peril.
Please don’t assume that a smile and nod at the end of a conversation means others will help move your project forward. That old passive-aggressive thing is quite tricky. Your saboteur may pump you for details, only to rush ahead to stop your progress.
The best way around potential sabotage is back to #2, #4 and #5.
In Summary:
Do your homework. Avoid the “no” folks. Use change-agents. Keep your eyes open.
In the end, your journey around red tape may resemble Catherine Zeta-Jones’ dance of the red strings, but she meets success. You can too!
Catherine Zeta-Jones gets the prize!
Good luck running around red tape in 2010. Trust me. I’m not giving you the run-around.

Cross post on Beth Beck’s Blog

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Tom Salzer

Beth, I’m in gov now, but used to be in private industry. Passive-aggressive business practices abound in private industry, too. Long stories there, but your follow-up points are right on the money: be aware, choose your path, and follow that path with your eyes open.


Love this post. Should be a read for any employee. Especially new ones.

I’m always amazed how what is really needed is social and cultural skills to be successful at work. But everyone always talks hard skills.

Martha McLean

Hi Beth,

Great post! True to the letter. I’m happy to say I’ve also had success with many of those tactics.

Once you find the game-changers and dismiss the nay-sayers, the road’s much smoother.

A great primer for those who are new or frustrated and an excellent reminder for those tangled in the tape.

We’re running with our #csp (can’t stop progress) approach on my team – it’s catching on!


Brock Webb

Thank you for the insights! In reading your list I am reminded of the tv show Survivor… and sometimes it feels just like it lol. I’ve often been surprised at just how many people are empowered to say “no” and who actually has the power to say “yes” (when it really means something). As for the saboteurs, I do think about the old take of the frog and the scorpion. Scorpions are scorpions by nature, but since saboteurs have much higher order thinking then the arachnids (one would like to believe) they can be nice by choice, but I always expect a stinger in the end (dodge quick! :P)