For the Love of Bureaucracy

For the Love of Bureaucracy

It is hard to find someone who doesn’t bemoan the problems of dealing with bureaucracy:  The endless paperwork.  The cumbersome processes seemingly designed to frustrate anyone daring to want something done.  The daunting number of people who stand between you and your objective.  The amount of time necessary to grind through to a simple decision.

Who doesn’t hate it?

And yet.  And yet…

We are always looking for ways to make things more efficient.  So we design processes in order that no one behind us has to make the same mistakes we did or take unnecessary wrong turns.  Over time, these processes are amended and added to make them more comprehensive.  And then, suddenly, we find that what should have been a shortcut to excellence has become a cumbersome procedural maze.

We are always looking for ways to assure quality control and customer satisfaction.  So we engage quality assurance consultants for manufacturing, buy customer relations management software, and create customer-centric policies.  And somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the ability of people on the line to provide on-the-ground innovative insights.  And heaven help the customer whose problem or request falls outside the “customer-centric” procedures box.

We are always looking for ways to more precisely target our prospects and effectively communicate with the marketplace.  So we design “personas” and concentrate on social media and work on our “content marketing” and mobile marketing strategies.  We hire “experts” in these areas; we devote time and resources and follow the playbook on how to “engage.”  So now we are faced with the challenge of trying to re-integrate all the ways we have of parsing customer characteristics into an intelligent conversation with a whole human being (which is how the customer sees himself) and ensure that all the media by which we speak to people represent a cohesive view of our companies.

Efficiency is good.  Quality control is good.  Customer-centrism is good.  Marketing and communications precision are good.

But I think we need to step back for a moment.

It just might be that our attempts to reach these laudable goals are actually creating the bureaucratic barriers to achieving them.

So, are we, in fact, the problem?

3 thoughts on “For the Love of Bureaucracy

  1. Emily, as my mentor used to say, “misuse does not negate proper use”. There is plenty of historical evidence that shows some of the most innovative systems actually require bureaucracy to thrive.

    1) Christopher Langton observed several decades ago that innovative systems have a tendency to gravitate toward the “edge of chaos”: the fertile zone between too much order and too much anarchy.
    2) 35 years of research convinced Elliott Jaques that managerial hierarchy is the most efficient, the hardiest, and in fact the most natural structure ever devised for large organizations to release energy and creativity, rationalize productivity, and actually improve morale.
    3) In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson noted that “Even with all the advanced technology of a leading molecular biology lab, the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table talking shop” – the staff meeting.

    So I agree that everyone needs to step back a bit and see what they have created. Good bureaucracy works, bad bureaucracy leads to everything you said above.

    • I would respectfully suggest that what you are talking about is process, not bureaucracy. Process can make things more efficient when used properly. Hierarchy can certainly have its purposes. But bureaucracy is neither. Bureaucracies exist to expand. They are an ever-growing, self-reinforcing, set of processes – some of which might make sense in and of themselves – which simply get in the way, allow for more hands in the decision-making process and lead neither to efficiency or effectiveness. I’d be interested in some examples of a “good bureaucracy”.

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