How to kill your bureaucracy

Corporate governance

3 min read

Bureaucracy isn’t always a bad thing. In some sectors, like financial services, it’s a consequence of much-needed regulations. For some tasks, like the sophisticated logistics required to win wars or deliver mass vaccination campaigns under pressure, a highly-organised command-and-control structure gets the job done like no other.

But let’s face it, no child anywhere dreams of growing up to be a bureaucrat. The word drips with unfavourable connotations, from the pointless (“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy,” as Oscar Wilde quipped) to the sinister (exemplified by Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, following an innocent man trapped by a clerical error in the nightmarish convolutions of an impenetrable state). Even business, once a byword for bureaucracy thanks to the decades-long influence of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theories, now desperately craves to be free of it.

Why do we need to bury our bureaucracy?

The reason is simple: bureaucracies impede change. They institutionalise excessive caution and slow progress by requiring multiple layers of approval and encouraging decision-making by committee. Bureaucracies create barriers to information flow and distance from the customer, discourage robust debate, narrow horizons from the wider vision and toward employees’ tasks and targets, and generate powerful incentives to preserve the status quo.

Yet it’s clear to any business today that change is unavoidable, imminent, ongoing, and unpredictable. Businesses want agility — the antithesis of bureaucracy — because agile firms lean into change, turning it into an opportunity instead of a threat. Put another way, if you’re in a misty ocean full of icebergs, you want the turning circle of a speedboat, not the RMS Titanic. If only becoming agile was so easy. Unfortunately, the very reasons that bureaucracy slows change also make it difficult for leaders to change their bureaucracies. But it is not impossible.

How do we allow agility to flourish?

Agility depends on trust, particularly when it involves “delayering” larger organisations. Suppose you empower people to make decisions closer to the customer and simultaneously streamline the approvals process. You’ll still need to trust that people will get it right and that their decisions won’t contradict each other in a chaotic jumble.

This, first of all, requires confidence that information is flowing through the organisation properly so that decisions are transparent and grounded in both facts and a shared vision. For example, what happens if a frontline worker emails the CEO? Does the message get read? Does it get a reply? Does the person get into trouble with their manager? Is robust data being collected and made easily accessible? Is your management reporting unvarnished, easy to digest, and based on high-quality thinking? Does it make clear what the reader needs to do with it and what the implications are of not acting?

When decisions are decentralised, you also need to have confidence in the decision-making process itself. Is there a robust framework that encourages employees to ask the right questions? Are decisions clearly documented, supporting a culture of accountability rather than blame? Have you hired people who can think critically for themselves, rather than just obeying orders? Have you trained them for that?

How do you align the pencil pushers?

Knowing your destination is half the battle, but there is still the small matter of the middle managers, whose roles traditionally depend on control, not trust, and whose buy-in is essential for any agile transformation to succeed. It would be a grave mistake to blame middle managers for the bureaucracy that surrounds them, or their resistance to adopting agile ways of working.

The problem is far more likely to be with culture and systems rather than people. Indeed, the most effective agile transformations turn middle managers into your most powerful advocates. Agile businesses depend even more than their traditional counterparts on leadership to establish a vision and align people behind it, inspiring them to act independently and role-modelling agile behaviours.

This leadership should not stop at the executive team. By recasting your middle managers as leaders in their own right, liberated from the drudgery of checking other people’s work, you can unleash agile capabilities that you — or they — may not have known were there all along.

Of course, you can’t just tell them to be agile. It will require consistent, effective communication (see above), plus profound changes to how you approach targets, incentives, and job specifications. People need to feel like they have permission to act on their own initiative. They need consistent support and effective frameworks to operate dynamically within project-based teams. Becoming agile will also take time — and the knowledge that some employees may never be convinced.

However, by trying your best to take them with you — whether front line, senior leader, or middle manager — into a more modern way of working, you give everyone the best chance of succeeding. In the process, you may just give your ex-bureaucrats the kind of job worth writing home about.

Find out more about how critical thinking and great communication drive organisational agility in our latest ebook.

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