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For better or worse, bureaucracy is unavoidable, logical, and can be good. However, it must be used in moderation. Excessive bureaucracy becomes a disease that can erode the capacity for change and improvement. Consider this example that I once witnessed that really makes the point. A manager in one division of a large, international firm noticed something one day at work that really bothered him. He noticed that one employee had on footwear that was not professional. She was wearing open toed shoes that, to the manager, were inappropriate.
The manager felt they looked like common flip-flop shoes that many people wear during the summer. What should this manager have done? The best course of action would be to have a conversation directly with the employee about the issue. You should positively state your perception and set a new expectation. Most likely that's all it would take. Unfortunately, the manager in question chose a different route. It turns out, he didn't personally have a good relationship with the employee. And so to avoid dealing with her, the manager called the human resources department to ask that they create a clear policy concerning proper footwear in the office.
With only one call from one manager, HR decided to make a policy. Over the next few weeks, several highly paid, well trained HR professionals, sat around a table, meticulously discussing what did or did not constitute a flip flop. That of course is basically very expensive time wasted. Time that could have been better spent on something far more productive for the organization. That's the danger of bureaucracy. Let me help those of you who might be wondering how bad the bureaucratic creep has become at your organization. Consider these two issues.
First, who has the power? Is it the innovators or the bureaucrats? Healthy organizations use bureaucracy to hedge the risks of innovation. Mediocre organizations allow bureaucracy to prevent innovation. If you see an occasional absurd decision, hey, that happens. If you regularly see absurd decisions, it might be time to speak up. Bureaucratic creep has taken many quality institutions and rendered them ineffective. Second, are you seeing many system-wide answers adopted for local problems? This is a sure sign that you're sliding down the slippery slope towards bureaucratic paralysis.
When you adopt just one new policy, like the flip-flop policy in the example we discussed, you create lots of work in terms of crafting, implementing, and monitoring the policy. Multiply this effect across all similar instances, and you can quickly see how bureaucracy can grow exponentially. Maybe it's time for a good policy downsizing. To create new rules, how about requiring the elimination of others. Maybe there should be an overall limit to the number of policies in your company. In any case, well-intentioned senior leaders should not feel overly constrained by risk-averse bureaucrats and excessive policy.
Bureaucracy, like all necessary evils, must be seriously watched, not encouraged to grow unchecked. In the end, remember, you're looking for solutions to problems, not new policies.
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