Join Gary Hamel for an in-depth discussion in this video Bureaucracy is everywhere, part of Gary Hamel on Busting Bureaucracy.
- The first thing to recognize is that bureaucracy is everywhere. Virtually every organization on the planet is bureaucratic at its core. That's true for General Motors, the Chinese prison system, Wells Fargo, the Catholic Church, Google, Britain's National Health Service, and Microsoft. It's true for Fortune 500 companies and Silicone Valley startups, it's true for local school districts, and first rate universities. Bureaucracy is a mash-up of military command structures and the disciplines of industrial engineering.
It's the love child, if you will, of Julius Caesar and Frederick Winslow Taylor, of long-dead generals and the pioneers of industrial engineering. Ask just about any employee around the world to draw a picture of their organization, and they'll draw the familiar pyramidal org chart. That's one of humanity's most durable social structures. It's simple, it's scalable, but it's not a network, not an ecosystem, not a social graph, and definitely not a community. Instead, it's the exoskeleton of bureaucracy.
It's a structure that preemptively and systematically empowers the few at the expense of the many. Bureaucracies are all about control, as the German sociologist Max Weber said over 100 years ago, "Bureaucracy is the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings." The goal of bureaucracy is to standardize, routinize, and formalize, to drive variances out and drive conformance in, conformance to quality standards, budgets, timelines, and work rules, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
You don't want the Fox Con employee who's assembling your iPhone to go off-script. You don't want airline pilots choosing their own routes through the sky. Control, the ability to do the same thing over and over with perfect replicability, is essential for reaping economies of scale. That was the goal 100 years ago when Henry Ford began building what would become the world's largest factory. Between 1908 and 1922, the cost of a Model T dropped from $850 to $260.
Today 1 billion people on the planet own a car. That's good for them, not so good for the planet, but nevertheless, without bureaucracy, scientific inventions like the automobile would have remained mere curiosities. Problem is, bureaucracies value conformance above all else. Yet today we live in a world where it's the irregular people with irregular ideas who create the irregular breakthroughs that generate the irregular profits. So, yeah, bureaucracy serves a valuable purpose.
It allows human beings, all of us, to do really complicated things efficiently at scale, like producing semi-conductor chips or running the back office of a bank, or delivering search engine results in a nanosecond, but it also squanders great quantities of human capacity.
- Focus your frustration
- Enroll a posse of change agents
- Build an irresistible case for change
- Learn from organizations that have conquered bureaucracy
- "Hack" the management systems in your organization
With these insights any employee can become a bureaucracy buster.
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