Join Gary Hamel for an in-depth discussion in this video How to approach your hack, part of Gary Hamel on Busting Bureaucracy.
- Any grand, top-down plan for dismantling bureaucracy isn't likely to work, and here's why. You can't root out bureaucracy without redistributing power, and like all of us, bureaucrats aren't eager to surrender their perks and privileges. If asked to support the idea of busting bureaucracy, they'll declare themselves all in but then quickly enumerate the countless practical challenges that must be addressed before venturing forward, and that sort of pervasive if soft resistance will thwart even a committed CEO.
Moreover, their caution is not entirely unwarranted. Nothing will sabotage the work of busting bureaucracy faster than an ill-conceived and radical move that creates operational chaos. Imagine what would happen, for example, if an organization decimated the ranks of middle management without equipping frontline employees with the skills, incentives, and information they need to become self-managing. Moreover, there's no well-trodden path for building a post-bureaucratic organization.
While one can draw inspiration from the management vanguard, most of these companies were like Lady Gaga, born that way. Brownfield organizations, by contrast, have a giant hairball of legacy processes and practices that have to be deconstructed and then reconstructed. The challenge is not unlike that faced by the first surgeons who attempted to transplant human organs. The stakes were high and the protocols few. The good news for you, even if you're clumsy, at least here, you're not going to kill anybody.
So how can you move forward in a way that's both radical and prudent, revolutionary and evolutionary? The trick is to think about busting bureaucracy via a series of management hacks, small risk and time-bounded experiments designed to test and validate nonbureaucratic options for getting things done. While lots of companies think about experimenting with new product ideas via fast prototyping, for example, they don't think about building a portfolio of low-cost management experiments to explore new ways of planning, hiring, rewarding, or budgeting.
Let me give you a sterling example of a management hack. Atlassian is a highly successful enterprise software company. It was founded in Australia, and a few years back, Atlassian's founders were worrying that their company's frenetic deadline-focused culture might be robbing engineers of the time they needed to dream up new products and features. The founders had friends who had worked at Google, and they had heard about Google's 20% rule, which allows developers to devote a fifth of their time to any project of their choosing.
On the other hand, the founders worried that Atlassian was too small to afford such a luxury. As a startup, Atlassian's financial backers wanted a fast return on their investment, and that was best accomplished by avoiding any product development detours. So that was the challenge, how to test the idea of creating organizational slack so engineers have the time to hatch new ideas while not letting current commitments slip. The answer was a simple but ingenious management hack designed to test the hypothesis that at least some of the company's engineers were harboring ideas not yet in the product roadmap that could help the company grow even faster.
The resulting experiment was dubbed the FedEx Day because it absolutely positively had to happen in less than 24 hours, and here's how it worked. With their regular tasks put on hold for a day, Atlassian's engineers crowded into a conference room and pitched their pet ideas to their colleagues. There are only two stipulations. First, each idea had to be out of the ordinary, and second, it had to be doable. Teams quickly clustered around the most promising ideas and got to work coding.
By the end of the afternoon, the teams had generated a dozen kickass product enhancements. Ultimately, half of these shipped in subsequent releases of Atlassian's apps. Having validated the hypothesis that smart folks often have off-budget ideas that deserve to be explored, Atlassian now holds several FedEx days a year. The idea of testing a bold management idea isn't crazy. It only seems crazy to those who are hostage to a top-down model of change, where anything new has to be vetted, tested, approved, and packaged before it can be rolled out, but that's not how we're going to defeat bureaucracy.
Instead, we need a lot of small but promising experiments that can be rolled up if they work or abandoned if they don't. Imagine what would happen if over the next year, you and your colleagues launched a dozen experiments like Atlassian's FedEx Day. If you're trying to imagine a hack worth testing, get a couple of people together for a few hours, and try this brainstorming exercise. Get a big sheet of paper, and list your organization's primary management processes down one side, goal setting, budgeting, project management, performance assessment, recruiting, product development, and so on.
Then across the top, make a list of post-bureaucratic principles. The principles that distinguish vanguard organization. I'd suggest principles like experimentation, meritocracy, community, openness, freedom, and entrepreneurship. Those are good places to start. Pick one of those principles and ask, if we were truly serious about this principle, what would we change in the way we lead, manage, and organize? For example, if your organization took freedom seriously, if it believed that empowered individuals are more productive than conscripts, it might want to give first-level teams the responsibility for interviewing and hiring new recruits, rather than supervisors or HR staff.
What's more empowering than having the chance to choose the people you're going to work with? This is exactly the sort of idea that could be quickly tested in a small corner of a large organization. Within a month or two, you'd know, can we do this efficiently? Does it produce better hiring decisions? Does it boost team morale? As you craft your management hack, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Be responsible. Be conscious of legal constraints, and don't do anything that might damage your organization's reputation.
Be clear about your hypotheses, and don't try to test more than one or two at a time. Aim for speed. No experiment should last more than 60 days. Use volunteers. Don't push anyone to participate who doesn't want to. Run the new in parallel with the old. Don't change any existing process until you know your hack actually works. And start in your own backyard. Don't ask permission. Start with a hack you can test within the limits of your existing authority and budget, and then iterate.
If your hack falls short, figure out went wrong and try again. Experimentation isn't one and done. It's wash, rinse, repeat. Bureaucracy didn't emerge a 150 years ago fully formed. It was the product of countless small-scale experiments as the world's industrial pioneers struggled to find ways of managing complexity at scale. Today, we need adaptability at scale, innovation at scale, and passion at scale, and we have to achieve this without giving up the discipline, focus, and efficiency, which are essential to any large-scale human endeavor.
The goal, creating organizations that are fit for the future and at long last, fit for human beings. If that goal resonates with you, then you're ready to start hacking management.
- 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.