Breaking the Bureauocracy Stronghold


Yesterday I had a question about a government-issued form. After over forty-five minutes on hold, calls to two separate agencies and four call transfers, I got the answer. That’s a lot of hassle for one question (and yes, I tried the online site but could not find the answer and was instructed by the site to make a call).


Over the past several weeks I’ve had meetings with many organizations, for-profit and not-for-profit. Some were kicking tail and taking names while some others were stuck and the bad news was that the stuck organizations told me they couldn’t get unstuck.

Something I clearly noticed theses experiences was this – the organizations that are doing well, efficiently taking care of customers and have vision for growth and excellence don't have much bureaucracy. The others, unfortunately, were steeped in it. They could not get unstuck because they were so layered, lifeless and ingrained.

In many ways organizations unintentionally encourage people to choose to maintain what they have, to be cautious and dependent. Every organization, church, or business was started with a new idea, new twist on an old idea or new service. Some act of courage and passion was at the core of the beginning. As the organization grew, it decided that more structure and control were needed. Jobs, responsibilities and positions needed to be defined, managed, and measured. The employees themselves may have asked for more consistency. Consequently more layers were added, more rules were built and the seeds of bureaucracy were sown. Suddenly and surprisingly, if the organization is not careful, the passion and spirit gets diluted and a self-reinforcing cycle takes its place that encourages slow decisions, entitlement, loss of customer focus and myopic self-interest.

Organizations who seem to have broken this cycle share three important attributes:

People are their own authority. These organizations have asked people to take responsibility for their own actions, their own department, their own ministry and they are able to create an organization of their own choosing. Leadership is localized and the people are responsible. Further, the organization supports them. There’s no “Monday morning quarterbacking” that tends to take this attribute away in a subtle, but destructive way. There’s honesty and support rather than erosive critical commentary.

The organizations encourage self-expression. The reality that I’ve found is that business or ministry is deeply personal and people care about their jobs and other people around them. People need to be supported in their self-expression. This way people can put passion, energy, excitement and be motivated in their work. People’s desire to leave early, to work outside  of the office on another job and taking long lunch and breaks is a direct consequence of the follow-the-rules, everything-by-the book leadership. Encouraging self-expression develops passionate servers.

The organizations replace “have to” with “want to”. Winning organizations that I’ve been around tend to spend a lot of time talking about what they want to do, or what they are going to do. Organizations layered with bureaucracy focus on what they have to do. There’s little commitment with the “have to” spirit. I’m not talking about self-indulgence, I’m talking about commitment to passion and something meaningful. Further, it’s easier to engage in the unpleasant, boring, routine and painful tasks when you know there is a good purpose and we’re striving together to “want to” do something bigger than ourselves rather than “having to” keep things the same or routinely do their job.

These three attributes work together for the good of the business. They help keep at bay the urge to manage only by layers and by a pessimistic view of human nature and people. People choose to do well, they adopt a view of what is possible and they excel under leadership that gives them authority, self expression and a “want to” drive and spirit.


2 Responses to “Breaking the Bureauocracy Stronghold”

  1. Jim Seybert says:

    I would love to comment and will, as soon as my words have been reviewed by our branding department, production manager and legal counsel.

  2. Wayne, Out of curiosity what is your take on Franklin TN based Gene Simmons Cool Springs Life Equity Strategy rolled out in the last few days? They’re saying they’ve raised $7B to loan out to high net worth individuals (at LIBOR flat) against their life insurance policies. It was touted as a way to avoid the massive estate taxes that are going into effect later this year.

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