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August 3, 2021

Playbook to Bust Bureaucracy

By Mark Schwartz

So, you’re in an organization, running up against bureaucratic impediments when you try to do what you’re pretty sure is the right thing. Perhaps you’re leading a digital transformation and your company’s bureaucracy is resisting change, fighting to lock in ways of doing things that belong to the days before the Paleolithic era. You’re up against a vast leviathan of a bureaucracy. What should you do?

Like many business and technology authors, I’m going to tell you a bunch of stuff based on my limited research—stuff that seemed more or less to work with a sample size of one—and try to write it in a way that sounds compelling. I already know that putting it into a book is going to give it more authority, plus you’ll have cognitive dissonance if you paid to read it, so you’ll tend to believe what I say. Since I want to help you succeed, I’m going to let you in on my secrets and idiosyncratic behaviors that were probably effective. I think, maybe. There, that’s my disclaimer, in case your bureaucracy fails to bust.

I think the plays in this playbook are sensible and will make a good starting point for your own experiments. If you’re sitting with your head in your hands, overwhelmed by metaphysical pathos, and can’t figure out what to do next, try some of these tricks. But if, say, play B13: Hunt Monkeys doesn’t solve your problems, don’t think you’re some exception to a technique that’s been working for every master bureaucracy buster in the world. The most important thing I have to teach you is the importance of banging your head against the wall, repeatedly, until the wall starts to move. It worked for me.

Next, I suggest keeping a sense of humor, even when the stakes are high. Even Moby Dick has some funny chapters. Can you think of a single comedian who has had their digital transformation derailed by stubborn bureaucrats? No, you can’t. My suggestion throughout this book has been that you stop doing the metaphysical pathos thing. The bureaucrats in your way are probably trying earnestly to do their jobs. The crazy stuff that’s blocking you was put there for very good reasons. You have to show that (1) those reasons are no longer important, or (2) that there are better ways to satisfy those reasons, or (3) that while those reasons are good, there are more important considerations that override them.

Ultimately, fixing bureaucracy has to come down to those three things. Yes, you can make a little progress riding in with noisy urgency around “bureaucracy busting.” You can also get some things done with just your charisma and some impressive-sounding certifications after your name. But in an organization where people really do care about results, about mission accomplishment, you’ll eventually stumble if you aren’t replacing the bureaucracy with something even better.

Everyone knows it’s important to surround yourself with good people. So, I’ll introduce you to three of my assistants who can help with your bureaucracy-surmounting efforts: the Monkey, the Razor, and the Sumo Wrestler. Please take them as seriously as they merit. For an encore, I’m going to show you how to forge your own bureaucracy, making good use of spherical cows and unobtanium, minus the metaphysical pathos. Have fun.

Next: The Way of the Monkey

- About The Authors
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Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz is an iconoclastic CIO and a playful crafter of ideas, an inveterate purveyor of lucubratory prose. He has been an IT leader in organizations small and large, public, private, and nonprofit. As the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, he provokes the federal government into adopting Agile and DevOps practices. He is pretty sure that when he was the CIO of Intrax Cultural Exchange he was the first person ever to use business intelligence and supply chain analytics to place au pairs with the right host families. Mark speaks frequently on innovation, bureaucratic implications of DevOps, and Agile processes in low-trust environments. With a computer science degree from Yale and an MBA from Wharton, Mark is either an expert on the business value of IT or just confused and much poorer.

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1 Comment

  • Anne Davey Koomans Aug 4, 2021 9:40 pm

    I completely agree with what you have written. I hope this post could reach more people as this was truly an interesting post.

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