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August 3, 2021

Playbook to Bust Bureaucracy

By Mark Schwartz

Note: This post is an abridged adaptation from Mark Schwartz’s The (Delicate) Art of Bureaucracy. Get the book to get the full playbook.

The Way of the Monkey


All transformation starts with the Monkey. Something has to cause a disruption, because people need to understand that the status quo is no longer okay.

The Monkey probes and provokes, learns how the organization really works—its politics, dynamics, people’s hidden motivations—then uses those learnings as a lever to move the unmovable. The Monkey does so with good humor and a light touch (the Sumo Wrestler weighs in later), along with an annoying persistence and lack of fear. He’s the iconoclast who questions what’s obviously true, just because it is obviously true. He’s not bothered when he’s pinned under a mountain of bureaucracy, because sooner or later he’ll move the mountain. He winks as he disrupts and smiles—because after all, this is kind of fun.

Here are some techniques you’ll want to borrow from the Monkey.

  1. Provoke and Observe: Provoke and observe is the ultimate monkey technique. It’s the tactic of testing the bureaucracy by provoking it and seeing what happens.
  2. Be Curious: Once you know why a bureaucratic rule is in place, then you can be creative in finding better ways to satisfy its intent.
  3. Ban Learned Helplessness: Just as bureaucrats leave their biases at home, monkeys fight against inappropriate constraints.
  4. Repersonalize: No-sayers don’t have enough accountability for growing revenues. They must be engaged in innovating and growing the company, or they’ll always pose a bureaucratic obstacle.
  5. Motivate through Stories: There’s power in any change agent’s stories about how unexamined bureaucratic bric-a-brac is cluttering the way of accomplishing the company’s mission and frustrating customers.
  6. Accept Personal Risk: The key to taking risks is to not really take them. It’s to assess risk better than the official process does.
  7. Create Urgency: To get bureaucratic change to happen, you need to inject urgency by showing that today’s practices are unacceptable.
  8. Advertise the Cost of Delay: There’s a cost to bureaucracy that should be weighed against the benefits of the controls it provides.
  9. Apply Servant Leadership: Red tape is an impediment. Whose job is it to remove the impediment? Yours and mine.
  10. Conduct Pilots, Get Exceptions: When the rules can’t be changed directly, take advantage of any exception process allowed.

Next, we looks at the Way of the Razor…

- 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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