The Black Belt Bureaucrat
There are times when bureaucracy is the best available solution. You reach into your tool bag as a leader and what comes out is a sticky, gooey gob of rules that you have to enforce, maybe to ensure your company stays compliant with GDPR or your expense and HR policies are applied fairly. Or, if you’re an IT leader, perhaps you need to brew up some rules around security, enterprise architecture standards, or shared services with chargebacks to business units.
What’s the recipe for a bureaucracy that doesn’t stir up metaphysical pathos among those subject to it? How can you use a bureaucracy the way Weber intended—to promote efficiency, fairness, and merit-based organization? To make it “domination through knowledge” rather than through petty authority and arbitrariness? How do you make sure it doesn’t pettifog?
Of course: you need to make it lean, learning, and enabling.
- Move Incrementally: Figure out the MVB (minimum viable bureaucracy) necessary. Start small and add incrementally only when it becomes necessary.
- Do Marginal Doing: Your ultimate goal, though, is to maximize the amount of successful doing per dollar invested. So, a marginal dollar of watching had better increase the productivity or success of each of your doing dollars.
- Substitute Values and Principles: Use bureaucracy to provide minimal guardrails and then ask employees to use their judgement—guided by the organization’s values and principles.
- Work Inside the Frame: The bureaucratic rules are a “frame,” you might say, within which employee behavior is both free and managed.
- Make It Easy to Do the Right Thing: Instead of frustrating employees, make it easy for them tot do the right thing.
- Build for Self-Service: With a self-service model, the security team makes available to the developers a vending machine full of software that’s been pre-vetted and secured. The developers can serve themselves without asking permission.
- Automate Compliance: Wherever you need to enforce a control, either set up an automated process that enforces compliance or automate a test that checks to see if compliance is occurring. It’s fast, easy, and doesn’t involve personal impositions of authority or troll-keeping.
- Get Skin in the Game: When you’re setting up your bureaucracy, make sure that it supports the behaviors you want to encourage.
- Redraw Organizational Charts: Changing the organizational chart can reduce the need for bureaucratic ceremony.
- Formalize Agility in Policy: Since what is set in policy will tend to win out against what is not, consider writing speed and agility into formal policy.
- Practice Occam’s Centrifugal Whirl: In the tension between centralization and decentralization, centralization has a bureaucratic cost. It’s sometimes the right answer; the benefits outweigh the costs. But the default should be decentralization; it’s centralization that must be justified.
- Dashboard Your Successes: If you’re going to continuously improve your bureaucratic controls, then the improvements you make can be represented on the dashboard. Doing so will help motivate those on your continuous improvement team and those on whom the bureaucracy is enforced.”
- Hunt Monkeys: The best way to make sure your bureaucracy evolves is to find monkeys within your organization who’ll keep pushing to make it better. Hunt for monkeys and support them.
- Bureaucrats Must Work Too: The overseers work for the executors, not the other way around. Making this clear is one way to give them skin in the game.
- ASAP Is Good: When managers want something as soon as possible, they’re then committed to removing any waste or impediments that will slow their employees down.
- Everyone Owns the Rules: Rules should almost never be enforced, in the coercive sense. If every rule is there for a good reason, and if employees are motivated toward the success of the enterprise, then they should want to follow the rules.