Dismantling the Bureaucratic Barrier: How to Foster Innovation and Progress

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about bureaucracy and how it seems to be purposefully designed to crush enthusiasm and stop progress.

After deciding to focus today’s post on “death by bureaucracy,” I set out in search of an appropriate quote and came across one that, in my opinion, perfectly describes my feelings towards bureaucracy as a whole.

Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?” – Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune.

I do not believe I could have put this any better myself.

I have always believed that ‘process is the last hiding place for the inept‘ and that they continue to push the process because whilst ever the process remains in place their ineptitude can be compensated for.

More often than not, it has been the process which has been holding us back, denying progress, and maintaining the status quo to allow the inept to flourish.

Now I understand that this is quite a strong stance, but in my experience, this has often been the case.

Bureaucrats in charge, who promote other bureaucrats, to ensure that no one in charge is ever made to look inept.

The status quo is maintained and this is reported as a great result, progress even. Sometimes there is no progress reported, it’s in reports that are so bureaucratic it’s impossible to know whether any progress has been made or not. It’s just stated that there was.

If we want to see real progress in our companies or our departments then we need to see Death to Bureaucracy, not death by it.

That doesn’t mean all bureaucracy is bad, we need to be able to distinguish between bureaucracy which stifles innovation and progress, and that which is necessary to support it.

It’s not overly difficult, we just need to look at the process and ask what benefit does it provide, not do we like it or not, but does it provide any benefit.

If it doesn’t add any benefit then it should go.

In one company where I worked, we had to provide a breakdown of service costs at the lowest level. We had to give the service costs and the cost of each component of that service, the report was produced each month and must have been 200 pages long.

It’s not that this was a bad process, it was just that the information was inaccurate, and we had teams of people spending days and hours arguing over the inaccurate figures, not trying to make them accurate, but complaining about the actual figures, which everyone knew was inaccurate.

The goal was supposed to be to try and figure out how we could reduce costs, but this process actually increased costs and didn’t really identify any cost-reduction opportunities at all.

The simplest way to reduce costs would have been to stop producing the report and deploy those resources elsewhere.

The problem was that the bureaucrats involved didn’t want to change, they had a report they liked, although inaccurate, which they could make a big discussion about, so their importance, and then create false savings, in order to declare success. The result was the bureaucrats could declare their success but at the expense of the company’s success.

Fortunately, we had a leader who saw through all this and who was in a position to be able to demand change, that change being cancelling reports that added no value.

Once we did this then we could focus on finding real cost savings.

There is an old adage, if you’re not part of the solution, then there is plenty of money to be made out of prolonging the problem, often this quote is targeted at consultants, but I believe it is also true of bureaucrats if you’re not part of the solution, then make a career out of administering the problem.

I appreciate that this might seem a like a little bit of a rant, but I do hate unnecessary bureaucracy, which adds no value.

So, if you want to look to improve your team or your department’s performance, then have a review of all your bureaucratic processes and if you see any that don’t add any value to the company then eliminate them!

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