Todd Dewett | June 17, 2020
(excerpt from my forthcoming book Live Hard)
We’ve all made fun of bureaucracy, right? Bureaucracy is an organizational reality that involves a hierarchy of authority with a defined reporting structure, rigid division of labor and control of resources, and lots of formal and informal policies and procedures for everything. People fill assigned roles and work on goals that help the organization function.
It’s pretty easy to make fun of bureaucracy. I’ve done it many times privately in conversation, in writing, and on stage. We’ve all had the experience of dealing with wimpy bureaucrats: they don’t have a spine and never take risks, they love rules and pay too much attention to politics, and they don’t care about progress as much as adherence to process!
That probably sounds worse than it actually is, which is one reason bureaucracy has so few fans. Many executives, thought leaders, and pundits refer to it as a villain, a cancer. Others call it evil, a disease, evidence of poor leadership, and any other derogatory thing you can think of.
I penned a few popular quotes over the years that try to capture these sentiments.
“And when the devil saw them making progress, he grinned, and invented committees.”
Everyone can relate to that one. Committees, of course, evoke thoughts of the most hated manifestation of bureaucracy: meetings! Which leads to another quote.
“In poorly run meetings, time moves at the speed of stupid.”
These are somewhat true, and definitely funny. Nonetheless, I believe it’s important that we rethink this idea just a little. I loathe simple black and white thinking. It is rarely as useful as it sounds. To suggest that bureaucracy and red tape are simplistically evil is wrong. A more nuanced understanding is needed.
Let’s try this: bureaucracy is necessary and useful, can sometimes be very problematic, and definitely requires a few brave people to keep it in check.
First, yes – bureaucracy is a necessary evil. It is required to gain some amount of control over complex systems. The benefits are very clear and very important. They provide centralized power in times of need, give clarity about how to act in a given situation, serve as a hedge against hasty or poor decision-making, provide rules for resource use, and much more.
However, we all know bureaucracy can stand in the way of progress. The simple solution to this challenge is a small consistent supply of brave employees willing and able to grapple with the worst manifestations of bureaucracy.
This refers to people willing to speak up, disagree, and advocate for change. More to the point, it includes those willing to take risks on behalf of needed change, and especially those willing to fill leadership roles. But change often begins with just one or two brave souls.
One of the more famous examples of mavericks successfully bucking the system involves Pacific Tech’s Graphing Calculator software. They helped people visualize numbers and data before that concept was common. The story of how the product’s two developers got it included on shipments of Apple’s PowerPC computers is the stuff of legends.
Ron Avitzur was a contractor at Apple. His project was cancelled. He decided to un-cancel his small part of the project that involved the graphing calculator. Apple failed to take his badge, so he just kept showing up at work.
Some people knew he was working on a cancelled project. They loved the product and admired his renegade spirit. Slowly, as he shifted from one temporary unauthorized workspace to another, real employees began to offer help.
Early on, Ron recruited his friend Greg, another non-employee. The pair used every form of subterfuge possible in order to keep pouring hours into this officially cancelled product. They quickly became underground heroes at Apple. Software geeks, technicians, and several managers pitched in to keep development moving forward.
It was cool – until they got busted and kicked off campus.
They immediately began sneaking back into the office to continue working in an unused office. People were impressed, and many people continued volunteering their time to help – even though they might get in trouble.
Of course, this was all fun and games unless the product could be seen by customers. Thankfully, the lead engineer responsible for all software loaded onto all PowerPC computers was a fan. He told them he would break the rules, risk his job, and include their program on the machines to be shipped.
When executives discovered what they were up to, they loved the product so much, they decided to support it – officially. The next thing you know, the program was properly tested and localized in many different languages. They no longer had to hide, and eventually, they even received vendor badges so they could enter the building legally.
The bureaucracy tried to stop them in different ways, on several occasions. Thankfully, it failed.
The product was shipped in 1994. Students and teachers around the world loved it. The graphing calculator helped millions grapple effectively with math. They were hackers, driven by joy, and a fair amount of luck, who did whatever it takes to get the job done – for free, at great personal risk. (For those who might be interested, here is the original full story: https://www.pacifict.com/Story/.)
The Graphing Calculator story feels a little like a beautiful fairy tale. It has a sweet ending and nobody got hurt. Most stories about fighting bureaucracy aren’t so pretty. Reputations can be harmed. Jobs can be lost. Careers can be derailed.
However, before you make big moves that might kill your career, you merely have to make one choice. When confronted with a bit of absurdity, what do you do? Let the bureaucracy continue to win and decrease your capacity for innovation? Or, speak up and try to enact change (or at least a needed conversation)?
I’ve had the opportunity to ignite conversation many times for my clients. My role as an outsider often allows me to say things that insiders can’t say. The issue is clear, people should talk about it, but – thanks to fear of failure, fear of evaluation, fear of excess work, fear of damaged reputations, etc. – nobody speaks up. Except me.
I was once hired to speak to the management team of one major division of a large medical device manufacturer. I was given one hour to offer some sort of leadership wisdom and entertainment. Before I was due on stage, I was sitting in a nearby room with an employee who’d been assigned to stay with me and make sure I got to the stage at the right time.
She was an HR manager for the division. Her name was Alice and she seemed like a terribly nice person. We enjoyed chatting while killing a few minutes before the show. At one point, I asked what she and her team were up to lately. She smiled and began telling me about their efforts to help innovation by streamlining and improving the HR policy book.
“So you’re looking for red tape to cut?” I asked.
“Yes. Just looking for things that are unnecessary or too ambiguous to be useful,” Alice replied. “We spent a lot of time last week working specifically on grooming and attire.”
I was intrigued. A red flag sprang up violently in my head. “Really?” I said, trying to act normal.
“Believe it or not,” she continued, “we spent the better part of two days just trying to decide the rules for ladies’ footwear in the office.”
“What was the issue?” I inquired, while suppressing my laughter.
“It’s all about open toe versus close toe shoes,” Alice continued. “As it tuns out, it was harder that we imagined agreeing on definitions for what was or was not acceptable. It started with a woman who basically wore sandals to work. Her boss brought it to us to inquire about any relevant policies, and we thought the existing rules were really fuzzy, so we tried to fix them.”
Right away, I knew they had violated one of my top leadership rules: you never create a system level response to a local issue. Instead, the local manager fixes the issue and moves on. Otherwise you get bloated policy books far faster than you should.
“So how’d that go?” I asked.
“Well, three hours into our debate about women’s shoes, we realized were going to need to take some pictures,” she said.
“Pictures?” I replied.
“Actually, we ended up getting all of the pictures we needed from the internet. Instead of trying to define exactly what was or was not acceptable, we just gathered different images of shoes we felt were generally acceptable versus those that were not. The whole thing took most of the day.”
I was about to respond when the door opened.
“You’re on in five minutes Dr. Dewett,” the person said.
“Okay. Thanks,” I replied.
Alice smiled and directed me out the door, down a hall, and into the back of a large auditorium. They quickly attached my microphone and I was ready. A nice executive delivered a kind introduction, and I walked on stage.
You never really know what kind of crowd you’re dealing with until you’re out there. This was a great crowd – ready and willing to think, smile, and laugh a little. Nice. I was cruising through a few of my signature stories, people were taking notes, nodding, giggling – it was a good gig.
At some point I felt a little distracted. I found myself deviating from my script. I don’t actually have a memorized script, but I do tend to stay on topic. I realized I was adding a few more comments and anecdotes than normal, and I finally realized why.
I was talking about leadership, specifically aspects of effective relationships for leaders at work and how that relates to creativity and innovation. My subconscious was kicking me in the proverbial shins, compelling me to get real and just say what was one my mind. A fairly seasoned risk taker, I decided to do it.
In the middle of a story that was being received very well, I stopped, paused, and just looked at the audience for a moment.
“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Did you know that this company has an odd fixation on ladies’ footwear?”
People seemed shocked or puzzled. A few people instinctively laughed at the absurd nature of my comment. I explained what I had learned from Alice (I did not name her or mention her group per se), and then launched into a talk about what it means to focus on things that really matter.
Near the end of my impromptu rant, I noticed Alice, now standing in the back of the auditorium. The expression on her face suggested that she wasn’t terribly happy with me. The talk went really well, even if I did ad-lib a bit too much. Importantly, the point was made. The client got it. They seemed to appreciate my content and candor, which turned into additional speaking opportunities. I never heard from Alice. I hope she did not get in trouble.
The issue that caused this situation is a very serious one indeed. We have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources at work. It’s vital that we use them to address things that are essential and things that can really move us forward. If we err in terms of managing our time and focus, we should err on over investing in things that really matter.
It turns out that bureaucracy is like a drug. When you allow too much time to be wasted on rules, policies, committees, and meetings, you get used to it. You build a tolerance. This red tape approach to life becomes your norm. It becomes your expectation. It becomes a drug you need to get by. It becomes time spent arguing about women’s shoes.
After the shoe incident, I began sharing versions of this story with other clients. What I found was a little surprising. I knew that by sharing, others would tell me stories from their organization about bureaucracy. What I did not see coming, was that the very same shoe dilemma plagues many organizations! Five additional client audiences have shared highly similar, and hilarious, stories.
So, if the shoe calamity is so common, imagine all of the other examples of time spent on somewhat trivial matters. There are many. There is no doubt about that. The only real question is whether or not you’ll step up and do something about it. Can you imagine what you and the team are capable if you were to focus only on things that really move the needle?
If you actually care about high performance and innovation, you do need a few folks willing and able to speak up. Someone has to call bullshit, and it needs to be reasonably safe to do so.
Think big here. Innovation is more than just defining certain goals, looking for waste, and launching a new product or service. It’s about hiring the right people and developing them correctly. Sure, you need smart people who mostly fit in, but you also need a few people with the balls to not fit in. Otherwise, what does your culture stand for?
Is that person you? It’s okay if it’s not, but if you truly want to keep bureaucracy in check, you need to find a few of these folks, hire them, protect them, and listen to them. Otherwise, you might miss out on a few game-changing graphic calculators while wasting time talking about shoes.