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Bureaucracy in your company has no "DELETE" button. It's time to do something about it.

Sep 20, 2018 5:25:51 PM / by Chief Editor

On your own, you - even you! - will not be able to design or develop this feature, no matter how talented of a professional you are. This requires collective effort, and not just from management - from absolutely everyone. So, where do you start?

You start from understanding four fundamental truths.

#1 Bureaucracy is not good for you

First, the why. Bureaucracy is harmful in numerous ways. It harms your company as a whole and is deadly to your sanity, performance and initiative. Any change is painful. Making sure your coworkers know the “why” will help you win support from reluctant colleagues.

#2 "Flat" organizational structure and big company size can go together

"Flat" organizational structure is the antithesis of layers upon layers of bosses' bosses. Valve and Spotify are prime examples of that. If Valve had more bureaucracy, Half-Life 3 would have been released a long time ago, by a High Order from above. But would it be as good as Dota 2 and Steam, created without the omnipresent bureaucrats' involvement? That's a rhetorical question.

Of course, it is easier to be a "flat" company when you are small. A recent Harvard Business Review study evaluated the Bureaucracy Mass Index (BMI) of various companies. By answering a collection of questions, anyone could find out the BMI of their workplace.

It was no surprise that low BMI (below 40 out of 100) workplaces are predominantly small companies with less than 100 employees. Big companies and corporations with 5000 employees and more have an average BMI of over 70.

#3 It is impossible to fully defeat bureaucracy

Bureaucracy, in one way or another, will remain in any organisation. Even Idea Port Riga, a company that maintains a flat organisational structure since its inception, has a BMI of 31. Yes, that puts us among the 1% of companies with BMI below 40.

Still, it does not mean that we no longer need to work on beating bureaucracy. After all, the minimum possible BMI is 20. With all that, we're fully aware that it's impossible to eradicate "paperstaining" completely. Travel reports and leave applications won't write themselves, you know.

"If you and your colleagues have decided to reduce the bureaucracy level at your company, you will need to make your own way."

#4 There is no one way to reduce the bureaucracy that works for all

That's right. There is no universal "DELETE" button. No step-by-step "User's Manual". No well-documented philosophies and collections of best practices with sonorous names of two three-letter combinations and its own novel that might one day become a production drama.

That's right. There is no universal "DELETE" button. No step-by-step "User's Manual". No well-documented philosophies and collections of best practices with sonorous names of two three-letter combinations and its own novel that might one day become a production drama.

If you and your colleagues have decided to reduce the bureaucracy level at your company, you will need to make your own way.

So, you will need to do something. But what?

Like with all things, the first step is understanding - where, ACTUALLY, are we right now? How bad is it, really? If you truly want to know, be honest with yourself as you answer these questions:

  • How many management layers (bosses) are there between an ordinary employee and the CEO of your company? 1-3 layers? Excellent. More than 7? Not good.
  • How will reducing 30% of your office staff (lawyers, HR, finance, etc.) affect your work? If this idea sounds alluring, you have too much bureaucracy.
  • How much work time do you spend on "bureaucracy" - writing reports, meetings, making requests, getting by formalities? Less than 10%? Very good. More than 30%? You’re in trouble.
  • How long do you usually wait for approval on a request beyond your previously approved budget (e.g., an additional employee, new equipment, etc.)? If it takes more than 3-4 weeks - it's something to ponder. It only takes a few days in the best "flat" companies.
  • How many employees are part of a monetary bonus scheme, profit sharing scheme or any other scheme that links work results to financial remuneration? Less than 20%? Very bad. More than 80%? Very good.
  • How much time do managers and leaders spend on resolving internal conflicts and problems, obtaining permissions and fighting over resources? Less than 10%? You’re doing well! Over 70%? Better watch out.
  • How many employees can spend EUR 1000 without coordination and approvals from management? 50%? Very good. Less than 5%? Very bad.
  • How autonomous are you and your team? To what extent are you allowed to set goals and priorities, devise work schedules, choose work methods, hire colleagues, choose team leads, set compensation levels for work? There is no "right" answer to this question. Generally, the higher your autonomy, the lower the bureaucracy.
  • How do your colleagues react to unusual ideas? Generally, the more resistance you face, the higher your bureaucracy levels.
  • Think of an important change program that was launched in your company over the past couple of years. Better yet, think of two or three. Was its purpose to catch up to your competitors or to set the tone in your marketplace? Companies with low bureaucracy tend to lead their industry, not chase it.
  • How hard or easy is it for an ordinary employee to launch their own mini-project? If it is impossible and all ideas are passed down from the top - your company is very bureaucratized.
  • How do people handle change and criticism? If their key principle is "sit quietly and don't stick your head out" - you may have a serious issue to deal with.
  • How big is the role of "politics" in your company? If resources are distributed freely and you don’t have to water your boss’s fern every morning just to work stress-free - all good. If, however, you must brace for undercounter battles for every new laptop, conference ticket or taxi voucher… well, you get the point.

You may have guessed, the questions above are some of the things HBR asked employees to determine their companies' BMI. Answering them honestly will help you understand the bureaucracy level of your company.

 

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Now, what do you do with this understanding?

Realise that your company has a problem with bureaucracy. Then, deliver this realisation to your leadership. Contrary to the popular belief among regular employees, their bosses are not "the main custodians of bureaucracy". They are ready to share power and opportunities to improve the organization if you are serious about initiating positive change. At least, that's what "strict bosses" themselves believe (according to HBR survey).

Next, of course, you'll need to delve deeper into the question.

HBR articles (one: https://hbr.org/2017/05/assessment-do-you-know-how-bureaucratic-your-organization-is , and two https://hbr.org/2017/08/what-we-learned-about-bureaucracy-from-7000-hbr-readers ) are a good start. Do also check this old gold material, "How to Fight Bureaucracy" by Tome Rieger from Gallup: https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/145085/fight-bureaucracy.aspx.


Main thing. Always remember: the road is only mastered by the going. You will not change anything on your own. So, read, learn, think, look for like-minded colleagues and work to take this on together!

 

Topics: stop-bureaucracy

Chief Editor

Written by Chief Editor

Chief Editor is a pen name for Idea Port Riga management team. We believe that happy teams are more productive and managers should find joy at work, too. That's why we left a big corporation 10 years ago and started a company that values each and everyone...