Spent two hours in a meeting discussing the outcomes of the last meeting. An hour and a half writing a report on the number of reports in a reporting period. Visited my boss with, as dad would say, a “rationalisation proposal”. My boss promised to discuss it with his boss and find out if it might interest his boss's boss. Just between you, me, and the watercooler, this means either "forget it" or "we'll discuss it, and if Venus leaves the shade of retrograde Mercury, we might approve it in half a year, axing the best bits". What? Did I work on my project? Well, yeah, of course... a bit, during lunch break. Why'd you ask?
This scene is painted with rough strokes, and its contents are a bit exaggerated. Still, it likely feels painfully familiar. This outrage has a simple name: bureaucracy. We’re used to associating it with government institutions, but bureaucrats are omnipresent. They can carve out a spot in any company, any division. Even in our industry. Sometimes, even in our kitchen.
There are four good reasons why bureaucracy is bad. And not just bad for your company in general (though, that is also true), but for you personally.
#1 Bureaucracy forces you to do what you do not want to do. For free.
This is the main one. Meetings about nothing. Reports. Papers from this division to that department, the fifth and tenth time around. If this takes up more than 20% of your workday, you spend over a day each week doing things you hate that are, presumably, "needed for the company".
The worst part is that nobody seems to acknowledge or factor in the time this bureaucracy steals. You are still required to deliver on tight deadlines. The ACTUAL work is forced between meetings. Night shifts with laptops and coffee become your norm. Or do they?
There are, of course, exceptions. Some people enjoy taking part in meetings (as long as the pizza is warm, not like last time), adore writing reports and memos, have fingers in all the office intrigues and undercounter fights for money, new associates and the most interesting projects. Why they need those projects, though, isn't quite clear. People who roll with bureaucracy without misters do not spend much time on project work. That work is usually done for them. By you.
And no, the inconceivable load of red tape, meetings, paperstaining and unfair workload distribution within a team is NOT "normal". No, not "everyone works like this". No, this is not "the norm in our industry".
There are actual companies that do not only write job ads "we need people to work on work". Companies where professionals work on the work they were hired to do. Companies where you are given exciting tasks and are surrounded by excited colleagues.
#2 Bureaucracy makes you invisible
Your ideas are not heard even at a point-blank range. They get lost in the mysterious jungle of corporate mail and even more corporate portal. You can’t tear your way through the endless heaps of "bosses' bosses". Each boss is only interested to keep their warm, cozy position and cuts each idea to "make sure nothing bad comes out of this". You feel helpless and have long given up on changing anything.
These are clear signs that your company is ruled by Bureaucracy, with a capital B.
#3 Unchecked bureaucracy eventually harms the company as a whole
As bureaucracy grows out of control and there is nobody left to tame it, the company's common goal suffers, too. Indeed, why would anyone give their 110% if any one individual can cross out all your team's efforts because some third person asked him after being told something by a boss whose name none of you've ever heard before.
It's easy to spot unbuttoned bureaucracy. As soon as someone uses Approved Procedure and The Highest Order to force you to do something unrelated to your task at hand, you've spotted it.
#4 Bureaucracy does not let you do anything yourself
You start to feel like you aren’t even living your life anymore. Everything around you feels not quite that and not quite right. There are companies where professionals can launch their own mini-projects, resolve hiring issues, distribute their budget and even choose a team lead. These companies may differ in many things, but there is one common denominator - they all have low levels of bureaucracy.
If you are given zero initiative, if you only do what gets passed down "from the top" while nothing in your job description even remotely resembles "Junior", then... oh, well, why are you doing it?
A skeptical reader might exclaim: you sure talk a good game, but what about Order and Procedure? They are also part of the bureaucracy. Are you saying Order and Procedure are bad? Thousands, hundreds of thousands of companies worldwide work this way, and what? Nothing. They're quite successful!
Hard to object, but we'll try.
Let's be frank: what do YOU have to gain from those bureaucracy-driven companies being successful? Are you their shareholder? Do you take part in their profit distribution? They might as well be successful (until they are chewed up by something gigantic like the rise of smartphones and get called "Chinese Nokia"), but does that make YOU in particular successful?
Do you like "working on your work"? Are your ideas heard? Is everyone around you working on the business? If your answer is "no" - it's about time to consider a change. Sometimes the opportunity is closer than you think, you just need to ask.
Having said all this, we must make a distinction between bureaucracy that suffocates life and clear and elastic processes that evolve and depend on particular projects, experience levels of each colleague and practical changes in context. Processes that are not black and white screens but rather 50 shades of gray inbetween.
Not all rules and processes must be documented! Sometimes it is enough to determine the boundaries for autonomous decision-making and give your colleagues the freedom to find the best ways to achieve their required outcomes.
Let's just say, we'd all strongly oppose revocation of all bureaucratic procedures on a nuclear power plant. So, even though our fiery speech might lead you to conclude that bureaucracy is absolute evil and there are companies thoroughly purged of this vice... in fact, this is not true.
Some level of "paperstaining" is inevitable, and to fully get rid of meetings, reports and bosses (oh, well...) is not possible. Why and how to live with it - read next time!