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Want to bust bureaucracy? Get angry.

by Gary Hamel on December 20, 2016
gary-hamel's picture

Want to bust bureaucracy? Get angry.

Third in a series

In our previous post we argued that an excess of bureaucracy costs the U.S. economy more than $3 trillion in lost economic output, but defeating bureaucracy won’t be easy. Bureaucracy is familiar, entrenched and well-defended.  The challenge for would-be bureaucracy fighters isn’t unlike that faced by campaigners who, in years past, set out to change deeply rooted social institutions such autocracy, racism and patriarchy.  

Long-standing realities change only when the beliefs that underlie them change. As Thomas Paine put in Common Sense, a tract that proved pivotal to the American and French revolutions, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right… .”  Thus the first battle to be won is against indifference.  In this regard, no argument has proved more irresistible than the one which asserts that every human being should be free to exercise and profit from their natural gifts, and that human-crafted impediments to that pursuit are unjust.

If we’re going to free our organizations from the shackles of bureaucracy, we going to need a bit less resignation and a bit more indignation. And when you consider the economic and human costs of bureaucracy, there’s plenty to be indignant about  How, for example, can one be indifferent to the fact that only a third of American employees are fully engaged in their work, this according to a 2014 Gallup survey. That means that two out of three employees are not “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and work-place.” This is shameful. Imagine, if you will, a car so poorly designed that two-thirds of the fuel pumped into the gas tank ran out onto the ground. Outside the US, the waste is even greater. Globally, 87% of employees are less than fully engaged.  

The implication: most organizations squander more human capability than they use.  While we should be scandalized by the inhumanity of bureaucracy, we shouldn’t be surprised.  As Max Weber observed a century ago, “bureaucracy develops more perfectly the more it is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating…all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.” The bureaucratic ideal is a passion-free workplace, and it’s often achieved. Millions of employees show up every day at work physically, but leave much of their humanity at home—not by choice, but because they’ve learned that bureaucracies have little tolerance for curiosity, playfulness, intuition, artistry, affection, hope and all the other non-scriptable qualities that turn hairless bipeds into human beings. Little wonder that 94% of executives in a recent McKinsey & Company study said they were dissatisfied with their company’s innovation performance.

Of course there are times when individuals need to behave in highly scripted ways. You don’t want the Foxconn employees who assemble your iPhone to go off script, nor do you want the pilot of your transcontinental flight to choose his own route through the sky.  But if our organizations are going to become more adaptable and innovative, as they must, we need leaders who are unafraid to challenge the assumption that alienation is the inevitable price of efficiency. 

When it comes to spurring social change, the most influential voices are often those that speak from within the system.  That was true of John Newton, the English slave trader who became an Anglican priest.  Newton’s depiction of the brutal realities of slavery in his 1788 pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, deeply influenced the young parliamentarian, William Wilberforce, who went on to lead a successful effort to eradicate slavery across the British Empire. 

Bureaucracy won’t start to crumble until prominent public and private sector leaders acknowledge the fact that bureaucracy’s waste of human potential is indefensible.  Luckily, some executives are speaking out.

During his highly successful tenure as CEO of HCL Technologies, one of India’s largest IT vendors, Vineet Nayar publicly dedicated himself to “inverting the pyramid.” Among other things, this effort spawned a platform where employees could post online reviews of the company’s leaders and a “ticketing system” that gave employees the ability to call out imperious or incompetent staffers.  While no Savonarola, Vineet wasn’t afraid to poke the hornet’s nest.  A typical provocation: “We need to destroy the concept of the CEO.  The notion of the ‘captain of the ship’ is bankrupt.  We are trying to tell employees you are more important than your manager.” 

An equally bold but less trenchant voice has been that of Jim Whitehurst, former COO of Delta Airlines and now CEO of the enterprise software company, Red Hat. In his 2015 book, The Open Organization, Whitehurst made a passionate plea for organizations built around community rather than hierarchy, and for a shift from careers based on   hierarchical advancement to ones based on achievement and peer recognition.  

And then there’s Zhang Ruimin, chairman of the globe-spanning appliance maker, Haier, who’s working to transform his company from a hierarchy to a “platform.” Says Ruimin, “… we encourage employees to become entrepreneurs because people are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves. Our goal is to let everyone become their own CEO … to help everyone fully realize their potential.”  To this end, Haier has divided itself into nearly four thousand “micro-enterprises” run by small, entrepreneurial teams.  We don’t know many CEOs whose organizational vision rests on Immanuel Kant’s assertion that human beings should never be regarded as mere instruments, but it’s not a bad starting point for anyone committed to build a post-bureaucratic future.

These aren’t the only voices calling for a management reformation, but more are needed.  Just as moral indifference is catching, so too is moral courage.  Brave souls create a path for those who are similarly principled but perhaps less daring.

A couple of questions for you, then:

  1. In your view, why aren’t more people appropriate indignant about the economic and human costs of excess bureaucracy?
  2. Can you think of any practical ways of creating positive discontent within your organization around the costs of bureaucratic drag?

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charles-rorive's picture

1. I Believe that more people aren't indignant about the economic and human costs of excess bureaucracy because they do not know better. Bureaucracy in organizations, both governmental and private sector, have been around for over 100 years in the formats in which they now exist. People, from entry level positions to top management have been conditioned that the existing hierarchies are the best and most secure ways to proceed; they are the tried and true; they return the best returns on your investments and maximize profits... Yet, they fail to see that those same "qualities" they are so proud of will also lead to their organization's eventual downfall because of their lack of adaptability.
2. Creating positive discontent around the costs of bureaucratic drag is something that needs to start at the middle or top of an organization. If the lower rank and file were to start expressing discontent without the backing of their supervisors, they will most likely be replaced. This is not something that most individuals are willing to risk in these hard and uncertain economic times. Now if the organization was to ask for feedback on how it might improve itself.....

jim-mcgriff-jr's picture

1. In your view, why aren’t more people appropriate indignant about the economic and human costs of excess bureaucracy?

It because it a “silent killer” most companies are not aware of it until the company is too far gone. When management starts trimming the bureaucracy, employees get upset. Some are asked to leave the company and others have to produce more. As you state it takes great courage for a manager to attack this killer. Easier to ignore the issue.

2. Can you think of any practical ways of creating positive discontent within your organization around the costs of bureaucratic drag?

It begins with the first line manger they must express the excess burdens on their employees that interfere with customer service or cost. Wow, does this take courage. The top heavy bureaucracy pushes always downward. This means that the bottom of the organization has to be given permission to rebel against intrusions that do not create value.