The Rise and Fall of the Bureaucratic Empire – Part II

In Part I of The Rise and Fall of the Bureaucratic Empire I explored where Bureaucracy came from, how it’s been applied to corporations, and why it’s having issues – if you haven’t read it yet, it’s a good idea to look through it first!

Now in Part II, I want to explore some examples of why moving away from Bureaucracy can work, alternatives such as Entrepreneurship, and how we can begin moving over and scaling.

Remember, as ever – this is exploratory, but it is being done by consultants and self-awakening organisations, and it’s being done successfully.

The hinderance of Bureaucracy – and an answer

A great example of how bureaucracy can be problematic has been shown time and again with road rules; certainly in the UK we have very rigid, strictly set road laws for driving and parking, and adults driving 1.5+-ton death-machines break them regularly despite in most cases knowing better.

Research has shown that road laws and regulations make roads safer and more efficient – up to a point.

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Research has also shown that too many of them make roads less safe and efficient. If you overconstrain, people will fall back on reliance and operating in a less accountable fashion. I see far more dangerous speeding and aggressive, entitled driving in the strictly regulated UK than I do in, say, the Philippines (which can also be dangerous, don’t get me wrong!).

Greater car safety and performance than ever lulls us into driving closer to our limits, negating those advances (we drive closer, faster, with less attention); road rules for everything remove accountability, allowing us to simply follow them without consideration (and at the same time, game the system); and expectation, convenience, and a combination of luxury and status induce entitlement and an attitude where we only care about ourselves (where we deserve more than other road users).

It doesn’t help that warning signs or markings in the UK require a KSI (Killed/Serious Injury) before they are put up, rather than common sense; if there are warning signs outside a school, it means a child has likely been harmed by traffic there. My local council saw evidence that cars regularly sped down my old road at up to 50mph through houses with children as a shortcut, but could not put up preventative measures unless someone was badly hurt first.

This is the insanity of heavy bureaucracy – requiring real justification rather than pre-empting issues in a human fashion. But it gets worse – in some areas, speed cameras are quite openly not being used for accident prevention, but revenue generation, meaning people game the system instead of focusing on safety of others. A cyclist in the UK who wears a helmet is less likely to suffer head trauma in an accident – but more likely to be in a bad accident because cars assume they are safer and pass much closer and more dangerously compared to a cyclist not wearing a helmet. Mental patterns and accountability, again.

So how did we become over-constrained? Well, bureaucracy creeps. Perhaps one person crashed somewhere, so a rule was introduced to account for preventing this again. This rule then spreads, often from other harm; and you reach the point where the existence of the rule perhaps causes more problems than the lack of any, but by this point the rules are an institution rather than applied within context and reason.

What’s really interesting is when you remove most road laws and introduce uncertainty, forcing accountability again. Cameras used for costly fines don’t reduce speed overall; but removing road markings cuts speed by an average of 13%, because drivers are less certain and more careful:

Behind this demarking lies the concept of “shared space” and “naked streets”, developed in the 1990s by the late Dutch engineer, Hans Monderman. He held that traffic was safest when road users were “self-policing” and streets were cleared of controlling clutter. His innovations, now adopted in some 400 towns across Europe, have led to dramatic falls in accidents. Yet for some reason Monderman’s ideas remain starkly uninfluential in the world of “big” health and safety, especially in Britain.

Monderman’s principle is that freedom to assess risk for ourselves is what makes us safer. Rules, controls, signs, traffic lights all reduce our awareness of our surroundings and thus our sense of danger. On roads, he said: “When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed … and take greater care.”

This has also been seen in towns where all road markings and rules were removed. Traffic self regulated to drive safely and efficiently because suddenly blame and certainty of risk were fuzzier. This isn’t conjecture; it’s been tested.

By lessening the bureaucracy and making all drivers invested in safety and driving accountability, in other words making the roads more of an ecosystem, the efficiency and safety rises – exactly what bureaucracy wanted to achieve, and worsened. You’ll still get the occasional accident, but it’s not everyone gaming the system (note: this may not apply for people parking discourteously, but then correct punitive action and processes help here).

These are clear but consistent examples of how bureaucracy inhibits humanity in just one area. A certain amount of hierarchy may be important; but too much, and the system is exploited or ignored, and ends up acting against itself, and we remove accountability and form reliance. When we treat adults wholesale like children, they will act as such. Invest them and treat them as adults… and they will act as such.

Against all we’ve been taught, less bureaucracy doesn’t automatically equal anarchy, and that’s an important thing to understand. We automatically create systems and order our worlds; that’s what humans do.

Ecosystems

Ecosystems are constantly adaptive, learning, and reactive, so why do humans form bureaucracies? Well, I think part of the answer is the comfort zone, and laziness. Once we set up a structure to do things for us, it’s comfortable and we can focus on other things, or don’t have to expend so much energy. But as discussed before, this often ends up problematic when the structure itself begins to take precedence.

Ecosystems require a little more effort, or rather investment, because everything within an ecosystem affects everything else; but the overall effort is less because all agents quickly align to deliver value, so there’s much less friction, whereas bureaucracy is… well. It becomes a grind, and we often forget the majority of us are the grain. And I believe we are individuals gain far more personal achievement, worth and value of our own from working within an ecosystem.

If Bureaucracy is focused on power, authority, and control, an Ecosystem approach is focused more on delivery of the value within the system. That value is the product, but also the people that make the company, the ecosystem itself. I refer back to my friend and colleague Liz Keogh, a talented consultant who does a great talk on how Value Streams are made of People.

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In Cynefin terms an Ecosystem is complex and doesn’t try to order complexity. The structure is emergent, what works, not categorised, what is forced;an ecosystem develops according to feedback, not initial dictation.

In Part I, we saw this:

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So, if we moved to an Ecosystem, how would this work?

We don’t NEED to be sets of fish in different tiers of down-linked aquariums, where a single fouled pipe can cause problems down the line, and as we’ve seen, this actually creates more inefficiencies.

But put us all in a lake, and we develop a functioning ecosystem; the big fish still take up more space and dictate the culture and balance, because ecosystems conform to apex predators within the system.

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If all fish are invested in the operation of the fishbowl, the success of all fish benefits all fish… and the whale!

This is a critical concept to understand – you can move out of a structure which focuses on power, authority and control so much that ego, policy, power struggles, and dehumanisation (amongst a horde of other issues) actually make business incredibly less efficient… and still retain decision-making ability, structure, and gravitas.

An ecosystem isn’t chaos. There’s still hierarchy, but it is reactive, fluid, contextual, invested, and now it has enabling constraints, not rigid constraints. Ecosystems also self-regulate to some degree, and that’s something that (hypothetically at least) adult humans working together can do. For an example, I refer you back to the “towns with road rules removed” above.

Entrepreneurship – the reactive structure

When we speak of Entrepreneurship in business, we are usually speaking of two types: Institutional, and now Millennial (there are also many other sub-cultural and social types). Both of them have a number of perceived qualities; innovation of new ideas and business processes, strong leadership, people management skills and team building abilities are considered essential. These are obviously not limited to startups and small companies – but are perhaps more common there.

Institutional Entrepreneurs are defined as collective and collaborative. Edith Penrose says that “in modern organizations, human resources need to be combined to better capture and create business opportunities.” Paul DiMaggio furthered this view, saying “new institutions arise when organized actors with sufficient resources see in them an opportunity to realize interests that they value highly”.

An entrepreneur is willing to take risks in the name of an idea, even putting financial aspects on the line and spending time as well as capital on what may seem uncertain ventures – but often they will judge the risk to be less than other people might because they have vision and drive, and often operate outside the Comfort Zone in the Optimal Performance Zone. They are adaptive and reactive enough to often mitigate a lot of the risks should they arise.

Millennial Entrepreneurs further change this by adding more qualities; far greater acceptance and knowledge of new technology, new business models, and a strong grasp of the business applications of digital media. They have less work/life identity split. They also face greater challenges – less of their generation are self-employed, but with higher expectations from employers, and the current economy, higher education debt and several other factors means that those who choose to be entrepreneurs are focused, driven and very aware of the new marketplace.

I usually find more initial accessibility to coaching and mentoring an Entrepreneurial mindset, because it tends to want to learn and grow and achieve a vision, not stay comfortable. There’s also a greater ability to take risks, more flexibility to change what doesn’t work, and less ego if something isn’t known or is required.

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To be a successful entrepreneur requires creativity, accurate decision-making, and conceptualisation. Innovation is easier and quicker; adaptation and exaptation are easily committed to. Reaction times are quicker. Networking and system building is a true skill. The company has fast, direct and clear communication lines. Information is accurate. People are often quite invested, and there’s little or no gaming, sycophantism or cynicism because these can’t be hidden easily when everyone is involved.

It’s very difficult to simply switch from a massively ingrained, traditional approach like Bureaucracy straight into an Ecosystem, but Entrepreneurship has elements of both that could be considered as interim (or indeed endpoint). It requires a different skillset to Bureacracy, which is often satirised by boring, methodical, rubber-stamp obsessed faceless automatons. In contrast, an Entrepreneur is often seen a energetic, dynamic, interesting, world-changing, and eager.

There’s a reason personal, likeable people often build companies and remain entrepreneurs, even if they take this into corporate sized companies; you get the odd sour apple who still thinks like a bureaucrat (usually through ego and a false equivalence of years=better entrepreneur), but by and large these are people people, and they have a vision they need to enact.

That is traditionally seen as a problem as a company grows and “matures”; people automatically believe that the company must then transition to become more “serious”, gain “corporate culture” as if it’s a requirement to be taken seriously. I’ve seen it happen over and over, and often think… why did you lose what you had!? But it is possible to still retain the culture of entrepreneurship. I’ve seen entrepreneur-style leaders take over SMB/SME or even large parts of large corporations and still have this culture, and be very effective.

So is an entrepreneurial mindset the best balance between pure ecosystem and bureaucracy, with just enough of the latter to appeal to everyone? It’s got some hierarchy, but a lot of the benefits of an ecosystem, and it’s very focused on human culture and delivery of value.

It’s certainly worth considering, and far easier to transition into from rigid structures.

Transitioning and Scaling Entrepreneurialism and Ecosystems

This also means from Shareholder to Stakeholder, because rigid hierarchy typically prevents and even discourages internal stakeholdership, and marginalises valuable outlier stakeholders. As mentioned by the Roundtable referred to in Part I… for a long time, the only matter of consequence has been shareholder profit at the expense of all else.

That has now changed, but flipping from corporate culture in one go is just not possible in a large company. Instead, you have (at least) two important things that need changing to begin with:

  • Culture – how things are perceived. This is set partially by interactions between people, but primarily by the actions and inactions of leadership. Some of these are informal, “unwritten rules”, or as Dave Snowden calls them, Dark Constraints. If you want to change Culture, this needs to be from the TOP DOWN, and is holistic. You change it all for everyone, or none of it.
  • Processes – how things are done. You can change units or departments at a time, because they essentially are small ecosystems of their own – they have their own intra-company culture, methodologies, and requirements. Much of this starts with the people and the mindset, and using enough policy for direction but not enough to stifle innovation, delivery, and investment. The focus should always remain the results not the methods (within reasonable bounds).
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So it is possible to scale a change through even a large company, but it requires a very interesting motion where you change from the top and the bottom simultaneously – two waves that cross through each other, if you like!

Google

Obviously scaling an ecosystemic, entrepreneurial approach is possible – at least in part. Google is, again, a classic example. A huge company that has hierarchies, it nevertheless ensures that its employees are invested where possible, given their own time, judged on outcome vs output (for example, results vs hours), and as far as I know still holds regular meetings for employees to highlight where it is becoming too bureaucratic so the issues can be resolved.

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Part of this successful structure is the fact the founder was never indoctrinated into believing bureaucracy was required, or the only way. Larry Page’s life has apparently been hugely influenced by four factors, according to interviews; his grandfather’s history struggling in the early labour movement, his education, his admiration for Nikola Tesla who was a hero (and is one of my most-admired as well, as it goes), and his own participation in the leadership institute at the Engineering School of the University of Michigan.

He has further said that the hardships of his grandfather’s story encouraged him to make Google a totally different kind of workplace – “one that, instead of crushing the dreams of workers, encouraged their pursuit”.

If you look at the Big 4(/5) in tech at the moment (Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and somewhat Microsoft), as well as past giants like IBM, or even smaller multinationals like Computacenter (who are still big!), you will mostly see huge trappings of Bureaucracy. This is interesting in Microsoft given the founding of some lean/agile principles there, but remember hierarchy usually wins over time! Apple still retains some of its entrepreneurship in some ways but it’s lost reactivity and innovation; Google is the most entrepreneurial of them all.

So it IS possible to do, to a point! I think as size increases it is inevitable you will need some strong hierarchical structures to support the facilitation, delivery and decision-making, but at the same time, if you can view units as are ecosystems in themselves, and the company as an ecosphere – an organism, perhaps – made of systems composed of invested people, you gain a better understanding of how it can work together. All areas of the company affect all others; traditional company management tends to view company structure as more modular, and is definitely not always as grounded in reality.

And that’s another key – decision-makers need to ensure they have time enough to decide well, using disintermediation for accuracy and grounding themselves by listening to everyone within and without, outliers included. There is a balance point between leadership needing to focus on decisions and not having time for irrelevance, and considering your time too important to spend long on it. Much of this comes down to trust, accuracy, and grounding in reality – something entrepreneurs are far, far better at than bureaucrats in my experience.

As I always, always say: there isn’t a templated, simple answer. It’s going to be highly complex and contextual. Each company, bluntly, will have to find its own way if it’s going to work. But that doesn’t mean people can’t advise and help guide that understanding and discovery. Again, that’s what I’m there for – to help a company sustainably understand this for themselves.

In fact, this is why I work holistically using multiple, contextual frameworks; this is like trying to untangle a huge knot, and pulling one part invariably affects another.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of what could lie beyond bureaucracy. If you need to talk more, or discuss engagements, DM or call – that’s what I’m there for.

But one thing is evident: like it or not, in the current market, with the current workforce and consumer set made from a new generation, and with 4IR so prominent in the next leap forward… Bureaucracy as we know it isn’t just struggling, it’s a dead-end beginning to grind to a slow halt under its own friction in many industries. It’s time to explore new emergent avenues of better business.

Let’s get Involved.

The Rise and Fall of the Bureaucratic Empire – Part I

What is the bottom line for your organisation? The main objectives as a CEO, Director, or other Executive?

Profit? Short term results? Growth? Long term survivability? Shareholder value?

Or is it no longer only one or many of these – as reported recently from the Business Roundtable, a group of ~200 CEOs from US firms – but now a move towards a more holistic, human and value-delivery approach? I’ve seen a number of posts on this recently, and I’ll delve into it more in future, but I wanted to look at this in terms of the transition from a longstanding tradition – and one I’ve worked to facilitate for a while.

The Harvard Business Review writes that this report “explicitly counters the view held for decades that the sole focus of a corporation and its CEO is to maximize profits. Corporations are, according to the new statement, accountable to five constituencies, of which shareholders are only one. Customers, employees, suppliers, and communities are the others.”

That is an incredible statement – and one which is both very welcome and inline with today’s growing expectations. No longer is one group profiting at the expense of the other four; now they are all stakeholders, and that’s an important perspective. But this is directly opposed to the original ideals of bureaucracy, which focuses on efficiency and benefit in only one area – and it still needs some work.

In this article I will explore business bureaucracy’s rise, its challenges, and how it’s failing; in a second article, I’ll look at what lies beyond and how we can not only move forward, but benefit hugely doing so.

As ever – this has a lot to it, but is by no means completely comprehensive. It’s an ancient and complex subject centuries in the construction.

The Challenges Bureaucracy Faces

There is an onus on leadership more than ever before – the market change has accelerated to the point most companies can’t keep up, a new generation is becoming the majority of both workforce and customer, markets are super-saturated with companies clamouring for differentiation; sustainable innovation and disruption have taken a notable dive in recent years, people are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with being a component and taken advantage of. Traditional management models are failing both companies and employees. Individualism is being re-realised. People are demanding change and making their demands known across social media and business. A large number of organisations are stuck in the Cycle of Woe, some refusing to even admit there is a problem, and many entire industries are struggling (areas of tech, retail, banking and many more).

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In The Decisive Patterns of Business I explore some reasons Leadership is facing so many challenges and what they can do to be mindful of mitigating them – so there are all the mental patterns, time limitations, and increases in complexity in business to factor in as well. I also suggest 3 ways you can immediately enhance leadership and a way you can make more accurate leadership decisions. All of these things (and much more) are intricately interlinked; this isn’t an easy puzzle to solve for business, nor is it one you can do from within the frame of reference.

All this is just the start, and I’m sure any Executives/Directors reading this can agree and/or add to many of these issues.

So – how do we fix it?

Many of my articles speak about the 4th Industrial Revolution (and we could be in the 6th depending on your definitions), the challenges faced, the implementation of fads, the adherence to older and ineffective models of management (process engineering, systems thinking) past where they are suitable, finding coherency in complex situations, and much more.

You can, for the purposes of this article, boil things down to this: we need to find ways to make organisations deliver better value, get better return and be leaner, act in a more (contextually) Agile fashion where appropriate, divine where they really are as a system in each situation and react appropriately; not just demand or rely on one buzzword framework but use multiple frameworks in context; and rediscover the humanity of the people who are our value and assets both. We need to move to being inspirational leaders, not instructional bosses, because the acceptance and effectiveof the latter is fading. We need to realise the power of making everyone a stakeholder for the business to achieve its full success potential naturally – to reinvest in culture and success being mutually beneficial.

Traditionally, bureaucracy requires a rigid hierarchy adhered to as below, in descending order of size (or perceived importance) and a downward flow of strategic information/instruction. If a pipe is fouled or blocked, problems occur (and they block easily!).

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(Note the outlier/maverick/heretic on the bottom right!)

Ok, give me one easy step that can enable all the above!

Those familiar with my work will know by now there is no “easy recipe” for success – it’s ALWAYS contextual. But that said, there is one thing we can do to begin exploring the facilitation of the above:

We can re-evaluate the bureaucratic approach and the strict hierarchies within it, and begin the move to a more entrepreneurial approach via ecology.

I’ve been told before that this is quite radical, and I guess it is, but that doesn’t make it less advantageous. The fear of change, and the focus on “doing things this way because they always have been” are both powerful suppressants to changing for the better.

This is meta-innovation, if you like – the ability to innovate abstract structures, not just to conceive a new product – and this type of innovation is arguably more critical to long-term survivability for a company.

Why does this solution make some C-suite executives uncomfortable?

The ecosystem approach is often perceived as a lessening of power, of decision-making, but of course that isn’t the case. Look at a company such as Google, which aims to reduce bureaucracy where it can and invests in investment; Google is considered powerful and fairly effective in terms of business.

I recently had a professional tell me that bureaucracy must exist because that’s the only way you access leadership as a consultant – but to me, that bespeaks an avoidance of a necessary paradigm shift, instead working within a closed loop that will continue to shrink. Hierarchies don’t need to be a totally rigid structure for people to function – in fact, the opposite has been proven true, and long-term, rigidity is problematic for stakeholders.

It’s also worth noting that hierarchy doesn’t require bureaucracy. Hierarchies can also self-regulate or define their own structures based on composition. For example, a professional team of people know their places, have individual investment, and deliver as optimally as possible; this doesn’t have to be directed to the nth degree. Ecosystems take this further, and automatically regulate themselves around the decision makers – or apex predators – within them. In both these examples, over-constraint affects the whole system negatively.

In Part II, I’ll give a great daily, ingrained example of how ecosystem is more effective than bureaucracy, and I’ll expand on the aquarium analogy, but for now let’s focus on what a bureaucracy really is.

Defining Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy as a concept is ancient, because at its core it is rigidly hierarchical. Wherever humans wished to control other humans via systems, it existed; religiously, politically, profitably, sometimes all three at once. Via policy and tradition, it was (and still is) established.

It isn’t just hierarchy; hierarchy is a complex and fluid structure within a system dependent on any number of contextual ideas. Bureaucracy is a further constraint via human management; “any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules” is more or less the current definition.

The German sociologist Max Weber argued that “bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which human activity can be organized and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies are necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency, and eliminate favoritism.”

This was seen as a logical end result of administering a hierarchy, but it leaves out the question of what, or whom, the hierarchy is benefiting.

However, Weber apparently also rightly saw unfettered bureaucracy as “a threat to individual freedom, with the potential of trapping individuals in an impersonal “iron cage” of rule-based, rational control.”, something we’re now seeing as a widespread mindset of decades.

Humans naturally polarise and go to extremes, especially if comfort can be attained doing so. We form mental patterns and follow traditions once established because it’s simply always worked like that. Changing those traditions requires usually then requires either chance, or a vast upheaval.

The Rise of Bureaucracy in Business

What we now usually mean by the word Bureaucracy is Corporate Culture, in business at least (and in modern times, politics and religion have both taken on many of the trappings of business, especially in a world driven by neoliberal ideals of profit), and it goes back a couple of hundred years to the foundations of Taylorism, which has had enormous impact on modern business mindset. I talk about Taylorism a lot in my work, so this matrix should be familiar:

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Knowledge Management Matrix

Frederick Taylor is often called “The Father Of Management Science”. He was a mechanical engineer who essentially created the idea of Process Engineering – the reduction of workers to a dehumanised component level. The idea was that by removing the unreliable and perceived lazy human aspect, you made a process more efficient – something we can also achieve today with automation, but which was not available then.

Somi Arianwrote a great article on this recently here, so I don’t want to rehash it – go and check it out, it’s got great information (and she does some amazing work on AI and Millennial Culture so check that out too).

Process Engineering still requires human skill and judgement, so it wasn’t totallydehumanised. What is interesting is what happened when Systems Thinking was created in 1956 by MIT Professor Jay Forrester. It was originally designed as a way to improve the understanding of more complex systems by looking at how the agents within interacted as a whole, and was a largely social construct at first, but it quickly became an effective way to explain the aspects of business Process Engineering couldn’t define and broaden management science in general. However, Systems Thinking removes all human judgement, and it operates on prediction and outcome based measures, very often (in business at least) heavily relying on a perfect goal and forecasting – neither of which necessarily reflect reality.

The other problem with predicting humans in business structures is that companies invariably then require those humans to follow these predictions. This, as you may be aware, is neither how predictions nor humans actually work!

A Delicate Balance

So now we have what makes up the majority of the Modern Management approach in the corporate culture of bureaucracy – a sliding scale between these two systems. One is rule-based, one is heuristic-based; one removes human variance and demands constant full output, one removes human judgement and metricises for prediction. Henry Mintzberg’s 10 schools of Strategy lie between these, 3 in the former and 7 in the latter (read The Red Pill of Management Science for more information on this!).

A problem here is that bureaucracy has mostly slipped into the worst parts of each over time. The dehumanisation, the over-constraint, the metricisation, the pure focus on outcome-based measures, all whilst preserving strict hierarchy and trying to also marry up a somewhat schizophrenic wish to care for employees and give them a voice – it’s akin to mixing water and oil when you then add real people, who operate on systemic, social, and individual complexity.

Something has to give somewhere, and the hierarchy inevitably wins. When you add into that the perceived threat of automation, and the conditioning over 200 years of people to believe they should be paid for hours, should take pride in their skills and focus only on those, and should give their all to the company, then combine it with the drastic shift in recent years of generational mindset, market orthodoxy trophic cascades, the downward dive of innovation across industries and the awakening of individuality, we find that the system isn’t fit for purpose any more – and it never really was, it just worked well enough at the time.

The world has moved on. The multiply-complex new age of business doesn’t work like a steel mill 200 years ago. It’s time we acknowledged this, and considered alternatives.

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The Problems We’ve Been Ignoring

So many companies are struggling and mired in red tape and politics it’s obvious the system has become more important than the result, despite the desired outcome being profit. Even the Business Roundtable report, encouraging though it is, is going to have to also address the fact that business has been set for decades to work on short-term profit mindset for C-suite to fulfill, and that’s been the aim of bureaucratic corporate culture for so long now it’s “tradition”.

Bureaucracy can have its place, just as ideals born from hierarchy and strict process such as Waterfall are still applicable in certain instances. But it’s been globally applied out of context and in general for decades. In the vastly more complex landscape today, it’s failing us all, both individually and organisationally.

Think of the recessions, the rise in suicides reported in the last 100 years from work pressure globally; the gaming behaviour, sycophantism, cynicism that we now take for granted; the exponential increase of burnout, the sheer inefficiencies where we expect not to get results because of the hierarchyEven those thriving off bureaucracy use the word as an epithet for not getting anything done! How many startups fail to cross the chasm or grow past an initial point of entrepreneurship? How many companies emulate a phoenix, growing, purging, growing, purging? How many both feel trapped by and acceptance of forever living in the Cycle of Woe?

No wonder the next natural steps are political maneuvering, empire building, selfish personal ambition, gaming the structure for personal gain, cynicism, sycophantism, and a type of Cobra Effect – where the new language and the appearance of following a certain message are used, but it’s only a veneer allowing both continued operation of individual ambition, and micromanagement where a boss spends so much time insuring their authority is maintained very often they are not adequately doing their own role. These go hand-in-hand with harassment, isolation, divide-and- conquer island-creation, all to maintain often tenuous control for just long enough to deliver short-term profit at the expense of long-term reputation and survivability.

The extreme ends up being a company that is locked rigid in over-constraint, zero humanity, checkboxing, and demotivation in an excessively toxic culture. Nothing gets done properly, but at least it doesn’t get done properly in triplicate and everyone’s arse is covered. I’ve both worked with and worked for companies like this; they exist.

This is not delivering the maximum value that a company can deliver. It is not efficient, or healthy for individuals. This is what I work to change.

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Bureaucracy across Business is a Dead End

Or to be more blunt, it’s dying as a fix-all concept, and taking a lot of profit, individuals, and organisations with it in its death throes.

But it doesn’t have to. We’ve known for decades that strict adherence to hierarchies is damaging to people as well as inefficient. And what’s interesting to me now is that emerging powerhouses like India and other areas of Asia are transitioning far more rapidly from a very heavily Process Engineering outlook to being extremely aware of this new methodology than the West, where bureaucratic corporate culture largely originated. I’m seeing more interest in my skillset from executives there than I am in the West at the moment, and when it changes, it’s going to be a huge and sudden ripple effect, I think. The hidebound West stands a good chance of being left behind in efficiency, ethics, and value delivery overall.

The emphasis is on delivering value, and it always has been; only the meaning has changed here. “Value” for decades meant shareholder profit. Now “value” means stakeholder satisfaction, not just in terms of profit, but also ethics, sustainability, work/life balance, end product quality, as well as other contextual elements.

Bureaucracy falls readily into the trap of general application, and is very hard to balance effectively. This is why it has finally begun to be phased out in many areas of business, to allow more reactive, delivery-focused, long-term, human and sustainable structures to grow and drive business and return to true innovation. Agile, entrepreneurship, ecosystems, human individuality – all have their place in this transition.

The market no longer supports a sprawling bureaucracy. The trouble is, bureaucracies and their keepers are so slow to react they don’t yet realise this, if indeed they even recognise the signs of trouble at all. That in itself is reason enough to explore different avenues of management and business, and when you add the desperate need of humans to again be human, and indeed to be able to work at environmental, ethical, social, and other concerns traditionally exploited by corporate culture, the need of change is desperate.

We’re past weak signal detection by this point; we’ve reached change-or-die territory for many bureaucratically-structured companies, and most of them can’t even see it because they’re in it.

That’s why you hire people like me!

What is to come

So this article explored Bureaucracies a little. In the second part, we’ll look at why ecosystems are better, some examples and other structures, and how we can begin moving over.

If you’re a C-level or director looking to facilitate this change – DM me! We’re at a point where we need to have conversations around this.

What are your thoughts on bureaucracy? What have you seen or experienced? Where do you think we need to go?

The Trouble With Coaching In Wonderland

We’ve all been Alice – especially if you are, like me, a coach, advisor, or mentor.

We work very hard striving to develop methods, platforms, frameworks, theories, and practices that provably enhance the lives of businesses and individuals. Many of us live in and amongst them – but like any area of expertise, this can actually make us prone to mental patterns and inattentional blindness.

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We give others very good advice, but we don’t always follow it… even when we know better! Sometimes, we work so hard we forget to apply it to ourselves. This can be because we’ve run out of processing space, are too focused, or just plain forget.

Analogue beings in a Digital Age

However much we love the idea of everything digital, the simple fact is that humans themselves are analogue. We aren’t on or off. We’re a sine wave of efficacy, and move through it day to day. The way we operate requires constant refinement. The way we learn is analogue, too (there are some articles forthcoming on elements of this).

Part of being human is the fact we are human, and not perfect. It’s what can spark such innovation and repurposing. I am trained in working out as well, but will find that sometimes I don’t keep strict form, or I don’t focus where I should where I pick up on it quickly in people I’m training. I eat bad food, or I fail where I should know better. I don’t always warm up my voice for events, despite being a singer and knowing better. I don’t always find mindfulness before events, even though I know better! I don’t always apply frameworks to what I’m doing where I should. I talk about looking for new opportunities and serendipty for learning every day, and I follow it… most of the time. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I don’t. I try to more often than not.

Inner focus is always much harder than focusing on others! Because we’re always looking outwards from the inside. The difference is, experience can mitigate this quickly.

As a coach, an advisor, a mentor, it’s critical to practice what you preach. But it’s just as important to remember we don’t do everything perfectly. No one operates at 100%, 100% of the time. No one is a machine that downloads something and then does it perfectly ever after.

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Tempting though this is, it means we focus on the end point, not the journey.

It’s really about incorporating knowledge and refining and using it more consistently over time. True progress is measured in evolution, not plateaus of static achievement.

Learning to apply it when it matters is more important than being perfect and applying it 100% of the time, because the second is not realistic. Don’t focus on unrealistic goals.

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Be Kind

Be as kind to yourself as you are to others, especially if you are a coach, because you’re prone to overworking – voice, mind, body. This is part of self-care, and of acceptance. Of exposing vulnerabilities. Of using mistakes to become even better at what you offer others.

There is a huge shift now in businesses and people preferring to see us as human, too, because when that happens, when they see these vulnerabilities, it makes us more likeable, approachable, and gives better interpersonal connections. We are our brand now, in this modern, fast shifting, latter-millennial generational market; we’re more than a service, we’re a package. That includes the imperfections which make us human, help us learn, and make us approachable.

Part of re-realising humanity in business, bringing the human back into HR, is not only celebrating and benefiting from individual strengths in a collaborative ecosystem, but recognising that we are, well… only human.

When that happens… don’t be Alice. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

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