Some notes on Bureaucracy

In 2005, I wrote – Seth Godin’s quotable Bureaucracy = Death raises a number of issues on why preventive actions are seldom taken by bureaucratic organisations. Seth talks about the effects of bureaucracy on marketing, but it also results in inertia in healthcare, education, et al. I doubt that his idea of a Chief No Officer would be embraced by many companies or institutions.

My belief is that it is the basic nature of managerial organisations that is the prime contributor to a reactive versus a preventive mindset. Why were the levees around New Orleans not maintained? Why is there no funding for programmes such as Canada’s Participaction, but we continue to add more expensive acute care machinery to our hospitals? Why is early childhood education ignored when it is a prime contributor to healthy, contributing citizens? And finally, what can we do to change this?

My belief that bureaucracies are a key contributor to many of our societal and economic problems has not changed in six years, and I’ve picked up a few more references confirming this.

Bureaucracies can amplify psychopathic behaviour, writes David Schwartz, a psychotherapist:

Since psychopaths are usually very smart, they can be quite competent at impersonating regular human beings in positions of power. Since they don’t care how their actions affect people, they can rise to great height in enterprises dealing with power and money. They can manufacture bombs or run hospitals. Whatever the undertaking, it is all the same to them. It’s just business.

Daniel Lemire looks at bureaucracies from a computer programmer’s perspective:

Bureaucracies are subject to the halting problem. That is, when facing a new problem, it is impossible to know whether the bureaucracy will ever find a solution. Have you ever wondered when the meeting would end? It may never end.

Bureaucracies are the enemy of innovation, as they favour self-preservation over change. They are self-serving. They are preventing organizational growth and we don’t need them any longer.

Bureaucracies are (finally) outliving their usefulness, as the economy changes. Valdis Krebs wrote on Adapting Old Structures to New Challenges:

When change was slow, and the future was pretty much like the present, hierarchical organizations were perfect structures for business and government. The world is no longer predictable, nor are solutions obvious. Old structures are no longer sufficient for new complex challenges.

And bureaucracies may be in danger from social media, says Peter Evans Greenwood:

Social media – as with many of the technologies preceding it – streamlines previously manual tasks by capturing knowledge in a form where it is easily reusable, shareable and transferable. What is different this time is that social media is focused on the communication between individuals, rather than the tasks these individuals work on. By simplifying the process of staying in touch and collaborating with a large number of people it enables us to flatten our organizations even further, putting the C-suite directly in contact with the front line.

This is having the obvious effect on companies, eliminating the need for many of the bureaucrats in our organizations; people whose main role is to manage communication (or communication, command and control, C3, in military parlance).

However, some bureaucracies, like the Canadian military,  just keep plugging along, as Mark Federman notes:

On resistance to this report [LGen Leslie’s Report on Transformation].

“[At] a large meeting in December 2010 involving the generals, admirals and senior DND civil servants … it became apparent the tendency was to argue for the preservation of the status quo. … Though grimly amusing, these interactions proved that consensus has not and probably never will be achieved on any significant change.”

We need to reinvent management so that it does not include bureaucracy. Steve Denning suggests dynamic linking as a better alternative to bureaucracy:

Even the best intentions to delight clients or empower staff will be systematically subverted if the work is coordinated through hierarchical bureaucracy. Meshing the efforts of autonomous teams and a client focus while also achieving disciplined execution requires a set of measures that might be called “dynamic linking,” The method began in automotive design in Japan[1] and has been developed most fully in software development with methods known as “Agile” or “Scrum,”[2]

“Dynamic linking” means that (a) the work is done in short cycles; (b) the management sets priorities in terms of the goals of work in the cycle, based on what is known about what might delight the client; (c) decisions about how the work is to be carried out to achieve those goals are largely the responsibility of those doing the work; (d) progress is measured (to the extent possible) by direct client feedback at the end of each cycle.[3]


3 Responses to “Some notes on Bureaucracy”

  1. Vilu

    Interesting, very interesting. My THANKS for putting all that together! If possible, please drop me a line when you add to that material.
    All the best,

  2. Euan

    Spot on Harold. I used to fantasise that if you manage your business through a wiki only projects that attract enough interest would be funded and anything else would simply fall away …

    • Harold Jarche

      As transaction costs go down, the need for bureaucracies decreases. Or, as the Cluetrain stated, hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. As Gwynne Dyer wrote on the Arab Spring and on why we have controlling regimes:

      “The mass societies had many more decisions to make, and no way of making them in the old, egalitarian way. Their huge numbers made any attempt at discussing the question as equals impossible, so the only ones that survived and flourished were the ones that became brutal hierarchies. Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communications problem.


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