Bureaucracy: The Killer of Initiative

“Bureaucracy is the art of making possible impossible.” In this episode, I share my frustrating thoughts on how I see bureaucracy killing initiative within organizations. Leaders will no doubt encounter these obstacles, and it is their responsibility to rise above them and lead themselves and their teams to greater accomplishments.

Here are four examples of bureaucracy that kills initiative within any organization:

The pathway from communication to a decision is too vertical, i.e. Dante’s Inferno – Meetings are like e-mail; a necessary evil for every organization. If used correctly they can serve as force multipliers to change and progress, but oftentimes they are inefficient, unfocused, and rarely deliver the intended effect to share relevant information or make informed decisions. To make things worse, some organizations (especially military ones) force information to be passed through multiple levels of meetings in order to reach an audience that has the authority to make an actual decision. These additional levels are often seen as required checkpoints to make sure updates and information gains leadership shaping, but they also serve as filters that can dilute the original idea. This version of “Dante’s Inferno” is a form of bureaucracy that is a time and initiative killer. General Brown directed the Air Staff to have the majority of their meetings over Microsoft Teams, in an attempt to flatten communication and allow information to flow through levels much faster. Technology barriers aside, this method of “open court discord” can accelerate ideas through unnecessary bureaucratic levels. If there is a degree of trust that information shared does not necessarily equate to “approved by the boss,” ideas can be transmitted to leadership in an unfiltered manner that can really drive positive change.

Compromise and Consensus are prioritized over Decision Quality – Teamwork may make the dream work, but that doesn’t always equate to making sure everyone is comfortable with the action being taken. Military organizations aren’t built upon popularity contests or making sure everyone is comfortable with what is decided upon. You don’t wait until the entire platoon is comfortable with taking a position; the commander in charge makes the decision and everyone moves forward on command. Compromise can often slow down all progression because the entire team must wait until everyone is ok with what will happen, regardless if everyone has any equities within the decision is being made. Similarly, consensus requires a certain number of personnel to approve a course of action before anything happens. Meanwhile, the adversary may leverage our indecision timeframe and take advantage of themselves. Both of these factors are methods to delay a decision that may already have a quality answer, yet that answer is bogged down by unnecessary actions by the masses. If we empower leaders at the right levels, we don’t have to wait for a larger group of individuals (who are not as close to the issue, thus may make mistakes in judgment) to approve something that could’ve been accomplished at a lower level. Trust the leaders that are closest to the issue to make a decision and move forward.

Adding time to decisions that have already been made – This may be hard to believe, but even in the military there are times when orders or guidance are not inherently followed. I’m not talking about illegal, immoral, or unethical decisions; those should obviously not be followed. However, when clear guidance is given by leadership, some subordinate personnel will find a way to have additional discussions and come to an agreement that the decision made isn’t really the best one, so they will start to socialize that “the boss is still considering options, and we need to keep working them until he or she selects the one we want,” and the dreaded “meeting after the meeting happens.” What is happening?! Why is time being spent on going against what leadership has already decided upon? This causes second and third-order effects on subordinates to spend time rowing in a direction their leader already determined is wrong. If there are concerns about any courses of action that are being deliberated, the time to discuss them is NOW. After you share your thoughts to the best ability, leadership is now informed (unless they specifically ask for more information). Once leadership makes a decision…that’s the decision. No more wasting time on what should be done, but mindsets should be shifted to how to get this done. Don’t add more bureaucracy by adding more time to a decision that has already been made.

Hiding your accountability from the public discourse – In relation to the flaw of adding time to a decision that has already been made, if you do not own your inputs as your own, you are arguably not doing your job as a leader. In leadership circles, there is no such thing as “anonymous inputs.” Each person on the team has valuable inputs, and those inputs belong to the person who chooses to contribute. If you try to deflect an idea to someone else to avoid potential blowback, you are acting like a coward when the team at large needs you to be honest. Own your thoughts and don’t be afraid to share them. Obviously, this means you need to know what you’re talking about, but if you don’t contribute to solving the problem, you are basically negligent and allowing a problem to continue. Your contribution to bureaucracy is that you aren’t doing the one job you are supposed to be doing: leading

Too much hesitancy to show something to leadership that isn’t perfect. – “Good enough is the enemy of perfect.” I learned this early in my staff tour because we honestly didn’t have time to develop perfect solutions. We made decisions with as much information as possible, move forward, and made adjustments as necessary. Other teams could not keep up with our products because they were busy stressing about “happy to glad” details that weren’t really that important. If you and your team stay focused on the core of the problem and develop solutions against them, oftentimes leadership may forgive some of the smaller errors that happen along the way. This isn’t to say disregard attention to detail, far from that. What I’m saying is to avoid getting paralyzed by small things. Keep small things small and focus on the big things. Don’t worry about perfection; worry about doing your job and making progress.

References for this episode:

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