Magazine

Rigid Bureaucracy: Breaking Out of the Box


Anyone who has worked in the corporate world, held a government job—or lived in Europe—knows well how bureaucracy can drive even those of sound mind to distraction. All too often it stifles good ideas, slows progress, and frustrates employees.

Our readers know this, too. They ranked "Negotiating a Stultifying Bureaucracy" third among their most pressing workplace problems. "You can't even get a light bulb changed without putting in a work order," says Wayde Alford, a cost estimator at a major defense contractor near Jacksonville, Fla. Alford says he cuts through red tape by cozying up to colleagues and requesting favors. Otherwise, a task as simple as changing that bulb can take two months to accomplish. Maybe it's not that bad in your organization. But just in case, here's a sampling of suggestions readers have for bureaucracy-busting:

Bill Fox, managing partner, VanguardComm, New Brunswick, N.J.

It's been said that successful corporate survivors are "system beaters." Just like in judo, where you use your opponent's momentum against them, in bureaucracies if you learn the system you can use it against the bureaucrats. For example, very often bureaucratic requirements are more about form than substance. So as long as you fill out the proper paperwork, dot the i's, and cross the t's, you can get what you want approved; your request complied with the bureaucrats' system and that's their primary concern.

Arthur "Buck" Nimz, certified Defense Dept. enterprise architect and principal research specialist, MS2, Lockheed Martin, Moorestown, N.J.

Foster an environment of innovation that reaches out beyond your org chart and tries to capture the intellectual diversity of others in your company who have different perspectives on the business and the market. Legendary GE (GE) CEO Jack Welch called this "boundaryless thinking," which is a mindset that transcends bureaucracy and creates a behavioral culture of innovation.

Marshall Potts, managing director, Jasper International, Nottingham, England

Bureaucracies don't tolerate deviation from set ways of doing things. In an increasingly competitive world, this inflexibility is a major stumbling block. One way leaders could address this is to find someone to explain to their organization's senior team what sustains the bureaucracy, what it costs them, what the competition is doing differently, and finally, the impact of resisting change.

John Sheeran, Bateau Bay, Australia

Keep a very low hierarchy and give all levels of staff a vested interest in the success of the company.... Also, keep the family of staff involved.

Chris Bylander, CEO, International American Group, St. Louis and Stockholm

We delegate responsibility whenever possible. Employees, no matter what rank, come to understand "bureaucracy" as something else—namely corporate governance—when they voluntarily interact with it on a get-the-job-done basis.

Daniel S. Mulhall, educational consultant, Laurel, Md.

The challenge is to control and manage bureaucracy so that it serves the corporate body, not controls it. Bureaucracy itself should be reviewed and evaluated on a regular basis so that harmful pieces are rejected and helpful pieces kept and reinforced.

George Peterson, vice-president for international relations, SolBridge International School of Business, Daejeon, South Korea

Work to eliminate bureaucracy: Make a nonbureaucratic environment part of the corporate policy statement; have an efficient process to get input from employees on bureaucracy problem areas; eliminate the problems identified.

Brian Behler, Lomita, Calif.

Transparency with regular communication is the only solution. There are huge differences in the amount of bureaucracy at various companies today. A supervisor who doesn't engage and communicate will lose his best and brightest to a more nimble company.

Cecil Sunder, Level 3 Communications, Broomfield, Colo.

Map processes and executives will soon realize where the bottlenecks are. Because of SarbOx and other mandates it is a necessary evil to have some kind of bureaucracy, but it should not stagnate the work.

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