Bureaucracy Continues To Rise. Here's How To Bust It.

Written by in Practices
- 5 min read

Make your own decisions. It's what we do in our personal lives on a day to day basis. We take care of ourselves and we support those that are close to us. We have kids and we educate them the best we can. We do groceries, buy cars and get mortgages for our houses.

But the moment we enter the office, we are suddenly exposed to huge amount of rules, procedures, and protocols to follow. All of a sudden we are treated like toddlers.

Managing for the 3 percent

Travel expenses? Check the guidelines. Lunch time? Check the company policy. Buying a 100 dollar piece of equipment? First get approval from your manager, purchasing, and finance.

Research by Gary Hamel and Michele Zachini on bureaucracy within organizations painfully underlines the last comment. In their study, "respondents estimated that fewer than 10% of the employees in their organizations could spend $1000 without getting a sign-off from their boss". That's quite a contrast to our private lives.

It's unbelievable that we think that all this bureaucracy improves the way we do business. How can companies ever be successful if they don’t even trust their own employees to make these minor decisions?

The cost of bureaucracy

Gordon Forward, former CEO of Chaparral Steel, once famously described this as: “managing for the 3 percent. It implies that we often create rules to control the small number of nonconforming employees who might misuse their autonomy, while suppressing the innovation and creativity of the 97 percent who just want to do a good job”.

And by suppressing the 97% of employees who just want to do a good job, organizations seriously endanger their success.

The plenitude of rules and procedures are not just frustrating the employees, they also frustrate innovation, waste time, and slow organizations down. And what’s even worse, while most of these effects are known to business leaders, employees still experience that their organizations are becoming more and more bureaucratic by the day.

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Breaking the trend

So what can be done to break this trend and actually reduce bureaucracy in the workplace? Here are a few techniques used by various Bucket List companies from around the globe.

1. Start an experiment

Want to get rid of a frustrating rule? An easy way to start is to design a temporary experiment. People will more easily go along with a temporary experiment than with getting rid of a rule all at once.

Try this: find your most frustrating rule and design an experiment that shows you can do your job perfectly without it. Remember, it’s an experiment; so contain it to a limited period of time. Then, pitch your results to someone who has the authority and courage to change the rule.

We admit. It's not the most rebellious way to get rid of rules, but it's a start to improvement. Once you start the experiment, make sure you measure the impact. Once you have proof that it works, convince your superiors to abolish this particular rule completely. Then, find the next rule you want to get rid of and design a new experiment. Slowly but surely, you will reduce bureaucracy.

2. Forget the rules, welcome failure

Just getting rid of rules altogether can be a highly liberating act. As a team, department, or even as an entire organization, getting rid of rules can set a company free. It will release creativity, innovation, and initiative that is normally suppressed by bureaucracy.

Dutch municipality Hollands Kroon did so. They got rid of most of their rules when they made their move to a self-managed organization. Former Director of Operations Anja van der Horst commented: “Once you get rid of the rules and once you let employees decide how to work, mistakes will be made. The hardest part [...] is not interfering when something goes wrong. If you interfere, it will never work.“

The result of the reduction in bureaucracy? Significantly lower sick leave, and annual savings of millions of euros.

Another interesting fact: at the Dutch municipality they not only got rid of their internal rules. They also removed 70% of all local regulations for their citizens. Among others, they got rid of rules that forbade urinating in public and of rules that prescribed that citizens had to apply for certain licenses.

In the end, they removed 93 of their 132 rules. The mayor commented: "We are confident that citizens will correct each other on wrongdoing". And while some expected chaos and anarchy, none of this happened. Instead, the municipality provided its inhabitants with more space for creativity, initiative and freedom.

Another great example is Netflix, where they try to avoid rules as much as possible. Their travel policy is so simple that it only consists of 5 words: Act in Netflix’s best interest. Where in some companies you have to fill in cumbersome expense claims be approved by managers and support staff, at Netflix all responsibility lies with the employees themselves.

Their philosophy? "We also don’t have a clothing policy, but no one has come to work naked; you don’t need policies for everything."

3. Break all the rules

And, finally, if you are a true rebel who is sick and tired of frustrating rules and regulations, we have a third option for you. Ignore the rules. Bend them, break them and set yourself, your team, and your entire organization free.

Break those rules that you believe are getting in the way of initiative, common sense, and creativity or those that are simply unjust. Whether you start small or big, through corporate disobedience you can start a revolution in the way of working of your organization.

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