In This Corner, Bureaucracy…

By Guy Higgins

I just read an essay in the Aeon e-zine, We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better. I think that, aside from a couple of snarky shots at non-politicians running for office, the article is excellent (and even those snarky shots have some degree of validity). I also expect you are now asking yourself what learning to improvise better has to do with bureaucracy, so I’ll elaborate.

The essay starts off recounting a story about bureaucracy and then goes into a brief comparison of a “bureaucratic mindset” vs. a more “improvisational mindset.” The author, Professor Stephen Asma, comes down firmly on the side of learning to be better improvisers while recognizing that improvisation can be both good and bad. This post and next week’s post will do that compare-and-contrast thing that Sister Mary Godzilla often required in class, which cast terror into all sixth-grade minds.

Bureaucracies are rule-following organizations. They exist to enable large organizations to work with some degree of efficiency. Although there are innumerable tales of governmental inefficiencies and screw-ups, imagine what it would be like if the 2.7 million federal-government employees didn’t have strict rules to follow and everyone improvised all the time. The same is true for organizations as small as a couple of hundred people (reference Dunbar’s Number). Bureaucratic rules have enormous beneficial effects.

Bureaucratic rules allow those hundreds or thousands or even millions of people in their respective organizations to understand how the organization works and to predict, with some accuracy, how their individual actions will play out and contribute to the success of the organization. These are good things.

Bureaucratic rules also tend to create a stasis – the stagnation of processes. As an example, the Department of Defense Directive 5000.1 (Defense Acquisition Policy), which provides, in significant detail, the policy and processes by which Department of Defense acquisition programs will be executed, has been updated (according to a Google search) three times since 1991. I was working for Honorable Noel Longuemare (the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics) for one of those updates and can confidently state that such an update (as opposed to smaller changes) requires an enormous amount of work – months, if not years, of study, massive amounts of documentation, thorough coordination with the various stakeholders (including, among others, industry and the Congress) and innumerable discussions and debates within the acquisition community.

In the twenty-seven years since the first of those three updates, technology has made huge advances, industrial processes have changed significantly, leadership and management has evolved based on advances in the understanding of human behavior. Decennial changes to the rules can’t keep up with the highly dynamic, complex adaptive systems that comprise the entire cooperative and competitive defense acquisition ecosystem. The rules seldom precisely apply to any given situation. Some of my proudest accomplishments as a Navy program manager involved circumventing the rule followers.

Wait, I hear, a lot of those rules are advisory and not compulsory. Absolutely correct. When I was working with Noel, we had the opportunity to work with Eleanor Spector who was the Director, Defense Acquisition (I think that was her title). Eleanor was as good at using the Federal Acquisition Regulations and the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulations as Michael Jordan was at winning NBA titles. But, like Michael, there was only one Eleanor Spector. Even advisory rules have a constraining effect on the willingness of us lesser mortals to improvise. If I follow the rules, I am far less at risk of being criticized if the train goes off the tracks than if I improvise and there is a derailment. In fact, even if my improvisation had no part in the derailment, I am apt to get some of the blame (I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was going to blame you.).

So, large organizations need bureaucracies and the rules that govern them, but those same, necessary, rules create problems and inefficiencies. In fact, the illustrious and all knowing Oz (oops, I mean Google) tells me that the noun “bureaucracy” has been described by the following adjectives (among others – I admit, I cherry picked these); bloated, complex, corrupt, cumbersome, excessive, huge, impersonal, inefficient, large, massive, old, permanent, political, powerful, Prussian, unnecessary and vast (people writing about bureaucracies like those “size” adjectives). It seems that people, including the leaders of large organizations with their attendant bureaucracies, recognize the problems that bureaucratic rules generate. What do they do to fix those problems? What should they do to fix those problems?

Going back again to the great and all knowing Google, I find that most companies (and the federal government) are “tinkering around the edges.” Gary Hamil, in the Harvard Business Review, bemoans the problems of bureaucracies, but his approach is to “kill bureaucracies” and replace them with something that the killers need to figure out (I like Gary Hamil’s writings, but that is a bogus piece of work).

Next week, I’ll talk about improvisation from the perspective of leading organizations and provide my recommendation for improving the way large organizations are led (I hope my recommendations are better than Mr. Hamil’s).

Thoughts?

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