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Does This Bureaucracy Make Me Look Fat?

Cog_gear I can't do it without authorization.

I'm sorry.  We have to wait for approval.

You'll need five signatures to get that moving forward.

My boss won't let me.

AAARRRG.  It's called a DECISION!

How do you sacrifice a virgin?

Trouble getting things moving in your organization?  The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article by Julian Birkinshaw and Suzanne Heywood yesterday correlating size with accomplishment (or lack thereof).

We've all understood intuitively for years that with organizational size comes greater complexity.  (DUH!)  The value of this article is how the authors break this down even further by explaining the different types of complexity within an organization:

  • Dysfunctional - as the name implies, this is the "bad" complexity that adds no value and just makes you work harder for nothing. According to the authors, this kind of complexity is built in over years. My own take is that we tend to generalize all complexity as being dysfunctional and label it with the blanket of bureaucracy. But... not necessarily so...
  • Designed - this is planned complexity created on purpose, similar to what Dell did when they created mass-customization. The authors go on to say that some designed complexity can actually lessen dysfunctionality. I personally used this philosophy when designing project change control procedures in a highly dysfunctional big box employer in town. While it added complexity, the added hoops reduced dysfunctionality.
  • Inherent - this is just the complexity that's left when you strip away dysfunctional and designed complexity... simply put, how hard is it to naturally do the job? The authors used flight controllers as an example. I'd add into that any job that is highly specialized... programmers, accountants, Olympian figure skaters.
  • Imposed - complexity which is outside the control of the company is the last category. I've mentioned before working on government regulatory projects such as HIPAA before. It's highly complex and was imposed by the outside. As a blogger, I sometimes find Typepad itself possesses some very annoying complexity. And don't even get me started about Technorati... have quit using it altogether.

The bottom line again circles back to systems thinking, folks.  Identify the inputs causing the complexity, and it becomes pretty easy to categorize whether it's a value-added complexity or just bureaucratic fodder.

When you find yourself faced with a complex process or job, ask yourself the following:

  1. What's causing the complexity?
  2. What factors do I control in the complexity?
  3. How much can I experiment with this job/process to make it less complex?
  4. How far can I push the envelope before anybody notices?
  5. Would anybody (including me) go to jail or get fired by simplifying the complexity?
  6. When did this complexity come into play? (a tell-tale sign of dysfunctional complexity)

Ultimately, it all comes down to the authors' recommendations to either reduce, channel, or accept the complexity in your system.

Why is this important?  Well, rather than just labeling something as too complex (thereby dismissing your own accountability for fixing it), this article (and this mindset) allows you to dissect the problem a little more succinctly.

And in the end, isn't that the most important aspect of accomplishment?


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