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Red-tape With the snow falling all around us, I've decided to do something productive to pass the entombment of winter time:  I've accepted a position as a program manager for a compliance project.  When it comes to traditional consulting gigs, more often than not, I subcontract to other companies, as I have an inherent allergy to salespeople.  Over the past decade, it's been a fairly easy process since I am a corporation and those with whom I deal are corporations.  The general corp-to-corp agreement is to fill out a W-9.

Not so this time.  They've asked for articles of incorporation, statement of good standing with the state, 941 payroll forms, proof of insurance, and parents' drivers' licenses from 1957 (OK, so I made that last one up).  My first instinct reaction was irritation.  First of all, most of these artifacts do nothing to prove my prowess as a project manager.  Second, they automatically create an air of mistrust between the two parties.  And third, I just don't have time to hunt down documents, copy documents, and fax documents.  I was quite confident that their corporate lawyers aren't busy enough.

But then I looked a layer beneath the surface... and was still annoyed.  But five layers further, it dawned on me:  This company probably got burned by ONE subcontractor.  And so a policy needed to be created to prevent them from being burned again.  And so all subsequent subcontractors are now required to "cough up" or not be allowed to play.  And thus bureaucracy is born.

Those who know me well know how I feel about bureacracy.  Now, mind you, I'm a huge fan of structure, just not bureaucracy.  What's the difference?  Well, look at your policies, standard operating procedures, etc. and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Whom do these benefit/punish? If you are trying to limit the actions of a few outliers, then chances are, this is a bureaucracy. If everybody working together and consistently will help you accomplish your goals, then it's probably a beneficial structure.
  2. How does it impact freedom? If you are providing parameters which channel energy, then you are giving structure. If you are removing all thought from an activity and draining energy, then you are imposing bureaucracy.  Another way to look at this is whether the policy freezes the system and the process (bureaucracy) or if it thaws things out and keeps the process limber (structure). 
  3. Whom does it protect? If this is purely CYA to keep somebody from being yelled at, you're betting on bureaucracy. If you are protecting individual accountability to make decisions and succeed and fail accordingly, you're offering structure.
  4. Where is the focus? If you are looking at the end result as you make decisions, you care about structure. If you are trying to manage the means to the end, then your desire is bureaucracy.  In other words, is there a MEANINGFUL BUSINESS PURPOSE behind the creation of the rule or policy?

Another good example of structure (versus bureaucracy) is improv comedy.  There are actually a lot of rules to good improv (and Kat Koppett has an amazing book on the subject of using improv for business setttings), but the rules actually generate a lot more freedom for the actors.  Good improv does not constrain in the least; it flies.  But it only does so when people follow the structure of improv; break the rules and things come to a grinding halt quickly.

As for me, I'll provide the paperwork the company wants.  Sometimes you just have to "play by the rules."


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Dal Grooms

Great points, Tim. Can't wait to share with my husband...we both have great disdain for bureaucracy because it negates personal responsibility both for the manager and the employee (when the situation applies to the work world; other parts of our lives can also succumb to bureaucracy). Another book in the making, or have you covered this topic already? If you've covered it...which book? I need to read it.

Timothy Johnson

Another book? Seriously? The ink isn't even dry on SWAT! But it is a serious topic, Dal. Structure has a place, but left unchecked, it can turn into ugly red tape quickly. I love what you said about it negating personal responsibilty - how true.

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