The Growing Bureaucratisation of Life

Often, companies talk a good game about innovation, but when these aspirations bump up against the realpolitik of running corporate organizations, there is typically only one winner: the status quo - Ger Perdisatt

Many organisations , without realising it , act as inhibitors of creativity.

Rules and protocols are put in place – often for very good reasons – that preserve the status quo.  Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms – ‘the way we do things around here’ – that either promote innovation or quell it.

Our colleagues generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently. These observations – thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

The odds of a turtle hatchling reaching adulthood are said to be 1 in 1,000. But in some organisations the chance of an idea reaching maturity has significantly worse odds.

In the latest episode of Let’s Talk Ideas Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators Network talks about how during the early days of the pandemic many organisations found that they had a an undiscovered capability for innovation:

“I think what was interesting was some of the performance indicators such as resident satisfaction went absolutely through the roof in those first six months. Why is this? Firstly, it demonstrated that when you take the shackles off and you give people autonomy and say “Look, you know what to do – go out there and do it”. And they did it. So customers got a better and a faster and more responsive service”. I think the second thing that it taught organizations was actually you don’t really need to do all of the things, you do.”

As I reflected in the podcast, I was in hospital at the time and I witnessed exactly the same effect within the NHS. Things that were previously difficult to do became easier and the impossible became possible. Right down at ward level, nurses and support staff told me that the paradigm shift that had happened meant they could work in more flexible, patient centered ways.

The problem of course, is this couldn’t be sustained forever. If you allow any opportunity for it, bureaucracy will find a way back in. Nearly four years after the pandemic, the status quo has been largely restored.

So what is it that went away and then came back? We had the same managers, the same regulation and the same structures.

The administration went away.

The administration took a back seat.

The shackles were off.

And there are lots and lots of shackles that came back.

David Brooks writes in The New York Times about the growing bureaucratization of life:

“It’s not only that growing bureaucracies cost a lot of money; they also enervate society. They redistribute power from workers to rule makers, and in so doing sap initiative, discretion, creativity and drive. The statistics are staggering. (For example) over a third of all health care costs go to administration”.

He quotes from Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini who estimated in 2016 that excess bureaucracy was costing the United States $3 trillion in lost output each year – that’s 17% of GDP. “According to their analysis, there is now one administrator or manager for every 4.7 employees, doing things like designing anti-harassment trainings, writing corporate mission statements, collecting data and managing “systems.”

He goes on:

“The general job of administrators, who are invariably good and well-meaning people, is to supervise and control, and they gain power and job security by hiring more people to work for them to create more supervision and control. In every organization I’ve interacted with, the administrators genuinely want to serve the mission of the organization, but the nature of their jobs is to enforce compliance with this or that rule.”

Like many organisations, at Bromford we run an ideas scheme and it works pretty well, but what it generates are less ideas and more a form of bureaucratic whistle-blowing. The need for the majority of the ideas would simply go away if administration and management was pared back – which is one of the reasons we are making a shift to a de-centralised place based working approach.

Do the calculation: what is the ratio of administrators or managers in your organisation to employees?

Is it getting better or worse? What’s the cost of it?

All of this over-governance has a knack for stifling productivity with excessive red tape, ponderous decision-making, and a penchant for micromanaging every iota of creativity out of existence. The fetish for compliance over results create a circus where the main act is anything but actual productivity. It’s a rigid, change-resistant world where innovation goes to die.

As David Heinemeier Hansson says ”There’s nothing more dangerous than excess managerial bandwidth”.

The early days of the pandemic showed we could take the shackles off people if we really had to.

We now to decide whether we really want to.

Related: Are You a Positive Deviant, a Negative Deviant, or Just Plain Boring?