“Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies.” — French author Honoré de Balzac.
“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” — Laurence J. Peter, Canadian-American educator and formulator of “The Peter Principle.”
Remember the Biblical story of David and Goliath? It’s a classic of its type, right up there with Jack and the Beanstalk. In both cases, a little guy shocks the world by using speed, agility, and audacity to bring down an “unbeatable” giant.
Corporations must become nimble and flexible enough to out-maneuver larger competitors. Consider Apple, which the late Steve Jobs saved from terminal bureaucratitis with innovative thinking and outside-the-box leadership. Jobs didn’t just blow past corporate bureaucracy; he scoured most of it away and oiled Apple’s joints so it could move forward again.
You can do the same, even if your organization has become big, complacent, and slow. Yank yourself up out of that mindset. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work harder—just work on the right things.
1. Build a culture of speed. Slim down your workflow processes, lubricate them with good leadership and empowerment, and get out of the way. Interfere with your employees only when things either break down or appear likely to. Ultimately, your job is to help others do their jobs: to smooth the way by building strategic plans, bulldozing information silos, eliminating bottlenecks, and constructing simple but workable bridges to other work-groups, departments, partners—and the future.
2. Cut carefully. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Back in the late 2000s, Circuit City replaced their experienced sales-floor staff with cheap newbies, when they might have saved just as much money by biting the bullet in the C-Suite, eliminating unearned bonuses and a few underperforming execs. Where’s Circuit City now? Bankrupt, in part because they alienated their customers with poor service. Eliminating positions isn’t always a cost saver and can cause bottlenecks when you demand more out of an already-burned-out staff.
3. Stay flexible. Have a plan, but don’t be rigid. Be willing to go with the flow and turn on a dime when needed—it’s just par for the course. Hurricanes can snap century-old trees in half, while leaving young trees stripped of their leaves but otherwise intact. In fact, the little guys can often bend double without snapping. No, you’re not a tree…but you’d better be willing to bend before the inevitable. You can always replace a few “leaves” here and there.
4. Unleash your creativity. Peter Drucker once said that only innovation and marketing make you money; everything else is an expense. If the team, department, or organization has become creaky, inject new life into it with new ideas. Rip away or work around the bureaucratic layers that discourage creative thinking—and worry less about what other people think, as long as your ideas are legal and ethical. Brainstorm new ways to serve your customers, test them, and roll out the ones that work best.
Up and At ‘Em
Big businesses combine some of the features of both living beings and machines…and like both, they slow down as they age. We humans (the individual cogs and cells, if you will) settle into our roles, get used to life as it is, and try to avoid change. In so doing, we often carry otherwise admirable qualities like attention to detail too far—and things like that build up until the organization starts to petrify. Don’t let it happen to you. Open your mind, limber up, and set out to win the productivity race.
Or, stay right where you are, until some David, who is more nimble than you are, comes along and pegs you between the eyes with the stone of innovation.