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Prescriptions for Bureaucracy

Nobody wants to lead a bureaucratic mess of an organization. How do you know when you are slouching toward bureaucracy and what can you do about it? Here are six symptoms and a few ways to combat this soul-crushing evil.

Symptom #1: Tooth to Tail Ratio Slips

This refers to the number of people executing on your mission (tooth) versus your support people (tail). You can also look at the dollars it takes to support the mission versus execute on it. If you started out with a 10:1 ratio and now are at a 8:1, your tooth to tail ratio is slipping. Different missions call for different ratios so there is no rule about what is “best” – you are looking for change over time. Most organizations accumulate “tail” without a conscious effort to combat it.

Antidote: The way to evaluate this is to compare the numbers over time. Make a chart and discuss it among senior leaders. If the ratio is slipping, investigate work flows and concentrate on efficiency.

Symptom #2: Paperwork, Policies and Procedures have Grown

Rules and how we enforce them are a significant part of your organizational culture. They are necessary at times but become a crutch. Rather than instilling a culture of decision making about your organizational values into each staff member, senior staff can take the easy way and create rules. This is a sure sign of bureaucracy.

Antidote: If you cannot remember the last time you conducted a thorough audit on rules it is probably time. Get rid of forms, reduce written policies and make leaders substantiate the procedures they enforce (HR – are you listening to this?).

Symptom #3: Naval Gazing

Some self analysis is healthy, too much is deadly. How much time do you spend on the internal workings of your organization? My sense is that missionary agencies dwell on this way too much. Nobody cares that much how many field leaders you have, where they live, etc. That is internal to your organization. Your constituents want to know if you are executing on your mission. Other examples of naval gazing might include a fixation on attrition (while there is virtually no recruitment), constant reorganizations and debates about the field versus the home office.

Antidote: Take some time to evaluate past leadership meeting agenda and minutes: how much time are you talking about the mission versus the machine to fulfill the mission? Make certain that this time is limited.

Symptom #4: Centralization

Every mission agency I know thinks they are decentralized. Very few are. If, for example, you revel in the term “field led” then you are not decentralized. You have centralized decision making in the field. True decentralization has two parts: fluidity and localization. Fluid organizations allow for ideas to come from anywhere in the organization to any other part of the organization. Fluidity is about the free exchange of organizational influence. Localization happens when decisions are made by the people most influenced by the decision. A lack of localization is disempowering.

Antidote: Remove gatekeepers, recognize ways that people are given exclusive domains (break this down) and purposefully structure for cross-organization decision making and collaboration.

Symptom #5: Accumulation of Value

When you have something of value you protect it. The accumulation of value (in money or land, for example) creates the need to protect it, resulting in risk aversion. The value might be tied to an idea or a position in the market. Whatever it is, it creates risk aversion as leaders seek to preserve it. Value can also create a false sense of security and it encourages organizations to “rest on their laurels.” An organization becomes satisfied with what they have done rather than thirsty for what could be.

Antidote: Divest yourself of the asset by spending it on the mission. If this is not possible then structurally separate it from operations. If it is an intangible asset, think about ways to give the asset’s value to organizations with similar missions.

Symptom #6: Unsustainable Interorganizational Dependencies

I have observed several missionary agencies that have gone out of business because one part of the organization was responsible to raise the money being spent by another part. While specialization is necessary, it becomes problematic when dependencies become unsustainable due to outsized expectations. If a leader says “just do your job and I will do mine” and is referring to resources (particularly the big ones of people and money) then you might be suffering from interorganizational dependency. The “field versus home office” problem inherent in mission agencies is susceptible to this malady. Be on the watch for any language that hints at “we versus they” in your organization.

Antidote: Cross pollinate your leadership and staff. Make sure that people executing projects play an accountable role in resourcing the projects. Reduce interorganizational rivalries.

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