Battling Bureaucratic Creep


Bureaucracy is the force in direct opposition to emergent intelligence. Fostering creative flow means constantly battling bureaucratic “creep.” Bureaucracy begins because a manager feels he or she has to exert control over something. So a “checkpoint” is installed to monitor the quality of a particular decision – say a customer service decision that has minor financial impact.

Each time a decision hits a checkpoint, it’s reviewed. If it falls outside pre-determined norms, it’s rejected. The bureaucracy is unthinking about the quality of the exception – or the larger need for innovation. It only knows how to exert control.

As the organization becomes bureaucratic, checkpoints take on lives of their own. Checkpoints become chokepoints. As people chafe under a system which demands that decisions must adhere to certain specifications, it starts to drive away the more talented, innovative people. So the creative brain trust starts to erode. New employees are brought in who tend to be more mediocre. As the talent turns over, more mistakes occur.

Now the bureaucracy starts to flourish. It grows in order to exert control over increasing mediocrity and increasing numbers of errors. This further alienates the talented individuals. Before you know it, a culture of mediocrity has swept in. Like a virus, bureaucracy has fully taken over.

Smart managers are relentless in empowering people to figure out better ways to do things and make decisions on their own. They tolerate a level of chaos and uncertainty in order to preserve and encourage creative spark. Above all, they battle bureaucracy.

For example, the leader of a telecommunications company told her marketing and IT teams to revamp the company’s web site based on input they’d recently gathered from customers.

“Don’t consult me,” she told them. “Don’t consult any other member of the executive team. Just do what you think best.” Three weeks later, the company had a prototype of the new web site up and running. It was radically different from anything the company had done before. But customers loved it. Because of that manager’s willingness to encourage creative flow, their web site grew into a major new profit center.

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