Where did bureaucracy in business come from?
Imagine a factory floor. It’s filled with smoke, the noise of thrashing machines, and the smell of oil. At the other end of the floor, through the haze, is a wall of windows. Behind those windows are the offices of workers in smart suits, with smart desks, and a clear view over the factory workers. It’s the late 18th century and the industrial revolution has radically altered working practices. Huge changes to our personal and working lives have brought about much philosophical, organisational, and political upheaval. As industry takes off, the need to organise workers and production is increasing. Something called ‘rule of the desk’ is a structure rapidly gaining popularity. Today, we know this concept as the French word ‘bureaucracy‘. Simply put, bureaucracy structured workers by function with a coordinating layer above them for decision making and control. As production grew in size, those coordinating layers also needed oversight. This would lead to many layers, to a hierarchy. Defining work by function in this way also forced a particular response to change: when a new requirement comes in, a new function must be created to deal with it and typically another layer of coordination, or management, to oversee it. The simplicity of bureaucracy meant that it was an incredible success. It achieved high levels of control, coordination and consistency. This success during the industrial revolution led bureaucracy to be a persistent organisational design, and it is often the default structure for organisations today. Imagine these organisations, structured and divided by functions, and how they are actually delivering work. In isolation, without collaboration across functions, and with very little autonomy of the workers within the function. Improvements are decisions made in the management layers and perceived as ‘additional’. Such improvements are therefore likely to appear as a change or ‘transformation programme’ that will often fail to change or transform existing functions but create a new, siloed function. Over many years and decades of new requirements resulting in new, additional functions, you are also likely to have a lot of duplicated effort. The customer will be very far away from the majority of the organisation and there are so many layers of coordination that it’s difficult to trace who is actually doing the work.
How to avoid bureaucracy in business
Hopefully the theory should be obvious: don’t silo delivery by creating new functions for change. Clearly this is harder to achieve in practice. Here are some practical tips:
1. Share the purpose
Vision, ambition, mission – whatever your organisation calls it, needs to be shared. You cannot communicate it enough. A purpose provides the people within the organisation something to work towards collectively. Some may view this as creating inter-dependencies, but siloed organisations already have hidden inter-dependencies and are often paralysed by them because there is no collaboration (see below).
Delivery comes from individuals working together. Most organisations we work in are more than one team and therefore have inter-dependencies. Increase collaboration within and across teams by developing shared objectives. OKRs are a good framework for creating shared objectives at the team level, multi-team level, and beyond.
3. Integrate change – and be specific
Embrace change! Change is not an additional requirement, do not create a separate function for it. Change is also a vague term. What do we actually mean by it? Are we altering delivery priorities? Improving quality? Identify and communicate the wanted outcome. Ask the organisation to work towards that outcome (again, OKRs could work here). Iterate and make incremental adjustments. As an example, if you’re listening to music on headphones and the volume is too quiet, do you crank up to full volume? No! You turn it up a bit, listen again, and turn it up a bit more until it’s right.
4. Increase autonomy
Self-sufficient agile teams may not be an immediately achievable step in your organisation. Placing more decision making in the hands of the those doing the work however, is. If you think about listing to music on headphones again, wouldn’t it be annoying if I was changing the volume for you? Teams know how to do their work.