Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 1) Burden with bureaucracy

Jun 17, 2010

This is the first in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success.

Imagine the work environment of a team that is so free that it is completely devoid of rules, guidance, knowledge and experience. People in the team are unsure of how to proceed when presented with a task or challenge. What can they do? What can’t they do? What is likely to work? What is guaranteed to fail? With multiple people facing such dilemmas, the possible outcomes for the team range from absolutely nothing happening because people are too paralyzed with fear to try anything or, in the other extreme, total chaos and anarchy.

Rules are important and necessary to safeguard against such mayhem. Put most people in a situation without rules, and they will be lost or confused. When people find themselves in an unfamiliar situation, such as in a new job, they naturally ask questions to learn the rules of the road.

In its formative stage a team may lack such rules including those that define the team’s organization and its collective knowledge and experience. As team members share their individual experience and expertise and as the team takes on more complex and substantive challenges and grows in size, certain ways of working are formulated into the team’s rules, regulations, processes and methodologies.

Over time, teams, and the organizations they belong to, can find themselves with too many rules, rules that no longer make sense or rules that are being applied too broadly. These rules add overhead, cause delays, and hinder productivity until people find themselves wishing the rules just didn’t exist. We’ve all had occasion to deal with too many rules or rules that were too restrictive or so complex that complying with them was difficult or next to impossible. We might have made some comment about bureaucracy or micromanagement or a lack of freedom. Although we need rules, we also crave, expect, and value freedom. Particular in creative endeavors, we need to have freedom of expression.

One of the surest ways to limit success is to burden people with bureaucracy. An overabundance of rules and regulations increases the on-boarding time for new people and generally slows people down. In the worst case, people will circumvent the rules in order to meet deadlines or simply out of sheer frustration. When rules are called into question, such concerns should be taken seriously. Even if the rules really are required, people will be more likely to break the rules and more likely to become frustrated about them if they don’t understand the need for them. Confirm whether rules really need to be enforced in all cases. Some rules must be applied to all people to protect against the kinds of mistakes that anyone can make. However other rules are in place to protect against inexperience, lack of skill or just plain stupidity. Consider relaxing or omitting such rules for skilled or experienced people if such changes do not increase the risk of problems. It can be costly to waste the time of your best people and they are precisely the ones who might be more inclined to become frustrated with bureaucracy.

One definition of bureaucracy is “An administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action.” The important words are “rigid” and “complex.”  You must have rules but if you persist in rigid definition and application of procedures and don’t take the opportunity to simplify them, you can pay a costly price.

Jazz succeeds because there is minimal bureaucracy. Experienced band leaders will hire the best musicians and ensure they have the freedom to succeed by employing just enough rules to afford autonomy while at the same time avoiding chaos.


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