Ruled by Rules? 7 Alternatives to 'Death by Bureaucracy'

I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to rules.

Especially when they’re bloody stupid or defy common sense. Like the one I heard recently that forbade employees from bringing any pot plants to work. I mean, seriously...WTF?! Are we expecting an invasion of The Triffids any time soon?

For the rule following junkies amongst you, I’ll acquiesce that a smattering of rules and some processes are, well, necessary. Certain policies are pretty crucial. Like the one around workplace bullying, or whether or not it's OK for you to have a beer or six in your lunch hour and then drive heavy machinery.

What's wrong with rules?

Too often, organisations become a veritable jungle of red tape, bureaucratic nonsense and militia-like edicts, with as much process enforcing behaviour as a brown-cardy wearing public servant, who has just returned from The 66th Inaugural Administrators Convention.

Usually they are top-down fashioned procedures, rather than approaches borne from collaboration with the people most likely to be affected by them. Too often, those who will ultimately be the implementers or users of the process are invited to the table too far downstream, if at all.

Excessive processes and crappy rules kill good performance.

They stifle innovation.

They disengage the potential of your people.

They dumb down latent genius.

Don’t take my word for it. W. Edwards Deming, a twentieth century professor, author and management consultant, regarded as a forefather of management, found that 94% of performance problems are attributable to issues with strategy, systems and processes - and only 6% are attributable to the performance of employees.

Reinforcing these findings, Jeff Juran, a quality expert who authored the Quality Control Handbook, claimed that 85% of performance problems are attributable to causes other than the individual.

Let me say that again, 85% of performance problems are attributable to causes other than the individual.

So, how can you ensure your organisation isn't bogged down by stupid rules and unnecessary processes?

Here are 7 ways to banish bureaucracy and cultivate creativity:-    

  1. Structure for innovation. Have as few processes and rules AS YOU CAN POSSIBLY STAND. Unless it’s absolutely, 100% necessary (like safety). Ask, “is there a better way to get the same outcome?” Culture and values trump rules and processes any day. Plough all that well-meaning blood, sweat and tears into co-creating, living and breathing a strong culture and compelling values, rather than writing the next 1.12 Policy on some "Stupid Process Document”.
  1. Give people more decision-making authority. Lower approval levels. Trust your team to make the right decisions and use their common sense. If they stuff up? Use this as a coaching opportunity to have a conversation about values and decision-making. If it’s taking your team a long time and copious emails to various managers, just to get approval for something that won’t bring the company down in one fell swoop, that’s a red flag. So is the CEO having to sign off on anything over $1000.00.
  1. Start with the user. Get them to lead the creative process.
  1. Get rid of unnecessary meetings (which BTW, includes the vast majority of them). At the very least, get better at them. See here for tips on how to facilitate better meetings.
  1. Run small experiments. “Ooch”, as Dan Heath and Chip Heath suggest in their book Decisive. Create small innovation teams and empower them to make mistakes - big ones - in their journey to innovation. Let them try new things and stuff up in the process. Protect these teams from the “no-variance” operational excellence, policy adhering mindset. Create a 'safe zone' where experimentation and failures are learning opportunities.
  1. Measure and reward innovation, exploration and invention. Has someone broken a rule out of frustration with the current processes - and in doing so, discovered a better way of doing things? Before you come down on them like a tonne of bricks, adopt a curious mind-set. Ask, "what made you want to do it a different way?"
  1. Get comfortable with uncertainty. Most companies want to be certain - it gives us the mirage of safety. But as the saying goes, the only certainty is uncertainty. Are your processes/rules coming from fear?

For more inspiration and ideas, watch this TED talk:

These ideas fly in the face of bottleneck rule-making and death by clogging processes, but I reckon they are worth a go.

Are you courageous enough to try them out in your company?

Oh, and one last thing whilst I’m on my soapbox. If you want people to NEVER, EVER, EVER IN A MILLION YEARS read that rule or process you’ve spent hours writing up...put it on the intranet.

Leave a comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.