Stop Whining, Start Thinking

Frustration about bureaucratic roadblocks will get you nowhere

Are you a manager caught in a stultifying bureaucracy?

If you answered "no," I would be surprised. Anyone who works for an organization that has more than a dozen employees has to deal with bureaucracy.

Why? When you have a large group of people working together and each member has special expertise, everyone's role must be clearly defined. That requires a logical working structure, a methodology for assigning resources and evaluating and rewarding people. Without it, there will be chaos.

This means people have to follow rules. And wherever there are rules and standardization, there will be bureaucracy. It is an organizational fact of life.

The problem is, no matter how you organize, the resulting structure divides work into discrete silos. And whether you have 100 or 100,000 employees, not everyone can report to the CEO. The organization needs to have layers. And each layer will have its own structure, because no two people in charge of a layer are exactly the same. Some are control freaks. Others delegate. The layer will reflect the personality of the person in charge. When I talk to employees who are extremely frustrated by the way work gets done inside their organizations, typically they want to know two things: what they can do to help their people exercise their talents without the roadblocks of bureaucracy, and what they can do to avoid the frustration they face in trying to implement new ideas.

Here are some of the questions I've been asked recently by workers struggling to negotiate bureaucracies.

Dear Ram,

As a fairly senior HR manager, I have never gotten used to all the bureaucracy around here. And now I have noticed that my people—especially the younger ones—are growing increasingly frustrated with it as well. What should I do?

Fred, St. Louis

Dear Fred,

Having to deal with bureaucracy is simply a reality, but it's also a state of mind. Blaming the bureaucracy and commiserating about its existence is a waste of time and energy.

Leaders don't whine. They think constructively.

Start by being a role model. These direct reports of yours, how much freedom are you giving them? Make sure you are not requiring your people to get your approval for minutiae. Give them as much discretion as possible to learn and grow. If you are doing an important task this quarter, make sure they are doing it three months from now.

If your company is typical, HR people work with other managers. Are your people treating those managers as customers? Are they learning what is on their minds? Are they extracting information about how these managers make decisions and are evaluated? Are your people helping them solve their problems?

If your people are offering solutions without knowing the priorities of the people they are serving, they will get the runaround. You can blame that on bureaucracy, but it's really bad leadership.

Finally, every leader has a clear view of the ability and capacity of his direct reports. He also understands what their aspirations are. What are you doing to close that gap? How are you helping them to stretch and grow and become successful? You can do all those things without bumping up against the bureaucracy.

Dear Ram,

My biggest stumbling block is my boss, the senior vice-president for sourcing. He micromanages, and I have to get every decision approved. Help!

Patricia, Colorado Springs

Dear Patricia,

You have to ask yourself several questions. Are you viewing him correctly? And does the boss do this with you alone, or does he treat everyone this way?

Your boss may be a micromanager. But he didn't become a senior vice-president without having the ability to delegate.

So you need to find out why he is acting this way. Is it that all the decisions he is micromanaging are critical to the company's success? Or is something else going on? Could it be that you are good analytically, but he doesn't yet trust your judgment?

If you think that's the case, talk to him. Have him identify areas where you can improve, and work with him to develop a program that will allow you to learn, get better, and grow.

As you do, he will probably give you a longer leash.

And let's go back to your original premise. He may be a micromanager who somehow has succeeded in spite of that. If that's the case, figure out which measures he uses to track progress. If it is, for example, return on capital, show that you are a master of setting prices—and knowing when to raise and lower them—and getting the most out of the company's money. You are trying to build trust. The more he trusts you to perform, the less likely he is to hover over everything you do.

Dear Ram,

I am a middle-level marketing manager, and I've heard you say "innovation is a team sport." I am confused. Why is it a team sport? Aren't I supposed to be coming up with ideas to help my company? Isn't forging new teams just going to add to bureaucracy?

Linda, Mexico City

Dear Linda,

Your question gives us a chance to demolish the myth that managers need to generate ideas on their own.

Your job is to create the team that can do that. On your own, you might come up with one big idea every two years. Your team is likely to produce multiples of that.

So think of yourself as a coach leading the people who can generate ideas. Engage them in everything from brainstorming sessions to in-depth discussions about what they are noticing in the marketplace, what they are hearing from people who deal with customers every day, and what the customers themselves are saying.

You and your team need to practice these idea-generating and observation skills over and over, just like an athlete does drills, until they become second nature. This will ensure a steady flow of new ideas.

Once the ideas are flowing, the second part of your job is to figure out a way to convert them into products and services that generate revenues and profits with manageable risk. Every manager or leader must incorporate innovation and productivity into their daily activities.

You don't have to be an innovation genius. Your genius is leading people and getting them excited about creating a consistent flow of ideas. You can do that without adding to your company's bureaucracy.

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