A Twitter thread started with an innocuous question.

« Are bureaucracies more egalitarian than traditional (born of custom, inherited power) or charisma-based systems? Or is there an assumption that within bureaucracies, who you know, and how charming you are doesn’t play a role? This ended up being a rhetorical question. »

« Only if egalitarian means ensuring everyone is miserable. »

« Bureaucracies are not egalitarian. They just put an egalitarian gloss on traditional ego-driven organisations. Everyone wears a mask of egalitarianism, but those on the inside exploit the rules they’ve written for personal advantage in a deliberately non-egalitarian way… No system designed by humans is (which includes technology, which is just humans at one remove). I’ve found checks and balances are the best approach, but not without their own problems incl ensuring people exercising oversight roles conscientiously (esp when it isn’t easy)… »

« If you’re working in the inside of such an organisation that talent is if you can create and drive change whilst working and dodging the bureaucracy… I found this a good read in providing a navigation and some really good insights: Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within »

« 1/ Bureaucracies attempt to reduce variance in behavior by mandating processes (says the person who is not an organizational theorist). In theory, this should be more egalitarian, allowing for Andrew’s point that this could be an egalitarian misery. 2/ At some level, I don’t think humans are wired to work in large groups. Perfectly routine in organizations to hear about people either “getting around” or sullenly complying with bureaucracy. Part of this is that bureaucracy accretes. Processes are added but rarely dropped. 3/ All that said, coordination and control are real issues for large organizations. How do we make sure everyone in the organization is working towards a common goal? Charisma is one angle, bureaucracy another. A century of sociology and org theory on this to explore. »

« At some point if the bureaucracy tail starts wagging the mission dog, it is a culture of mediocrity. It’s an indication of a bureaucrats posing as leaders. »

« Does it have to, though? Or is there a realistic compromise somewhere possible? Perhaps it can a certain type of leader. I think Steve Jobs. He seemed to prevent the mediocrity we see now. Yet they were still huge and with a bureaucracy. »

« Bureaucracy is not synonymous with big company. Of course there will be policies and procedures, even in a small organization. It’s when the hurdles impede the real work that it becomes a management *FAILURE*. Bureaucracy should be a support function, not an impediment. »

« It’s like any system that operates in a social context. The system is seldom the problem. The actors and the social / cultural context where they use the system is what creates the results. So, it’s more often the human element that is the issue (the actors). »

« Deming might have quibbled with that. He said performance is mostly attributable to the system in which a person works. But to your point, some organizations breed power games. As Rick Nason says, organizations are complex because they involve people.  »

https://twitter.com/bruceclarkprof/status/1296145860728954888: « Or, to paraphrase the devil’s definition of corporate lawyers, A bad [manager] tells me “no” A good [manager] tells me “how” »

« I once was in a meeting where a reorg was proposed. The org structure wasn’t the problem. The people were the problem. Sometimes a reorg is just reorganizing the deck chairs on the Titanic. »

« Re-orgs make bureaucrats comfortable because they allow them to avoid engaging with the important issues. Like the people who are in place.  »

« Once you get beyond a certain size, I think bureaucracy is needed in some way. Senior management can no longer understand the business by interpersonal interaction, meaning we start needing rules. »

« True. Enter the “nut island” effect …  »

« Large organizations ultimately need two systems: the bureaucratic system and the how we actually get things done system. »

« Are you saying there’s the official system and the one that everybody works around? That is reality in a lot of organizations, but it doesn’t sound like a healthy organization. Management needs to blow that shit up and streamline the process. »

« I am. They both serve their purposes. Certainly needs to be blown up sometimes. »

« If that’s the culture it undermines all control and compliance functions, not just the superfluous/gratuitous bureaucracy. Because people are trained to work around [the rules]. »

« a story Bill George tells about a defective catheter: “The sales rep told me he had seen this happen several times… He had filed reports on the defects but heard nothing back. We counted 7 orgs his reports had to go through before it got to the people who designed the products” Seems like a good example of were mindless bureaucracy can result in deaths, lawsuits, negative press, loss of market share, etc. Bureaucracy is not just annoying forms. My point is that excessive bureaucracy impedes the real work of the organization. »

See also The Tyranny of Metrics.

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