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Analysis / Obstructive Bureaucrat

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What causes an obstructive bureaucracy to sprout up

We all know why a bureaucrat may be beleaguered or corrupt, but why do bureaucrats become so obstructive? After all, we humans are hardwired to solve problems, help others and Good Feels Good doesn’t it? A study of the (vicious) life cycle of organizations gives us a lot of insight.

An Inspired Idea

All institutions, be they for profit companies, non profit organizations, religious sects, even government agencies and task forces, start out because someone had an idea. It could have been a business idea or in other cases, a unique way to solve a problem. Or they started the organization to do some work in dire need of doing. This inspired individual then gets money and resources to found this organization by selling their idea, to investors or a bank, to donors or to politicians who control budgets. These visionaries then proceed to staff their new organizations with people who are either as dedicated to the organization’s goal as they are, or competent professionals looking for an interesting challenge to tackle. Either way, this organization is filled with people who want to make it work.

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Challenging Problems to Solve

The organization with its highly motivated staff jumps headlong into solving problems and getting things done. Many times, these organizations fail, either because their visionary founder didn’t know how to put his/her idea into practice, realized that the problem may take much more resources than they’ve currently got, mismanaged those resources or lost interest. But there are enough cases where these newly minted organizations succeed! And then the founder and these initial “plank owners” become legends.

Following the successful attainment of the organization’s initial goal, these people think “What next? What other problem(s) can we now tackle? What improvements can we now attempt to make?” Or the powers that be who sponsored them, are impressed with their success and decide to give them more tasks and more resources. And then the organization grows accordingly to take on more challenges. When they solve these new problems, they take on more. And eventually hit two organizational issues - that of Mission Creep and the Over-Dependence on the Hypercompetent Sidekick. As problems stack up, they go from challenging to overwhelming to intractable. Some of the rockstars who loved solving them before, burn out and leave! And without them, others now have even more fires to put out but have to figure out from scratch, how to put them out.

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The Need for Processes and Standards

The organization now realizes the problem with having too many exceptional professionals - that they are irreplaceable and if you lose some, you require heroic efforts from the others, just to get through the day. And no one is capable of putting in a heroic effort, Day after day after day. A more robust and efficient method to solve problems must be found - one that can survive the loss of some key personnel. That method is for the Hypercompetent Sidekick to document his/her modus operandi so that in his/her absence, other people can replicate the method used to solve certain problems. The Process is born. The existence of documented processes for people to follow to accomplish tasks reduces the need for daily heroic efforts. Things can now get done efficiently. But, the process may not always work. Usually because the persons and equipment used in the implementation aren’t up to snuff. Therefore, the organization needs some kind of performance benchmark for all its people and equipment to adhere to. The Standard is now codified. So, now that you have processes, standards and exceptional people, no problem is too tough to solve efficiently, is it?

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NO!!! Because the existence of processes and standards, frees up high level managers from constant fighting of fires, to now engage in office politics.

Everyone’s Replaceable

As a high level manager, you were once an invaluable asset to the company because only you could solve certain problems or had specialized knowledge that is hard to find. And you had subordinates who were also incredibly skilled and capable. However, with a lot of processes and standards codified, that capability, knowledge and skill isn’t as valuable anymore - because now anyone can be trained to attain that level of proficiency. The once irreplaceable rockstar of a manager can now be replaced easily just by picking one of his underlings and training that person for this role. And as long as that promoted underling just sticks to the process she can be as effective as her once boss.

So, managers who were secure in their niches now have to worry about the security of their jobs. When sheer competence won’t cut it any more, their only recourse is to start politicking by encroaching on their peers’ s turf, maneuver to oust a peer and take over his role too, or gasp! Try to oust their own boss! This changes upper level management from a well oiled machine to a snake pit of backbiting, back scratching, deal making (and breaking) lies, obfuscations, equivocations etc. As people jockey for power, some will win and others will lose. And the underlings have to prepare for a scenario where their boss today may be gone tomorrow. With new managers may come new direction, new priorities, new goals even. And tremendous peril if you get too invested in any one of your boss’s vision. Because if he is ousted, you could also be ousted so that nothing remains of him, his influence and his vision. But shouldn’t the new boss keep you because you have valuable skills and competence? NO!! The process can easily train someone else to replace you! Someone else who wasn’t as enthusiastic about the previous boss’s vision.

Dot the “i”s, Cross the “t”s and Pass the Buck

” Bernard, I have served eleven governments in the past thirty years. If I had believed in all their policies, I would have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to going into it. I would have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel. And of denationalising it and renationalising it. On capital punishment, I'd have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I would've been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac; but above all, I would have been a stark, staring, raving schizophrenic!”

Sir Humphrey Yes, Minister

With either the democratic process, political instability, or just politicking causing a revolving door of upper level managers, the mid level people find themselves in exactly the situation described in the above quote - having to fervently serve changing and often contradictory directives from above. So what does someone who just wants a career and livelihood do?

You can just join in the political game yourself, but this adds the risk of losing and getting ousted. A risk avoidant person will definitely avoid this.

You become a true believer in one goal/vision that really inspires you. However, true believers are dangerous enemies to those who oppose that vision, so you have to be prepared to die on that hill. If you want job stability, you won’t go this route.

Become an enthusiastic toadie to whoever happens to be your boss at the present. While this may seem like a good option, it has its own risks. Your new boss may just oust you for being the old boss’s toadie. Or he may see through your attempts at sycophancy and not take you seriously and oust you in favor of his own true believer. Or you will become a stark staring raving schizophrenic who may burn out and leave just to preserve your sanity.

Or you realize that the same processes and standards that freed up upper level managers to play politics also becomes your impregnable refuge! As long as you diligently follow the processes and adhere to the set standards, none of the political managers above you can get rid if you. Because if they want to fault you for slavishly following the process, they have to find fault with the process. And if they want to find faults with the process, they may have to fight the entire organization. Because ripping up a process could cause the entire organization to fail and crash. So, most if not all political managers will choose wisely to not fight this battle. And so, you have a well documented codified method to surviving any and all political machinations at the top. Just follow procedure, don’t make waves and you can have a long and stable if not so illustrious a career.

But if the process initially helped an organization, isn’t it inherently effective? Why would following it diligently make you one of those despised obstructionists who create nothing but bureaucratic inertia? Because most processes were created to solve specific issues and are not a panacea.

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