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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

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

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