Dealing with Organizational Bureaucracy

Dealing with Organizational Bureaucracy

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 23, 2018

How many of us have worked in bureaucratic organizations in which overly-prescriptive policies, procedures and controls approach the point where employees are micro-managed, and encroach on time better spent running and growing the business and providing a great customer or client experience? Unfortunately, too many of us.

Early in my career, I was introduced by the senior leadership of my company to the management tool called “management by objectives,” or MBOs, as it is commonly referred to within industry. This is a system in which employees document their own objectives as well as those that support their boss’ objectives and so forth, up through the reporting structure of the organization, all in support of the objectives of the company. This process was overly time-consuming.

Each year we wrote detailed business plans – documents which not only outlined the objectives of a business, but also outlined detailed strategies to accomplish those objectives. Due to changes in the business environment, many business plans became obsolete after they were written. Perhaps that’s why they often just sat in a desk drawer or in a bookcase in someone’s office until a year passed and it was time to write the next business plan.

Many of us are required to write lengthy reports, communicating to our bosses our activities and results accomplished during the month or quarter. Shouldn’t we only be focusing on communicating what’s important? Is there a better way of informing upper management of this information?

MBOs, business plans and monthly/quarterly progress reports serve a purpose. The question is how can that purpose be most effectively served with the least amount of bureaucracy, and without taking a leader’s time away from operating the business?

To address the issue of burdensome bureaucracy in my company, when I became CEO I reduced written detailed reports sent to me to the minimum, focused on what was important. Written reports consisted of a one to two-page executive summary, not on pages deep within a multi-page report. The amount of verbal reporting was increased. This had the benefit of increasing the dialogue between leaders and their direct reports, and also made for better decision-making and understanding of the issues facing the business.

How many of us have worked in organizations that required approval by the next level up for decisions that we should have been trusted to make? Unfortunately, too many of us.

As I rose up in leadership positions of increasing responsibility in my company, I rebelled against the requirement that I review all travel expense reimbursement submissions of my direct reports to ensure they had adhered to policy. I never performed these reviews – I just signed off so my employees could be rapidly reimbursed for their travel expenses. That saved me a significant amount of time which I spent on more productive tasks.

I had the philosophy that if I couldn’t trust my employees to follow my company’s travel policies, or if they didn’t have the common sense to inform me that they were violating a policy for a good reason, I didn’t want them working for me.

Did a direct report ever ask for forgiveness after an action was taken versus asking for permission before taking the action? Yes, of course. However, if they were exercising common sense and good critical judgment, I would celebrate and not sanction them.

I never held my direct reports accountable for the individual expense line items between the revenue line and the net income line on the P&L statements for which they were accountable. They were free to manage their costs as they saw fit to meet their revenue, net income and growth goals. If they weren’t capable of managing the resources available to them to run their business, they were not the right people in these positions.

Challenging policies, procedures and controls is a good thing. Some policies address issues that no longer exist, and now only increase bureaucracy and hamper the operation of the business. When policies no longer serve a useful purpose, they need to go.

On occasion, policies, procedures and controls are put in place because of actions by an employee that violated a policy. Avoid the one size fits all solution to this type of issue. Deal with the offending individual, but don’t shackle the rest of the organization by adopting policies that impose unnecessary controls that impede leaders from doing their jobs. The less a leader with good critical judgment is constrained by overly burdensome rules and bureaucracy, the better the performance of their unit and the company.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

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