Bureaucracy has become the definition of the kind of management organisations are seeking to avoid. However, bureaucracy started as a significant step forward in management systems. As we design the future management practices we need to ensure we do not see the same overgrowth.
Fixing Management History: Bureaucracy
Bureaucracy was created to fix problems with the previous systems of management. Bureaucracy has its strengths relative to the inconsistent, corrupt and ineffective regimes that preceded it. However, any strength overdone creates a new weakness.
Here are some of the positive changes that came with bureaucracy. Without continued innovation, these practices took on a logic of their own and became overused:
- Incompetence, influence and nepotism were addressed by a hiring and promotion on managerial competence and expertise. Overdone this expertise focus led to an unwillingness to learn, internal focus and new forms of abuse of power.
- Inconsistency and unpredictable management decisions were addressed by leveraging policy and hierarchical review. Overdone this led to stasis and disempowered managers who couldn’t address exceptions
- Ineffectiveness was addressed by the clarity of division of labour bringing clear accountabilities and measurement of work. Overdone this led to breakdowns in coordination, ability to deliver and waste.
Emergent Management Practice
The reason bureaucracy resulted in these issues is that its design allowed little room for checks on its use. The focus on predictability meant bureaucracy was not generative. It had little or any capacity for new management approaches to emerge. The only approach to issues was the application of more bureaucracy.
As we design the future of work, we must take care that the changes we make address the right issues and do not become equally overgrown:
- Solve the right problems in management today: Is hierarchy really the problem? It is human nature to obsess about power and the role of hierarchy in life. Hierarchal power is only one part of how decisions get made. Many of the approaches that ‘rid organisations of hierarchy’ can’t achieve that. There is a good argument that the issues above with bureaucracy are more about learning, use of knowledge, speed and decision making than they are about power.
- Simplicity over complexity: Simple practices are more likely to remain transparent. When it is easier for people to understand the practice as a whole and keep its goals in mind, it is harder for people to take individual aspects of the management practice as their own end. Bureaucracy has been bedevilled by people taking means as ends. I suspect one reason Holacracy has found most implementations are ‘Holacracy lite’ is due to the complexity of its original proprietary formulation.
- Generative practice: Management practices that challenge users to look for improvements in the practice have inbuilt protection against overgrowth. I focus on the generative capability of Big Learning because the two core elements of learning and enabling work and learning keep a focus & accountability on all in the management system on how to improve the work and its outcomes.
The only way to prevent the overgrowth of new management practice is to be constantly pruning and reshaping our work in the efforts to learn and improve.