My last blog challenged leaders to stop hierarchy and bureaucracy holding their companies back in 2020. I also promised to provide some advice about how to overcome it, so this is the first of a series of articles addressing that challenge and providing advice about how to disrupt the norm.

Perhaps its particularly pertinent at this time, as businesses face challenges to their ways of working that they have not anticipated, and are forced to adapt rapidly to survive. 

I asserted in my previous article that organisations have far too much bureaucracy and that we’ve forgotten the purpose of it. But bureaucracy is there for a reason, right? So what is the purpose of it?

What’s bureaucracy for?

Bureaucracy has gained a bad reputation; the very word has come to mean an organisation that is ‘chin-deep in red tape and unnecessary procedures’. It’s been described (by German sociologist Max Weber) as the most efficient and rational way in which human activity can be organised and asserted that systematic processes and organised hierarchies are necessary to maintain order, maximise efficiency and eliminate favouritism.

Even 100 years after Weber, order, efficiency and fairness are still useful to help people achieve things together. But the same tools we use to try and create those benefits also inhibit the kind of behaviour most companies seek from their employees in 2020.

So how do you decide what is really needed to ensure that your business operates in an efficient and fair way while avoiding the stuff that can get in the way? After all, no one puts bureaucracy in place that they believe will get in the way without adding any value.

Work out what is unnecessary

First (and as Simon Sinek has been known to say), start with why. It’s a question we often shut down as it can feel like a challenge to the status quo we’ve created. But if we encourage it, it can lead to learning and change on an individual and organisational level.

If you believe that unnecessary bureaucracy can be unhelpful, share that belief with your team. Explain that sometimes things that were put in place with the best of intentions can outlive their usefulness. Then invite them to flag all those processes and policies and ways of working that get in the way of them doing their best work and pleasing the customer. Come together to explore the pros and cons of all of them. Experiment with what you can work without.   

Liberating Structures such as 1-2-4-All can help facilitate discussions that give everyone a voice, and Consent decision-making is a great technique for then making decision about what’s safe to try.

Decide what’s really needed

Discuss with your team those principles of order, efficiency and fairness and how useful they are to the aims of your business. Perhaps there are other principles that override these, or that are equally as important for the team. Define all of the principles you choose to work by so that people can use them to support their decision-making.

Stop the bureaucracy creeping back in

Finally, to prevent the unnecessary bureaucracy reappearing, and help the business continue to evolve the way it works in response to what’s needed, start every written policy or process with the aims of that process – its ‘why’. That helps that common problem of it becoming more about following the process rather than the outcomes. It also allows people to challenge bureaucracy when it stops being helpful and starts getting in the way. 

There has never been a better time to address this challenge. Effective ways of working today are different to effective ways of working last month. So start the conversation and banish the bureaucracy in your business. Don’t let it get in the way in 2020.