Battling the red monster

There is some amount of bureaucracy in every large organization. This is not always a bad thing: bureaucratic regulations, if they are clearly stated, reasonable, limited, and consistently followed by all concerned, can be useful. They act as an enabler for a number of standard corporate processes, helping them run in a smooth and predictable way. More often than not, however, the scale of red tape in organizations tends to get out of control – the number of regulations (and mandatory tasks they generate) is continuously increasing, while benefits of complying with these rules are becoming more and more questionable. In a nutshell, what results is the tail wagging the dog.

The reasons for uncontrolled growth of red tape and an in-depth analysis of the process have been described particularly well (and in a humorous way) by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the author of the famous Parkinson’s law.  It is worth noting that although it was formulated based on observations of British civil servants over sixty years ago, the law and its consequences remain painfully valid in the world of the 21st century corporations. This is because the two assumptions on which the law is based remain true: An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals and Officials make work for each other. Replace “official” with “manager” and voilà – you have described the reality of most present day companies. To be fair, some of the bureaucratic activities going on are due to external regulations (“officials making work for managers”, to paraphrase Parkinson) part of which is arguably questionable.

In an ideal world, companies would constantly challenge themselves to remain focused on their core business activities and to keep the red tape at the lowest possible level. Since the world is not ideal, the bureaucratic burdens encountered in real life are usually heavy ones. The good news is that they can usually be substantially reduced, as long as there are leaders in place who have sound judgement and enough courage to confront the monster. Here are two real-life stories of managers who have these qualities and used them successfully. Now, while red tape comes in all shapes and sizes, the area where bureaucratic activities often becomes particularly excessive is reporting. Therefore, both these stories are about victorious battles with reports of monstrous complexity and size, and of inversely proportional usefulness. Interestingly, although the enemy was similar, each of the two leaders used a different strategy, which reminds me of two famous ancient heroes and the way they dealt with challenges they faced.

The first leader, let’s call him Alexander, was a newly appointed director of Administration Department at a large financial institution undergoing a painful but necessary restructuring program. One of his goals was to reduce costs. One of his first observations was that the the Department was extremely overstaffed and that more than half of the employees seemed to be doing work that brought little or no value to the company. Having interviewed all the Department staff, he concluded that one of the most useless and time-consuming activities that took up their time was the tedious preparation of a dozen or so reports. Some of these documents were in the electronic form, and some were printed. Some of them were sent to recipients in the headquarters, and some – to several hundred branches. The reports, which covered all sorts of administrative data of doubtful usefulness, had one more thing in common – they were large and extremely complicated, and Alexander came to the conclusion that figuring out who, if anyone, actually needs them, would be like trying to disentangle the Gordian knot. Instead, he opted for a quick and radical action – he ordered his staff to stop making the reports altogether, thus cutting the knot. The underlying rationale was that if a given report was, in fact, used (as opposed to received and shelved) by other people in the organization, the recipients would contact the Department and demand that the report be delivered to them at the customary time of the month or quarter. The Department staff were appalled and challenged this approach on the grounds that these reports are very important, Director, but Alexander had his way. It soon turned out that he was right – only one of the reports was missed by someone from outside the Department, and when the this person asked for it, the document was duly prepared and delivered to him. The employees who had used to make the no-longer-needed reports were subsequently laid off.

Trojan horse

The second leader will be nicknamed Odysseus (Ulysses). And no, it is not because he needed a ten year journey on the corporate waters to eventually reach his goal. The ancient hero had gained recognition earlier, during the siege of Troy, when he came up with the idea of the Trojan horse, a poisoned gift which led to the victory of the Greeks.

The contemporary Odysseus was Head of IT at another major financial organization. One day, he noticed that a large printing device was working full steam, devouring one ream of paper after another, and spitting out a growing mountain of neatly sorted booklets. It turned out that he witnessed the printing of the Monthly Sales Report. He decided to investigate and found out that each of the several hundred branches received a copy of the report, and that it was never read by its intended recipients as they found it useless (the fact that the data was always two months old didn’t help, either). Nevertheless, it was generated, printed, and sent to the entire network every month, at a significant cost and effort, not to mention the forests needed for the production of the paper, our environmentally-sensitive Odysseus couldn’t help reflecting.

Being an open communicator, he presented his findings to the Management Board and recommended that the report be canceled. His motion, however, was met with fierce resistance from one of the Vice-Presidents who argued that the report was important and was widely read, after all. This VP happened also to be the one who had invented the report and apparently the thought that his favorite child could be worthless was unbearable to him. As it happens, seniority overpowered meritocracy, and the Board rejected Odysseus’ recommendation.

Even though a direct attack on the enemy lines proved unsuccessful, our hero did not give in, but instead decided to use a ploy. He ordered his employees to print the same (outdated) version of the report for three consecutive months, send it to all the usual recipients (including the VP), and see if anyone reacts (he gave them a Trojan horse). Three months later Odysseus joined another Management Board and once again submitted his recommendation to cancel the Monthly Sales report on the grounds that nobody reads it. When the VP angrily protested, Odysseus revealed what he had done and that not a single person took a notice. The VP became even more outraged to hear that but at this point of the discussion the CEO stepped in and announced that he has just taken a decision to cancel the report, effective immediately.

The key joint theme of the two stories is leadership at its best. Both Alexander and Odysseus not only identified non-value-adding activities imposed by internal bureaucracy on their departments, but they also had the guts to take the risk of fighting it. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. They proved to be managers worth their salt. Organizations may be full of smart people but only few of them have the courage of their convictions. It is also worth realizing that you don’t necessarily have to be a Management Board member to show leadership. Finally, it is encouraging to find that several years later both of them were promoted to the positions of Vice Presidents.

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