What do the three things in the title of this article have in common?
In the movie Mona Lisa Smile, there’s a scene in which a Wellesley instructor played by Julia Roberts shows the class a painting, and asks them whether or not it’s any good. Up until this point all of the art they’ve seen in the class has been well-known, and so the group is confused. They frantically search through their textbooks, looking for some mention of this painting. The Julia Roberts character is making a point: the appreciation of something as good or bad is inside of you as an individual, and cannot be obtained by simply following the “rules” for good art. We need to be more than just people who follow rules; we need to develop a sense of individuality and self.
When a young child first rides a bicycle, the bike is often equipped with training wheels to make learning easier. The theory is that the child will get a feel for the basic mechanics of pedaling and steering before having to cope with the additional chore of balancing the bike. Of course the bicycle can be used as transportation while it has training wheels: the child can pedal from one place to another. But the full capabilities of the bicycle cannot be exploited while using training wheels—you certainly never see anyone in a bicycle race using them.
When the word “bureaucracy” was first invented, it was supposed to be a good thing. Corporations were trying to cope with growth in situations where it was no longer possible to do enough hands-on management to ensure that the company implemented processes consistently across the enterprise. Bureaucracy was a standard set of processes and procedures which created that consistency even when implemented with different people, in different locations, and in different cultures. But the strength of bureaucracy—consistency—is also its biggest weakness; a bureaucratic environment can’t cope with changing conditions or with situations for which the rules weren’t designed.
There’s a rule-of-thumb in software design that the difficulty and cost of fixing a problem goes up by a factor of ten at each level in the software creation process. Thus a problem caught in the design stage is ten times easier to fix than the same problem caught in programming, and a hundred times easier to fix than the problem caught in system test. Release the software with the problem, and the cost is now a thousand times higher than fixing the problem at the design stage.
Apply this rule-of-thumb to process implementation, and you get something like this: A process standardized as a philosophy is ten times more flexible than a process standardized as guidelines, a hundred times more flexible than a process standardized as procedures, and a thousand times more flexible than a process standardized as hard and fast rules.
Bureaucracy is hard and fast rules. See the problem?
What We Should Do Instead
We would do far better to equip our employees with a good understanding of our philosophy and strategy of business, and the fundamental skills to make their own decisions on the detailed day-to-day implementation of the principles behind these philosophies and strategies, than to construct a set of rules that “must be followed, no matter what.” Businesses can’t win the competitive race using training wheels, nor can employees expect to know what’s good or bad based on the rules in a book.
You can’t be best by being bureaucratic, because you’re throwing away the capabilities and initiative of your employees by artificially limiting them. But if you use a principle-based approach instead, you can provide broad direction to your employees while still focusing their efforts in the direction you want to go. As a result, the employees are happier, more productive, and more capable of reacting to changing business conditions. And your organization and business will be more successful and better able to satisfy its customers.
There’s still another reason why you ought to avoid bureaucracy. When faced with a conflict between bureaucratic rules and an ethical choice, a person often follows the rules even if it results in unethical behavior, because of our ingrained sense of “doing what we’re told.” Avoiding bureaucracy can help our businesses be more ethical. Make sure your employees do what’s right—not what the rules say.