The word bureaucracy instantly invokes negative emotions in people. Most connect it to something slow or inefficient. Indeed, as Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini say in their 2018 HBR article, “Bureaucracy has few fans.” But then, the question is – why do organizations worldwide find it hard to eliminate bureaucracy from their systems despite all this? The answer probably lies in the anatomy of “bureaucracy.” 

Back in the 18th century, French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay came up with this word by combining bureau (“desk”) and –cratie (a suffix denoting a kind of government). Later on, by the late 19th – early 20th century Max Weber, a German scientist, defined bureaucracy as a highly structured, formalized, and impersonal organization. He instituted the belief that “an organization must have a defined hierarchical structure and clear rules,” regulations, and lines of authority that govern it. His “management theory of bureaucracy” had four pillars:

  • Specialization of labor
  • A formal set of rules and regulations
  • Well-defined hierarchy within the organization
  • Impersonality in the application of rules

Interestingly, this was around the same time when Fredrick Taylor published his “Scientific management” theory, dividing the role of managers and workers on a “scientific” basis to boost productivity. 

Both these theories complemented each other and probably made sense in the industrial era, when, according to one source , “…nine out of every ten working people did manual work, making or moving things, whether in manufacturing, farming, mining, or transportation“. 

We are well past the industrial era and speeding fast through an information era. According to the same source, by 2010 itself, nine out of ten working people were knowledge workers. Change is pervasive and cruising in a super-fast lane.  Most of the pillars on which both Taylor and Webber built their theories are slowly but surely crumbling. Technology is continuously democratizing access to information. In his book “Neo-generalist,” the author Kenneth Mikkelsen argues that the “I” model of the past, which was driven by the need for specialization, should now look more like “T.” It may even take the shape of “E” or “F” soon.

So when the “purpose” of those theories has lost relevance, why are organizations still following them and worst, some clinging onto them? Are there no new-age principles that leaders find a worthy replacement? The answer is, of course, no.

To their credit, some Business leaders are exploring new ways of organizing themselves and experimenting with different non-hierarchical structures in their organizations. As Agile is becoming mainstream, the focus is shifting to multi-disciplinary teams and collaboration over individual contributions. 

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.

Laurence Johnston Peter

Canadian educator and “hierarchiologist”
best known
for the formulation of the Peter principle.

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Aldous Huxley
19th  Century Writer

But however leaders wish it to be untrue, bureaucracy is still integral to most organizations. From our experience and working with clients, we realize that bureaucracy has many forms and roots. Our survey shows that bureaucracy is not limited to any specific sector, size, or business complexity. It exists even in mid-size and smaller organizations. The only exception to the rule seems to be organizations in the early years of their existence. So why do early-age start-ups not show symptoms of bureaucracy like their older siblings? The answer probably lies in understanding when and how bureaucracy creeps into any organization. 

Organizations are collections of teams, and like teams, they also go through forming, storming, norming, and performing stages as they evolve. As they grow, maybe somewhere between storming and norming, founders and entrepreneurs think they need a structure to manage day-to-day function, processes to drive efficiency and scale, and so on. And in most cases, this is when bureaucracy silently puts a foot in the door. 

Now, to set things in perspective, organizations do need processes, structures, and systems to operate at a scale. While bureaucracy is strongly correlated to all that, the number one reason bureaucracy creeps in is the complexity of those structures and processes and not the mere existence of it.

On the contrary, not very intuitive, but the complete absence of clearly defined processes also leads to a sense of bureaucracy. It is true, especially in a large or rapidly growing organization. Not having a clear map to navigate different parts of the business limit new joiners’ ability to decide “what is the right thing to do at that moment”. Over time it creates a sense of bureaucracy because they need to “ask someone about day-to-day things all the time” .

Another layer of bureaucracy that is often less understood is the bureaucratic mindset. People working in an environment where one is not allowed to make their own decision develop a bureaucratic mindset over time. In an environment where every work product is “supervised,”; instead of driving efficiency, the objective becomes achieving compliance, and the teams focus more on the task than the outcome. Individuals begin to take shelter in processes and systems to find ways to defer execution. They start over-relying on their supervisors to trap mistakes rather than do it right in the first place. Overuse of the “maker-and-checker” concept is one example that triggers this chain reaction. Typically, “makers” begin to own less, knowing the “checker” will flag if things are wrong. It also becomes self-fulfilling nexus because the “checker’s” existence depends on “makers” (in)efficient execution. Slowly but surely, this slows things down, building a sense of bureaucracy.

Agility and bureaucracy can’t co-exist. Assuming you are leading an organization or a team where “agility” matters to you, where people make and own decisions and do not find ways to hide their inefficiencies under the umbrella of “system,”; you need to take decisive steps to break from the shackles of bureaucracy. Acknowledging that bureaucracy exists in your organization is an excellent first step. Identifying the exact cause of why bureaucracy exists and then owning the responsibility to bust it is crucial. Simplifying the set of processes, policies, and systems is necessary but not sufficient. It can, at best, be a foundation. But to tackle this challenge holistically, you need to focus on building a culture of ownership and accountability supporting that foundation. It may take time and investment, but it will be worth it!