‘Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Worse’

The rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often rule-makers measure success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.  

I am optimistic by nature.  But that optimism doesn’t extend to organizational life.  As time passes, even very good organizations seem to have natural tendencies to layer their rules and procedures with ever more layers.  Rules and procedures are rarely streamlined.  Instead, they are supplemented.  If policies and guidelines are burdensome now, just wait a few years.  They will be even more numerous.

This tendency is equivalent to the process of ‘lawyering up’ that has happened in many corporations and institutions over the last decades.  As the law professor and trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz noted, a common litigation strategy is “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that an organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too risky and time-consuming.  The more the other side is papered, the more it is encumbered by procedures and rules.

I’ve written about this “papering” process before. In hindsight it seems as durable an organizational impulse as any. Even though paper has been replaced by online files, there seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform.” Indeed, our organizational life seems to thrive on hiring and promoting rule-makers: policy specialists, evaluators, consultants, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, ethics officers, assistant managers, quality-assurance advisors, contract law specialists and others–some with the kind of obsessive-compulsive tendencies that would be recognized in a mental health facility.

Rules function in part to mystify others into compliance.  It seems their attractiveness comes from the very human need to impose behavioral norms on others. I used to think of a bureaucracy’s love of forms functioned for its own sake.  But it seems more likely that this feature of modern life flows from an interest in exercising power and control.  That need blinds us to the advantages of individual initiative.  “I’ll get the task done on time” has too often been replaced by the question, “What rubric should I follow?”  The quick jump to deference to procedure is a smoother pathway to organizational success.  And who does not like to suggest that their procedures ought to be followed by everybody?

The compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists to reverse the process.

Organizational culture naturally seeks uniformity, which is not always always a bad thing. The problem is that the folks who write the rules seem to self-select, forming groups who are all too willing to “paper” the rest of us.  And so most of my colleagues spend more of their working time completing forms, documenting their work, submitting to endless reviews, and attending less-than-essential meetings where more procedures can be dreamed up. My campus has 110 active  ‘memorandas of agreement’ that faculty and staff are supposed to follow to the letter. A colleague in health care similarly reports that paperwork from the insurance industry is turning into an endless tsunami of requests for even more documentation.  Who has time for patients?

Alas, this compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists motivated to reverse the process. So organizational culture typically embraces a snowballing accumulation of regulations.  New procedures stack up like layers of ocean sediment.

The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called this tendency to over-produce regulatory flotsam “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” It’s a perfect phrase. Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often this impulse leads to the redefinition of professional success as compliance rather than initiative.