Tag Archives: bureaucracies

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The Tyranny of Rule-Making

Our ability to write rules far exceeds our ability to live by them.

Anyone employed by a business or institution soon discovers that they “work” in what are often two very different tracks.  The organization presumably provides services  or produces products.  Some of an employee’s efforts go into helping assure that these services are delivered more or less as promised.  But in a big organization this primary goal may require looking through a maze of flow charts and routing procedures that obscure more basic ‘line’ functions.  It’s clear enough what line people do:  purchasing, manufacturing, sales and keeping the books.  They are directly responsible for whether a  customer is satisfied.  But the commitment of staff resources to “supporting” these functions can be a runaway train.  It seems as if our abilities to write new procedures far exceeds our abilities to live by them.

Staff culture in a larger organization ostensibly augments essential line functions.  That’s the idea, at least.  In actual fact they may come to swamp the organization’s morale and efficiency, setting rules and standards that seem to exist for their own sake.  And because organizations have hierarchies, those in charge carry a formal authority that requires others to adapt and obey.  Read this mostly as the submission of “supporting data and materials,” which may take the form of various metrics, progress reports, mission statements, five-year goals, project proposals, staff evaluations, vendor reviews, self-assessments and the like.  And so while even a mid-level employee does things to shape the final product or service on offer, he or she will also need to spend a lot of time learning the organizational labyrinth.  In really big organizations there are even “compliance officers” who do nothing but police arcane procedures. One set of offices gains power by asking  another for paper evidence of their worth.

This kafkaesque thicket is why one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics is still an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.  Professor Donna Strickland said she just didn’t want to bother with the mountains of paper should would have had to produce in order to win a promotion.  Never mind that the University might recognize her talents on its own.

In an ideal organization perhaps no more than two hours a week would be devoted to “process” issues: reports, memoranda, applications,  meetings and the like that the hierarchy needs to keep itself well fed.  Alas, we seem to have developed institutions where final results are hardly noticed by those stuck in middle management distractions and useless cul-de-sacs.


Strictly ancillary administrative functions seem to metastasize into ever larger “support” bureaucracies.

Workplace comedies usually include a healthy level of skepticism about procedures and rules that have become important for their own sake.  Cut off from meaningful improvements in the organization’s work, more employees spend their days finding new ways to be busy and seemingly vital.  The best recent example is the British series W1A (currently available on Netflix), a multi-part mockumentary ostensibly about work life at the B.B.C. Give the great broadcasting organization credit; it opened up its new offices to a group of actors mercilessly engaged in ransacking the company’s organizational life.  The series is filled with meaningless meetings that include staffers with meaningless titles.  There’s the well-paid Director of Better, a Head of Values, a Director of Strategic Governance, an “Ideation Architect”, and many “brand consultants.”   Throughout the series those folks do their best to avoid a uttering a clear opinion or committing to a course of action.  Above all, committee meetings show participants deeply wary of doing anything that could be an excuse to let them go.  Here’s the  genial but clueless Head of Values (Hugh Bonneville)  holding his first meeting of “The Way Ahead” task force group.

The Way Ahead Meeting – W1A: Episode 1 Preview – BBC Two

SUBSCRIBE for more BBC highlights: https://bit.ly/2IXqEIn Programme website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yv1mv Ian chairs the first ever meeting of The Way Ahead task force group.

What does this all mean? Complexity is not a reliable sign of organizational success.  Once as Chair of an academic department I tried to answer every request for a report or proposal in one page or less.  Other chairs in the school often submitted documents too thick to staple.  Mine arrived as a weightless single sheet.  Who said Professors of Rhetoric are wordy?  I’m sure the Dean thought this was some sort of passive-aggressive gesture, though we were always on good terms.  My larger goal was serious: to remove useless verbiage to focus on what our program could deliver to our students.

The Bureaucratic Mind Revisited

 Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators.

In a debate on the explosion of American lawsuits a few years ago the famed law professor and trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz described one litigation strategy used by large corporate defendants as “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that a lawyered-up organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too time-consuming.

The phrase has always stuck with me as a perfect representation of a common bureaucratic impulse. Paper has perhaps been replaced by online documents and files.  Even so, there seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform.”  In fact rules have always functioned in part to mystify others into compliance. No one, for example, reads the “conditions of use” fine-print attached to nearly every downloaded application.  But the sheer volume of their legalese lends authority to the source. Or try having your car or yourself serviced at a facility that is supposed to assure us to keep things in good working order. The front desk clerk taking down your information is now likely to go through a prolonged data-entry mode that leaves little time for a description of the problem that brought you in.

Rule-makers are  ready to see any free choice as a vacuum that needs a procedure.

Our organizational life seems to thrive on hiring and promoting rule-makers: policy specialists, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, contract law specialists, employees charged with reviewing procedures, and especially organizational members–some with OCD tendencies that make them ready to see any free choice as a vacuum that needs a procedure. After all, someone must police the miscreants who would initiate a novel approach to a routine task.

“Procedures” nailed down in multiple pages of “steps” have the perverse effect of replacing individual initiative with a gloss of uniformity.  Organizational culture naturally wants conformity, which is not 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 bury the rest of us in paper.

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 stifling regulations.  What was once left to individual initiative often ends up as formal procedure.

In the field I know the urge to lay down mandatory “guidelines” cannot help but sap the energy of even the most creative teachers. The pedant in all of us loves to make guidelines, rubrics, checklists, worksheets, performance reviews, reviews of performance reviews, minimum standards, mission statements, instructions, directives, monthly reports, yearly updates, checklists, and criteria. People who might better spend their time on creative new scholarship often drift into generating handbooks of rules for even the most simple of professional tasks, such as observing a younger colleague’s teaching. The arc of a college teacher’s professional career is now tracked, classified, quantified, compared against a rubric, assessed by insiders, assessed by outsiders, tested in online questionnaires, burdened with filings to outside agencies, and itemized in reports to higher-ups.  As a visiting professor at a small British college years ago I couldn’t teach what they did not already offer because, well, they didn’t offer it.  It was not in the approved curriculum set up by a committee at another university.  That can be true everywhere, especially if a university program has bought into a “certification” process that lays out uniform standards.

The rhetorician Kenneth Burke called this tendency to create 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 measurement of success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.  And compliance is often a very low bar.