Tag Archives: organizational behavior

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 Paper has perhaps been replaced by online documents and files.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.

The Dissent Backchannel

Apple Watch
                   The Apple Watch

With this process in place we might never have seen the Edsel, New Coke, the Iraq War, Apple Watch, Brexit, and any of thousands of misadventures.

A recent front page article in the New York Times headlined the news that 51 senior State Department officials signed a memo of dissent complaining that current policies to contain the Syrian civil war were not working.  Most readers of the piece came away with the impression of a State Department in disarray: an agency riddled with complaints that had spilled into the open. But that was not quite the story.  From at least one perspective, the Times buried the real lede.

It turns out that memos of dissent are encouraged by the State Department.  A “Dissent Channel” is a long-established tradition of allowing members of the agency to voice concerns about American policy, which can be expressed without career recriminations. The idea started by Secretary of State William Rogers in the Vietnam era was to feed the policy review process with more input from staff out in the field.

Interestingly, though the memo was leaked, the Obama administration didn’t publicly react as if anything dysfunctional had happened.  The concerns were noted, but the signers were not condemned or disciplined.  There would be no Nixonian threats of tax audits or shortened careers.

We’ve since learned that other agencies, including the CIA, have something similar: teams whose jobs it is to present counter-arguments to planned courses of action.

Of course the press loves to report on bureaucracies at war with themselves.  But an alternative narrative is equally plausible and definitively preferable. As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in a famous decent on a First Amendment case:   “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”  A marketplace of competing ideas is a noble thing, and can be adapted to almost any organization.  Well articulated dissents should have the effect of saving a nation or an organization from an action that will fail.

Done in the right spirit, a formal channel for registering another view on a momentous course of action can be a good thing.

Decision-makers in both public and private organizations ought to welcome substantive challenges to planned policies.  Done in the right spirit, a formal channel for registering another view on a momentous course of action can be a good thing. Decision-makers can quickly learn just how good or how vulnerable a planned course of action really is.  Think of this as the old question box converted into a more formal mechanism for review of a pending policy.

Of course all sides have to be intellectually secure in their reasons. It has to be understood that the subject under discussion is not a person, but an idea.  This can be a major hurdle if individuals or units have redefined approval of a proposed action as a test of their power or legitimacy.

If this problem of personalization can be avoided a lot of can be gained.  With this dissent mechanism in place we might have never seen the Edsel, “New” Coke, the Iraq War, the Apple Watch, Brexit, and any of thousands of similar misadventures.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

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