Superbosses Playbook: Bureaucracy Busters

How to remove bureaucratic roadblocks by mobilizing the cohort effect

Photo by StartupStockPhotos via Pixabay.
“My team knows firsthand what slows down their work. Isn’t it time I listened?”

In 2018, Elon Musk sent an internal email that advised Tesla employees to cancel or walk out of unnecessary meetings, avoid acronyms, bypass hierarchy, and simply ignore ridiculous rules that impede work. His efforts are hardly unique: many leaders are now attempting to simplify their workplaces in an effort to improve productivity, innovation, and overall competitiveness. Superbosses are many steps ahead here, favoring close, informal relationships and banishing any workplace elements that interfere with them.

For workplaces that already suffer from excessive bureaucracy, the behavior of superbosses also points us toward a powerful approach for enacting reforms. Superbosses foster a “cohort effect” in which team members help one another to develop and grow. Why not channel this cohort effect to help the organization as a whole, enlisting team members to bust bureaucracy instead of pushing reforms from the top on down, as Musk did? Your team members know which elements of bureaucracy impede work, and which enable or support it. By soliciting their guidance, and especially by faithfully listening to and implementing their feedback, you can further build team spirit even as you put conditions in place at work that allow teams and individuals to succeed.


Step one: Solicit ideas from your team

If the number of meetings inside an organization has become excessive, there is room for one more: a “bureaucracy busting” meeting. Schedule a time for your team to come together to discuss ways of removing excessive bureaucracy and hierarchy. To ensure that this meeting will be productive, ask individual team members to come prepared with ideas on how to simplify, focusing on the following areas:

  • Decision Making: How can we streamline it so that decisions are made more quickly, with authority devolving to individual team members? Example: Look for a process that requires sign-offs from others and eliminate at least one (or more) of these roadblocks on a trial basis.
  • Workspace: How can we redesign our work areas to make them more open, less formal, and less hierarchical? Example: Short of hiring an architect to redesign your entire office, is there a space you can designate for informal conversation and discussion? Can you move the coffee machine or water cooler to a common area rather than a closed-off kitchen?
  • Meetings: How can we eliminate unnecessary gatherings? Example: Make a list of all the regular meetings attended by team members and ask whether each team member needs to attend. Create a rule that for most meetings, attendees must be centrally involved in the work of that meeting; otherwise, they shouldn’t attend. Have attendees avoid meetings that exist solely for the sharing of information, and develop other ways to stay informed.
  • Communications: How can we minimize the number of emails and other communications we need in the course of daily work? Example: Have all team members review all the emails they sent over the course of the day, identifying those that were not essential or that copied unnecessary people, resolving not to send similar messages in the future. Once a month, try “email free” days where people have to communicate only in person or by phone.
  • Human Resources Policies: How can we simplify procedures for taking time off, organizing work-related travel, claiming benefits, and so on? Example: Can your organization move to a more informal, unlimited time-off policy instead of offering formal vacation days? Netflix and Virgin Group both follow this policy today. If that seems too ambitious, can you reduce the number of rules and/or procedures that relate to reimbursement for travel expenses?
  • Procurement: How can we simplify procedures for purchasing goods and services we need to serve our customers? Example: Can your team simplify the procurement process, minimizing rules and giving procurement officers more discretion? Can you reduce the number and length of legal documents required to get a deal done?
  • Product Development: How can we innovate our products and services more quickly? Example: Can your team reduce the number of sign-offs required to secure R&D funding for a new product idea? Can you speed up the process of testing new product ideas with customers? Can you create new venues for the more fluid sharing of new product ideas, such as adoption of a social collaboration platform?

During the meeting, do the following:

  • Work through these areas one by one, paying special attention to any technological solutions that might enable simplification, such as apps or social collaboration tools.
  • Above all, encourage team members to share their ideas for busting bureaucracy.
  • If you have opinions of your own, keep them to yourself until you’ve heard from team members.
  • Encourage employees with dissenting opinions to speak, clarifying that your intention is to find opportunities to reduce red tape without compromising essential rules and processes.
  • When employees disagree, allow the debates to run their course: you want to harness the same wonderful mixture of competition and collaboration that characterizes the cohort effect generally.
  • Be sure to take notes on the key ideas, or to have someone jot them down on a whiteboard as the discussion proceeds.

Step two: Review feedback

Within a week of the meeting, while the ideas are still fresh, organize them into a list. Then go one by one through the suggestions, jotting the pros and cons down using the template on the next page. Your job here is to consider which of the rules, procedures, process steps, meetings, and so on really are disposable, and which are actually essential to operations. As you go along, note suggestions for “bureaucracy busting” that seem immediately practicable. On the other hand, if you find yourself resisting suggestions enthusiastically supported by most or all team members, reflect hard on whether it might not be possible to make reforms in this area. Highlight these items so that you can come back to them later.

Illustration by the author.

Step three: Take action

For this exercise to add value, you must be prepared to act on your team members’ suggestions. But don’t feel you have to do everything at once.

  • Pick one or two suggestions to implement during the first month.
  • Pick another one or two to implement in each of the months that follow.
  • Continue until you’ve exhausted the list of potential reforms.
  • If your team environment is terribly compromised by bureaucracy, you might wish to proceed more quickly than this, but in most situations, one or two items per month is a good pace.
  • Make the changes public, and be sure to remind everyone that you’re implementing team member suggestions.

Step four: Ongoing consultation

To entrench bureaucracy busting as a cultural norm, create an annual or biannual meeting in which you review your efforts in this area, solicit the team’s feedback on these efforts as well as new ideas for simplification, and preview organizational changes to come. Use these meetings as well to discuss those more challenging suggestions that team members felt strongly about, but that you felt were impractical. Is there a creative way to remove these pieces of bureaucracy while addressing the specific concerns you harbor? Challenge your team to come up with answers.

Keep this standing meeting as short as possible. The last thing you want to do when eliminating bureaucracy is to add yet another long and boring meeting. But don’t assume that this meeting isn’t important — it is! Shaking people out of their established routines (especially those that don’t really add value) will boost engagement and may open the door to additional change. Also, removing even some of the unseen hassles of everyday work will score you points with team members who may have resigned themselves to bureaucratic work-life routines.


Takeaways

  • If excessive bureaucracy is slowing your team down, don’t simply enact reforms yourself — enlist your team to help solve the problem.
  • Mobilize lively discussion about the practicability of removing bureaucratic rules, processes, and so on. Get team members collaborating and competing to offer solutions that benefit everyone.
  • Listen to your team members and take action. If you don’t, you’ll have only succeeded in creating yet another bureaucratic process that impedes work and accomplishes nothing.

Excerpted from The Superbosses Playbook: A Workbook Companion to SUPERBOSSES by Sydney Finkelstein with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Sydney Finkelstein, 2019.