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Is there a reason bureaucracies seem to always expand? Is there a reason why a committee that was set up to resolve a problem often time gets of life of its own and outlives the problem? Is there an organizational equivalent to the second law of thermodynamics in physics that says that the entropy or disorder of a system always tends to grow? What are the equivalent mechanics that fuel bureaucratic expansion?

I present in this blog entry a generic bureaucratic growth scenario that is inspired by real experiences. The scenario is organized in a number of steps and most steps are conceptually reinforced by the words of a few individuals who are held in high regard by society.

(Step 1) The bureaucracy’s leadership defines a grand and worthy-sounding vision that needs to be pursued.

Because the leaders don’t have a complete and clear understanding of all the implications of the vision they propose, there is usually some degree of ambiguity associated with an otherwise worthy-sounding pursuit. A sound vision requires a deep understanding of the context. And a prerequisite to understanding in complicated domains requires clear organization of the complete knowledge in that domain, or an ontology. But there are many bureaucracies which operate without an awareness of the total knowledge they are supposed to possess and manage. And there are many leaders within those bureaucracies who do not possess the understanding required. An applicable quote from Profession John Gero is: “ontologies provide a domain with a structure for the knowledge in that domain. Domains without ontologies are constantly inventing new terms for existing knowledge and find it difficult to develop foundations on which others can build.”

Nevertheless, even with an ambiguous or incomplete vision…

(Step 2) Planning the work to achieve the vision begins.

Because the true implications of the ambiguity and incompleteness of the vision are not thought-through, there is usually a disconnect between the vision and the time and budget allotted. This increases the pressure on executing the vision, decreasing the opportunity to question the context, the validity of the vision. Because the subordinates are judged by checking off the vision or goal, they concentrate on just that. In a strive for efficiency (get the product out, meet the deadline so we can check off the box) effectiveness (i.e. context) becomes skewed. An applicable quote from Peter Drucker is “efficiency is a matter of doing things right; effectiveness is a matter of doing the right things.” But doing the “right things” takes enough up-front thinking, and it also takes pushing back on a vision or goal that doesn’t make sense.

But it’s already too late for that…

(Step 3) The initiative/project/product gets a life of its own.

This happens because it starts being tracked in the operational systems of the bureaucracy. These are however by definition not designed to be sensitive to context. That is because context takes thinking, and it cannot be easily measured with simple metrics: there is no such thing as a kilogram of context. The chance for someone noticing a fault with the initial vision diminishes at this point exponentially. That is because these context-blind operational systems have a direct impact on the employee’s performance, and they don’t measure context and validity. So arguing that the work doesn’t make sense, can only get one in trouble, since “doesn’t make sense” is not something that operational systems track.

And so, Drucker’s “doing the right things” turns decisively into “doing things right”, or else!

(Step 4): The vision cannot be wrong!

The initiative/project/product is clearly out of tune with the initial vision. The results are just not conclusive and the output isn’t useful. But it has since acquired a life of its own, and even if its ineffectiveness is obvious, no one dares to take the blame for fear of punishment. The disconnect eventually becomes apparent to the leadership, but even the executives who initiated the vision don’t have the political courage or power to declare the vision erroneous.  Doing so would mean taking the blame for X millions/billions spent in vain. And so, attempts are made to fix the initiative/project/product from within rather than scrapping it altogether, acknowledging the financial loss, and re-examining the initial premises. The same thinking and methods that created the problem are used to attempt to correct it, which is a futile exercise. Albert Einstein has a powerful insight for this type of situation: “we can’t solve problems with the same type of thinking that was used to create them”.

(Step 5): Fear and stubbornness are good companions.

Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge blame and scrap the project, the organization continues to try to do the wrong thing righter. But Russell Ackoff rightly cautions against this approach:  “most large social systems are pursuing objectives other than the ones they proclaim, and the ones they pursue are wrong. They try to do the wrong thing righter, and this makes what they do wronger. It is much better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right, because when errors are corrected, it makes doing the wrong thing wronger but the right thing righter”.

(Step 6): Outside intervention!

An outside intervention is eventually necessary, and this usually takes the incarnation of a new committee. New procedures and processes are set up to prevent this “type” of problem from occurring in the future. The new procedures and processes themselves get a life of their own and have to be maintained which means new job roles or at the very least new job responsibilities are added, and the bureaucracy expands.

(Step 7 and 1) A new bold vision is defined

And the rest is…déjà-vu!