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Regain resilience – counteract the organization's "scar tissue"

Do you ever find that administrative procedures make even small tasks so cumbersome that you give up beforehand? And even though those who devised the systems may think there's a method to the madness, does it seem to you more like a case of madness in the method?

When rules become more important than initiative and results

A former manager once asked me to organize a workshop for some colleagues. The office was completely devoid of creative workshop materials, so I happily hopped in my car and drove to the nearest office supply store. Where I couldn't take so much as an eraser back without a requisition. Regardless of having both cash and credit cards, and more than enough money to cover the cost (this wasn't in Denmark).

When I returned dejected, my manager's secretary discreetly hid a small smile before patiently explaining the company's procurement policy. As an ordinary employee, one couldn't just take initiative like that and expect reimbursement and approval afterward. There was a fixed procedure for such things, regardless of the scale of the acquisition. Now that I asked, she would gladly help me fill out the necessary forms (it took its time).

Having learned my lesson, I never took a similar initiative again.

Say "no" to the rule impulse

The founders of the company behind the Basecamp teamwork tool, in their book "ReWork," introduced the metaphor of "organizational scar tissue" for rules and procedures. In their view, these often arise as formalizations of overreactions to unique situations that are unlikely to repeat themselves or are no longer relevant—despite anecdotes of "that time when things were about to go completely wrong."

And just like muscle tissue after a sports injury, the scar tissue may be just as strong as the original muscle fibers, but it is stiff and never becomes as flexible as before. So, it's better to remain calm and resist the urge to introduce a new rule.

As the authors say: Just because an employee shows up in shorts on a hot summer day (where it's not acceptable), we don't need to immediately impose a dress code on everyone. Maybe we just discreetly ask John to wear long pants tomorrow.

So, the first line of defense in preserving the organization's mobility is to try to say "no" when the impulse for a new rule arises.

Fight your organization's BMI

As you may have experienced firsthand—perhaps even literally—this is unfortunately not always sufficient. Harvard researchers Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini analyze in their excellent manifesto "Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them" how the roots of bureaucracy go much deeper than lacking impulse control.

Referring to sociologist Max Weber, they describe the many advantages of the rule-based organizational form. Especially in comparison to what preceded it historically. A modern bureaucracy protects individuals from abuse by authorities who are otherwise only bound by their own whims; creates efficiency and security through clear decision rules and role distribution; and ensures coordinated, consistent performance in line with overarching goals, etc. In the sense that bureaucracy seeks to protect us from some of the darker sides of human nature, Weber therefore views its "inhumanity" as a good thing.

Unfortunately, this often leads to a corresponding dehumanization of the individual, with unrealistic demands on members throughout the organization, and resulting in unproductive power struggles, dissatisfaction, and lack of engagement. Not least, it reinforces a centralized model of decision-making and resource allocation that simply cannot move fast enough in the face of an increasingly unpredictable environment. We may try to meet change through frequent reorganizations, but this is too expensive, too slow, and too demotivating.

The two researchers recommend instead that we shift our focus from maximizing control to maximizing individual contribution and suggest a number of things we can try. For example, individual leaders can undergo their "detox for bureaucrats" program, the organization can monitor its "Bureaucratic Mass Index (BMI)," and we can all take countermeasures against the administrative obstacles that currently weigh us down the most.

Do it again and again

In our "Flow based leadership" lecture series, we talk, among other things, about implementing a regular "service check" of each workgroup or area, where one of the fixed agenda items is to address rules, agreements, and procedures that either help or hinder us. In this specific case, we are inspired by the Kanban world's STATIK method. But the important point is that with the new ways of working, we already have a predictable pattern of recurring events. If we make "rule renovation" a regular item, we therefore have a chance to keep the thicket of rules at bay without having to exhibit superhuman impulse control and without excessive drama.

The problem is self-made, so we can solve it ourselves

According to Hamel and Vanini, the dirty secret of bureaucracy is that it is largely self-made, even in industries subject to strict external regulation. So, for example, ask in your management group:

  • How can we strengthen our ability to resist the impulse to introduce more rigid rules as a knee-jerk reaction to unforeseen events?

  • What is our organization's "Bureaucratic Mass Index (BMI)" today, where should it be tomorrow, and how do we get there?

  • What attentions can each of us, and collectively, pay to leadership behavior that reinforces rigidity and bureaucracy but hinders engagement and adaptability?

  • How can we get better at seizing recurring opportunities to give agreements, rules, and procedures a "service check"?

  • How can we encourage safe-to-fail experiments that can pave the way for an organization that increasingly liberates energy and engagement—without compromising control and coordination?

How will you, in general, counteract administrative "scar tissue" that hampers your organization's ability to embrace change as an opportunity?

Ulrik H. Gade

Follow me on LinkedIn - questions and comments are very welcome Want to know more? Check out our workshops, talks and action learning programmes on flow-based leadership. 


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