Wednesday, June 18, 2014


~~  “You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”  --Thomas Sowell   ~~

After soaking myself in ruminations on virtues and vices (and physics) for so long now, I am seeing a new angle to answering an old question that has plagued me for a long, long time.  The old question is: what the heck is up with bureaucracies?  How do they begin and proliferate so quickly- and why are they nigh impossible to get rid of?  My new angle itself begins with a question: what happens when the agents of evil exploit the force of entropy and mankind's inherent weaknesses?  The answer is, of course:  Bureaucracy happens.  I'll explain.

There is not a person in this country (or most any other country) who has not experienced (i.e., been a victim of) bureaucratic "efficiency."  We see it happening all around us-- and often we recognize that we have been drawn into it and have actually become a part of it.  Seemingly good and decent people can become something other than that when acting under its "gentle" auspices and "helpful" procedures and policies.

The prime directive of the bureaucracy is: "Must. Follow. Procedure."  The immediate corollary is: "Must. Develop. More. Procedures."  Take these two foundational imperatives and before you know it, viola: we are awash in bureaucratic minutia.

~~  "Bureaucracy gives birth to itself and then expects maternity benefits."  
--Dale Dauten  ~~

Let's break down this beast and see what it looks like and what it does (and does not do).  There are a few principles that I have observed that will serve to help us understand what we're dealing with:

Bureaucracies prevent actual accomplishment.  They are, by their very nature, antithetical to mission-focused action.  This is because there is an institutional need or inclination to follow rigid and complex (and often circular) procedures and processes for their own sake.  I've seen an analogy of a bureaucracy wherein everyone stands in a circle and the first one to do anything loses.  Richard Nixon said that in a bureaucracy, change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos of the system.  Important to note, though, that changes to the intricacies of the processes is very important to the bureaucracy, because it gives the impression that things are happening.

~~  "Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status."  --Laurence J. Peter ("Peter Principle" founder)  ~~

Bureaucracies grow by feeding off of a mysterious substance called "Metrics."  This is the engine of the beast... the "justification" fuel through which people and systems seek to prove that they should continue to exist (and grow).  Metrics are a food that grows spontaneously and cannot ever be truly consumed. Instead, they multiply like the loaves and fishes, except in a sinister and eminently destructive way.  Paperwork increases as you spend more and more time reporting on the less and less that you are doing.

It is not necessary for the metrics to have value (and in fact, they seldom do), they only have to claim to show... something.  Their hidden value, of course, lies in perpetuating the institutional story-line that something worthwhile is happening within all the processes and functions.  Further value comes when the metrics show "issues" (and here is the growth center of the beast).   Oh, dear... now something really must be done because a process is askew!  We need a corrective action plan!  And more people to implement it!  And a team to come in behind the corrections to evaluate their results.  So... to survive and thrive, the bureaucracy continues to empower prolific bureaucrats and misplaced managers to further develop context-free metrics and hollow corrective action plans.  

Picture it:  Section Alpha does the creative work.  To prove that they are doing their job properly and working efficiently, we create Section Bravo.  So Bravo (auditors/assessors and report writers) conducts meetings with, and piles endless forms to fill out on, the people in Alpha... all to prove they are working efficiently.  No doubt you've noticed that this prevents Alpha from doing such, because they are now spending all their time filling out forms and entertaining auditors.  None of this matters to Bravo or to management, since they have happily checked off the box that says Alpha has been audited/assessed.  They also have the option (often exercised) of bringing in another group of auditors to verify that Bravo did the thing correctly.  Soon, we can see, Alpha is outnumbered by the pen-pushers... and our best people are consumed with more and more bureaucratic tasks – just to fulfill the demands of the ever-increasing metrics machine.

So devilishly simple and virulent.

~~  "Bureaucrats write memoranda both because they appear to be busy when they are writing and because the memos, once written, immediately become proof that they were busy."  --Charles Peters  ~~

Bureaucracies often grow to resemble a religion (and the aforementioned "Metrics" are the main sacrament).  There are bishops (district managers), priests (general managers), deacons (supervisors and leads), and the laity (you and me).  All worship at the alter of procedures and functions and directives; and sins against these most holy scrolls are punished harshly.

~~  "If you are going to sin, then sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won't."  --Admiral Hyman Rickover  ~~

Virtue shrinks in a bureaucracy.  The bureaucratic system allows people to hide behind layers... thereby absolving them of basic decency and Charity.  There is no Hope in a bureaucracy.  Bureaucrats claim Faith to the system, instead of to God.  Justice and actual fairness become casualties of bureaucratic relativism.  So, in the human aspect of the bureaucracy, we often see the worst being brought out in people.  Bureaucracies seek to pit people against one another toward the end of furthering the system.  

In fact, several of the Seven Deadly Sins (Capital Vices) are routinely on full display within the bureaucracy: To name a few:  Vainglory (bureaucrats must look good to other bureaucrats), Greed ("my position," "my project," and promotions equal more money, which equals more stuff), Sloth (oh, yes, how often bureaucrats do anything except what they ought!), and Envy ("I wish I had his office..."  "I hate how the boss always talks to her...").

Bureaucracies are uncaring.  Although filled with otherwise good people, a coldness and an air of institutional arrogance permeates everywhere.  A sense of good humor is not within the DNA of the bureaucracy, but the people inside it often have a well-developed sense of "gallows humor."  We know what's going on here, of course we do... and we feel that we have only two choices: find a way to survive within it or find a way to get out of it.  Coping through humor that stresses the "misery loves company" theme is a preferred method for many people ensconced in the belly of the beast.  This coldness can be more than just a matter of hurt feelings, depending upon the nature and power of the organization.  Lives can be ruined.

~~  “The larger the state, the more callous it becomes... the colder its heart. It is also true that the bigger the corporation, the more callous its heart. But unlike the state, corporations have competition and have no police powers.”  --Dennis Prager  ~~

Bureaucracies frown on true leadership (the way an infection frowns upon an antibiotic).  Much lip-service is given to leadership within most organizations, but the proof is in the bureaucratic pudding.  "Management" is seen as the virtue to strive for; and the term is often erroneously used interchangeably with leadership.  Senior managers are often so insulated from the front lines and so entrenched in the processes and functions that they can no longer relate to the actual mission.  

Hallmarks of leadership such as decision making are severely retarded in a bureaucracy.  Decisions are avoided and delayed; and on the occasions when they are made, it is often done in groups within the bureaucracy, so no one can be held responsible.  Bureaucratic management is concerned with "safe" decisions and protecting the system and the manager's place within it.  Leadership, of course, cares not for "safe" decisions-- only good and righteous ones.

Free thinking is not tolerated-- anything outside the "party line" is frowned upon; therefore, innovation is extremely difficult within a bureaucracy. (Think about that for a minute.)  General Patton famously said that if everyone is thinking alike, then "someone isn't thinking."  That nicely sums up the "collective mind" nature of a bureaucracy.

This dearth of leadership is due in no small part to factors such as:

Bureaucracies are awash in the dreaded "zero-defects" mentality-- meaning mistakes are not tolerated.  (By the way, micromanagement is always a companion to zero-defects.)  General James Jones, USMC, called the zero-defects mentality a "cancer that could eat us all."  This mentality is acknowledged in both military and corporate circles to be grossly ineffective and pure poison to morale and efficiency.  It produces timid leaders and employees who are afraid to make tough and timely decisions, who hide mistakes, and who will often go out of their way to avoid taking responsibility (ownership) for anything.  Whatever you do, do not take action on a sudden and unusual problem... because if you do something that doesn't work, you may get a negative entry in your file or appraisal: "Takes risky chances, which can lead to extra costs and inconveniences. Not recommended for promotion."  This is a universal truth about bureaucracies everywhere in the world.

Bureaucracies are contributing to the end of the universe.  Entropy is a good metaphor for what the bureaucracy does.  The second law of thermodynamics says that in an isolated system (our bureaucracy, for example), entropy will cause spontaneous evolution from order and energy towards maximum disorder and no energy.  This will, as the theories go, lead to the ultimate "heat death of the universe," wherein things have diminished to a state of no free energy and therefore can no longer sustain processes that consume energy (including computation and life).  If that does not sum up a bureaucracy, I don't know what does.

So, what do we do about this maddening, entropic syndrome called bureaucracy that has seemingly overtaken almost all aspects of human endeavor?  Well, how about another metaphoric comparison to start?

Bureaucracies are actually reptilian monsters.  I have been calling the bureaucracy a "beast," because that is how it appears to me-- and in Greek mythology I find a good way to illustrate it.  One of the labors of Hercules was to attempt to kill the Hydra-- an ancient serpent-like water monster with reptilian traits. It had many heads (one of which was immortal) and when a head was cut off or smashed, two more grew in its place. It also had poisonous breath and blood, by the way.  Well, along comes Herc, protecting his nose and mouth with a filter cloth and smashing away at the heads... but then (uh, oh) he realized the thing about the multiplying heads.  For this problem, he got his nephew to use a torch to cauterize the bloody stump after a head was smashed by Herc's club.  Eventually, the demi-god defeated the beast (even while dealing with a monstrous crab, sent by Hera to help the Hydra) by lopping off the immortal head with a golden sword.

This is our bureaucracy-- a poisonous monster with a seemingly endless supply of new heads.  The immortal head is management.  The poisonous breath and blood are the procedures, processes, and functions.  The rejuvenating heads are the endless audits and assessments.

Bureaucracies can be defeated (but it's very difficult).  The filter cloth we must use against dizzying procedures, processes, and functions is a mission-driven model for conducting business.  Our torch and club to use against endless audits and assessments are value-added, contextualized metrics that point straight to mission accomplishment (not process accomplishment).  The golden sword is, of course, real leadership that influences human beings and leads them in proper directions to accomplish the mission.

The cynic would understandably say that it is not that simple... and I would agree.  History has shown that even things that began with great intentions and true nobility usually descend into disorder and chaos (damn that entropy!).

~~  "Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."  
--Franz Kafka  ~~

Still, having the knowledge that the Hydra can be beaten can help us keep a watchful eye against the re-emergence of the beast.  We have seen that with bureaucracies, as with virtually all issues in human endeavors, it boils down to leadership.

So, to all out there trapped in the belly of the Hydra: keep hope alive and practice good leadership at all levels!  Ultimately, the golden sword, wielded properly in worthy hands, is our best hope.

God bless!


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