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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Traditions, habits and bureaucracy...


“Tradition is a guide, not a jailer.” (W. Somerset Maugham). Those words (once again from the blog Jacks Wining Words), got me thinking about how traditions and habits seem to become jailers or at least can restrict one's thinking enough to trap you in place. The hair stands up a bit on the back of my neck every time I hear "We've always done it that way." That's especially true if I've just asked someone why something is done in a way that doesn't seem right to me or efficient or, in some cases, doesn't even make sense.

If you really persist in trying to find out why something is done a certain way - a tradition or a policy or rule - many times you find that it was someone's arbitrary decision sometime it the past and that "someone" is now long gone. What you've stumbled upon at that point is bureaucracy at it finest. The world is full of bureaucrats, most of whom are perfectly happy to carry out the policies that were set by others. That way they can feel no sense of responsibility for anything that happens. After all they're just "following the way its always been done," implementing the policy.

The other sure sign that you've stumbled onto a full blown bureaucracy is to look for forms. If there is a form for everything that you might want to do, you're in a bureaucracy. Forms take personal involvement out of the decision making process and take accountability out of the decisions. Forms usually go to some through some mysterious process, ending up at unidentified decision making committee where everyone can find plausible deniability for whatever decision is made. If all else fails, the form was probably filled out wrong, so the originator of the form is at fault.

This week's Business Week has a great article about fighting bureaucracy in organizations, written by Jack and Suzy Welch. As I reflected upon this article I realized that even my company has become a bureaucracy. There are forms for everything and most of the "communications" that occurs in the organization is through the impersonal use of email. We still have weekly sales meetings in each office, in which quite a bit of personal communications takes place and I can still go talk to the office manager if I have a problem or issue that I need help with; but, for almost everything to do with "headquarters" there is a form. And behind every form, there is a procedure or policy and "that's how we've always done it."

Come Sancho, I see a new windmill ahead!

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