For those people unfamiliar with Parkinson’s Law it is usually stated as, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” It is seen as one of the great truisms about working life and is one of the laws that contributes to the biggest bogeyman in modern corporate life: bureaucracy.
Everyone bemoans bureaucracy (and rightly so), but one thing I find startling is the number of managers I have encountered over my career who say they want to reduce bureaucracy whilst simultaneously behaving in a way that greatly increases it. They obviously feel it is the right thing to say – “that looks great, but is it too… I don’t know… bureaucratic?” without really giving much thought to what that means or how it might be made less so.
Since listening to Robin Ince’s programme a couple of months ago, I have spent quite a bit of time considering the issue of bureaucracy, the places I’ve encountered it and how best to reduce it. And I’ve come to a conclusion about the greatest contributor to bureaucracy. Of course there are hundreds of causes of bureaucracy – in fact it would take an office full of people several weeks to list them all (see what I did there?). But for me, this is the most important.
So here it is: if you want to drastically reduce the levels of bureaucracy in your organisation, the single best thing you can do? Trust your people.
It strikes me, that bureaucracy springs predominantly from a lack of trust. This, combined with a fairly lazy approach to problem solving creates the bureaucracy that so many of us live with.
If you do not trust people to do their jobs, you will start to micromanage them – that is, you will continually look over their shoulder to check they are doing the job the way you think it should be done. But micromanagement creates an overhead for the person doing it. It takes up a huge chunk of the manager’s time as well as the poor individual who has to account for their every movement. And what if you have a team of 20 people? Before you know it, it’s a full time job just checking up on the work being done. Or worse yet, you decide that more managers are what’s required to keep the work on track. Indeed, one of the worst things about this kind of management is that it is self-perpetuating and reproduces itself ad infinitum.
The manager in this situation might decide that they don’t have time to check up on the work of the people reporting to them. How, then, to ensure the work is being done to your exacting standards? The conclusion that many (incorrectly) draw is to insert needless checkpoints and tick-boxes. Do not pass GO (until these conditions are met); Do not collect £200 (until this form has been completed). In short, they create layers of bureaucracy as a substitute for the micromanagement they do not have the capacity to undertake.
The fundamental, underlying issue with this approach is that it attempts to prescribe precisely how the work should be done. You are effectively trying to manage the work and how it is done. But if you’ve employed people to do it, shouldn’t they – by definition – have the skills to do it? If not, why have you employed them?
So stop managing the work, manage the people.
Work is something to be done, not managed. If you are a manager then your primary focus must be on freeing up the people doing the work to do the work. And for the most part, that means trusting them to get on with it.
I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you hand them a wad of cash at the outset and hope for the best, never again checking in with them. If you make someone accountable for a job, you should hold them accountable for that job – but holding someone accountable is different entirely from looking over someone’s shoulder, or insisting that they follow a highly prescriptive process rather than use their own expertise and experience to navigate the problem. Set objectives and expectations about when the work is to be done and to what standard. And by all means, set up regular progress checks to satisfy yourself that the work is on track. But for the rest of the time, trust the people you have engaged to do the work.
To some people, that will sound like a cop out, as though responsibility for the work is being handed off whilst you sit and put your feet up. You’re half right. Responsibility for the work is being handed off – to those responsible for doing it. But accountability isn’t. You remain ‘in charge’ and must remain engaged with your team to understand any issues preventing them from getting the work done and support them in resolving them. In the meantime, if you choose to sit and put your feet up, that’s your lookout but, more likely – if you’re this sort of good manager – there will be plenty of people who have projects they need you to run. This is precisely why the best managers appear to be spread across so many different initiatives – it’s because they are. And crucially, they only involve themselves to the extent that they need to be involved: to support & motivate, to remove roadblocks and to keep everyone focussed on the finish line. This frees them up to be involved in lots more exciting and stimulating things. Everyone wins.
It’s an unnerving thing to do as a manager. Especially when your head is on the block, so to speak. But it is the only successful way to operate as a manager over the long term. Trust your people, sit back and watch the bureaucracy fall away from your organisation.
Postscript: if these ideas have interested you, I can also recommend reading Rutger Bregman’s fascinating and scholarly ‘Humankind’. In these challenging times, it paints a much more hopeful picture of humanity than we have become accustomed to. And of course, Chapter 8 of my own book has some practical tips on how to manage people in a way that will keep everyone happy and successful. Enjoy!
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