Bureaucracy is the Enemy of Creativity!

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Bureaucracy is based on the assumption that control, predictability and certainty can be created by management. This is mostly nonsense, particularly in today’s hyper-change environment where flexibility is essential. Bureaucracy is the opposite of flexibility because it dictates what workers should do. This is accomplished by rules, polices, procedures, etc.  

Many companies have policy manuals the size of telephone directories which restrict what staff can think and do. Personnel are required to follow a procedure or policy, even if the situation requires a different course of action. The fact that many of the rules and policies in these books are outdated, unnecessarily restrictive, and costly does not seem to bother control-minded managers who insist on keeping them.  

Bureaucracy places unnecessary limits on the thinking and actions of individuals confronting problems that require a new solution. It prevents new ideas from emerging or even being considered. Why think about the many tasks that the policy book says you cannot do? Over time, the result is apathy and poor performance. Just look at government, the ultimate bureaucracy, for evidence of how ineffective and inefficient bureaucracies can get.  

Bureaucracy is like communism. The best example of communism is North Korea, arguably the most repressive country in the world. This is a country where if you say anything against the government, you would likely go to jail or worse. Even complaining about the constant food shortages can get you arrested and sent to a slave work camp, along with your family. While bureaucratic organizations are obviously not as extreme, some are on the same restrictive spectrum.  

Many people work for companies where if you make negative statements about the leadership, policies, etc., you would get ostracized or fired. In such oppressive places, there is an endemic lack of initiative, passion and sharing of ideas. The result is a lack of creativity and flexibility, which are essential to compete and survive in a rapidly changing environment.   Become Creativity's Ally A major step in building a creative culture is to eliminate bureaucracy, or even better, never create it in the first place. Note that some policies and rules are needed for repetitive tasks, or when there is one best way to do a task and the situation surrounding the activity is unlikely to change (e.g., surgery, handling cash, processing nuclear-fuel, etc.). However, when it comes to making decisions in a dynamic competitive environment where creativity, flexibility and risk-taking are needed for innovation, bureaucracy must be eliminated. Doing so gives personnel the freedom to experiment and try new ideas that will best fit a particular situation.  

When Gordon Bethune (former CEO of Continental Airlines) was hired, one of his initial acts was to burn the company’s policy manual as part of his successful turnaround of the company. He removed the policies and rules that were preventing staff from providing great customer service and replaced them with general guidelines and principles. This contributed to the airline quickly going from the worst in customer service and other measures to being the best.  

Giving your followers freedom leads to creative solutions and ideas. Over time, creativity spurs on more creativity. Large-scale creativity can be built on lower-level ideas. Technology in electronics and computers works this way. The latest smart phone has new technology that is built on or with older ones (e.g., plastics) or a smaller scale technology (e.g., transistors, software). In a similar way, innovations in the employee selection process can serve as the foundation for innovative training and unique capabilities that are the basis of innovation.

How to Destroy Bureaucracy

  • Trust skilled, motivated and committed staff to make decisions related to their jobs
  • Replace rules, policies, and procedures with general guidelines or principles that help employees make decisions that are best suited to their situation, but are also consistent with the organization's goals
  • Don't punish mistakes or decisions that don't not work, rather use these as learning opportunities
  • Accept that you operate in a uncertain global environment that requires flexibility and innovative solutions, there is no best way to do things, order and predictability are abnormal
  • Ask staff to tell you what prevents them from doing their jobs better; many rules and policies will likely be identified for removal

Removing bureaucracy helps organizations respond to change with flexibility and innovation and take the reasonable risks needed to do things differently from the competition. The result is improved innovation, competitiveness and happier customers.  

Eric J. Romero, PhD is an expert in Unconventional Leadership, Culture, Strategy & Innovation. He helps managers become unconventional leaders who innovate and beat the competition. Eric partners with them to create competitive advantage based on creativity, flexibility and risk-taking. Eric has written over 35 articles and presented his ideas around the world for over 15 years. He is the author of Compete Outside the Box: The Unconventional Way to Beat the Competition. Originally from New York City, his presentations are delivered with a sense of humor, 100% unedited honesty and street smarts! For more information go to www.CompeteOutsideTheBox.com.  Think Outside the Box so you can Compete Outside the Box®!