Many large organizations increase their levels of internal bureaucracy and end up creating ‘specially designed’ procedures to satisfy the internal desires for control and security of their front lines. In this article I give you some clues about what incremental bureaucracy is and how to combat it.

Bureaucracy: a 19th century technology

The corporate bureaucracy has not always been a pernicious or pathological element. When it was created by organizational engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, it made sense. It was the 19th century and companies had a series of characteristics:

  • Most of the workers were illiterate.
  • Managerial powers were scarce
  • Information was difficult to obtain
  • Change was gradual or linear

Although these circumstances no longer exist today, we are witnessing the phenomenon in which many organizations, as they grow, have more employees, increase their levels of internal bureaucracy, and there comes a time when these grow more than the business, producing the phenomenon called incremental bureaucracy.

Incremental bureaucracy and organizational arteriosclerosis

In these circumstances it can become a true organizational pathology. If we could assimilate it to a human pathology it would be arteriosclerosis. Let us remember that this disease produces a hardening or lack of flexibility in the arteries that causes a narrowing (sclerosis) of the same and that can progress until the occlusion of the vessel, preventing the flow of blood. In the same way, bureaucracy produces a narrowing of the company’s communication, innovation and collaboration channels that prevent talent, the blood of an organization, from flowing.

Why do companies abuse bureaucracy?

There are a few reasons why companies can abuse bureaucracy:

  1. To control employees: By making rules and procedures too complicated, companies can make it difficult for employees to understand what they are supposed to do and can easily punish them if they don’t follow the rules.
  2. To avoid liability: By adding layers of rules and procedures, companies can make it harder to hold anyone accountable for anything that goes wrong. Many large organizations suffer from high risk aversion. There are many managers afraid of losing their salaries
  3. To justify the very existence of both individuals and organizational units: Bureaucracies can be self-perpetuating, with employees whose job it is to maintain the bureaucracy rather than to do anything productive. As organizational charts become more extensive, the decision-making process tends to move away from the recipients of the decisions: the customers. The result is that control departments become more powerful and positions, units or committees are created whose purpose is simply to ensure that this bureaucracy exists and, if possible, expands.

Consequences of bureaucratic abuse

If the abuse of bureaucracy is not controlled in companies, it can have a series of negative consequences. It has been confirmed that we can specifically define the following:

  1. Decreased productivity as a consequence of the slow and gradual increase in the number of rules, regulations and procedures.
  2. Decreased employee morale and commitment Employees may feel that their work is not valued or that their contributions are not recognized.
  3. Increase in hierarchy layers and proliferation of C-levels. It is accompanied by an increase in staff teams and accumulation of power in central services.
  4. Increased complexity of internal processes and multiplication of rules. Interdependencies become more tangled and employees feel confused.
  5. Increase in the number of KPIs and scorecards. Analysis paralysis appears due to the difficulty of integrating information for decision-making.
  6. The responsibility is diffused. Committees proliferate so that decision-making is socialized. A large number of issues are escalated to Senior Management.

If you perceive several or all of the above symptoms in your organization, you should analyze whether bureaucracy has become an objective in itself (what I call bureaucratic onanism) or if there is still any possibility of speeding up the development of processes. Also if you are part of the system or have become an outsider of it.

Approach to incremental bureaucracy from the leadership

Almost always a bureaucratic culture starts from the existence of a leadership with a marked bureaucratic character. That leadership is characterized by a focus on rules, procedures, as well as a lack of creativity and flexibility. It’s hard to combat because it blurs from top to bottom on the hierarchical ladder. Those managers who do not participate in it become stigmatized characters, too fond of risk, and end up being pushed aside.

And what can be done?

Here are some steps you can take to get rid of that red tape.

  1. Analyze internal/external processes. You can start by incorporating an opinion survey on the matter, asking your employees about the level of agility of the different processes in the process map (if you don’t have it updated, you should start there).
  2. Carry out process reengineering. Those processes that are critical and that have obtained the worst level of agility must be rethought. Spare no effort in analyzing how things can be done more efficiently.
  3. Apply technology to gain efficiency. You will realize that those routine tasks can be replaced by technology through RPA (Robotic Process Automation) more easily than you can imagine.
  4. Develop a change management strategy. This is the most complicated part. Incremental bureaucracy generates a great deal of resistance to change because it puts the focus on those areas of the company that perceive it as a risk. We do not have enough space here to detail all the measures: management of transformation teams, use of agile methodologies to execute the change, appointment of early adopters and their functions, agile communication, etc…
  5. Use the data to monitor progress. predictive decision making. The new indicators should measure degrees of progress, not static situations. And data should help us make decisions about the future rather than justify the past.

Finally, the steering committee must be a promoter of change. If you don’t perceive the pathology and find yourself trapped in the bureaucratic tangle, perhaps it’s time to look for alternatives.

Ricardo Alfaro

Other articles by Ricardo Alfaro:

How to make a strategic plan in five steps

Is the four-day work week viable?