Bureaucracies Can Help—That’s Why We Have Them

Creativity and bureaucracy may seem like two completely different animals but, like monkeys and pandas, they can learn to coexist (Do monkeys and pandas coexist? Even if they don’t, it makes for a nice mental picture).

You expect your employees to do the new things: create new content, design new graphics, imagine new products, come up with new hairstyles, whatever. But in the midst of all that new stuff, there are things that need to get done over and over, and if you are planning on being a successful business, you need to do those things efficiently. That’s where bureaucracies come in.

Bureaucracies get a bad rap because when they aren’t designed properly they are can be very inefficient. Any organization trying to be innovative will often look at them with disdain because they represent repetition rather than new ideas. But sometimes, repetition is what you need; would you really want to come up with a new pay system every month, or change your IT vendors at random intervals? Of course not. Bureaucrats — good ones — keep things running smoothly, and the best ones are able to adapt when things don’t go as planned.

Some of your bureaucratic functions can be contracted out — many HR operations are outsourcing the day-to-day work while keeping the strategic planning capability within the staff, and the days of the in-house travel specialist are largely behind us. But you still have plenty of things that need to be done routinely, such as in-processing your new employees and out-processing departing ones, overseeing performance reviews, contracting with vendors, and other tasks that perhaps your front-line, customer-facing employees or your creative, innovative types shouldn’t be worrying about, but which really need to get done for all those people to be able to do their work. You need people who can come up with easy ways to make sure these routine tasks get done the same way over and over, so no one has to give them a lot of thought each time…and that’s the definition of a bureaucracy. When properly designed, they save money by allowing you to employ fewer people while still getting everything done, and they add to revenue by keeping your revenue-generating people focused on the things that make money.

What you want to avoid, of course, is having those bureaucracies get in the way of the revenue-generating work. It’s one thing if they need to restrict your employees to conform with essential company policy or legal requirements or ethical considerations, but it’s something else entirely if they make it hard for your employees to do their jobs without some substantial benefit. After all, you need your employees to be focused on the mission of your organization, and they shouldn’t be stopped by the very processes that are meant to support them. If your employees are feeling slowed down or otherwise limited because they have to do something for no reason other than “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” even if that process no longer makes sense, then something needs to change. It often happens that bureaucracies grow unchecked and become barriers rather than support mechanisms; when that happens, you need to be willing to scale them back to what’s needed to achieve business success.

The next time you spout off about “worthless bureaucrats,” remember that some of them ARE worthless, but only because the individuals themselves are; bureaucrats, as a whole, are necessary to the profitable conduct of business, and they keep your other employees from having to do things that would take them away from their creativity.

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