Volume 39, June 2004: Bureaucracy

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2004 ISSN # 1545-8873

“Any sufficiently advanced bureaucracy is indistinguishable from molasses.” — Anon

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” — Laurence J. Peter/p>

“A memorandum is written not to inform the reader but to protect the writer.” — Dean Acheson

“A conference is a gathering of important people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done.” — Fred Allen


  • What’s Hot in Leadership
  • Maintaining Yourself as a Leader
  • Frequently Asked Questions from Leaders
  • Educational Opportunities
  • Useful Websites & Newsletters
  • Articles/Publications

What’s Hot in Leadership

  • Streamlining (see Lean Does Not Have to Be Mean).
  • Inviting critique of organizational policies and practices.
  • Cleaning house on administrivia.
  • Developing structures that are fluid and responsive to change.

Maintaining Yourself as a Leader

You probably feel constant pressure to organize. Drawing the organizational chart and moving the boxes around are often the first tasks of a new leader. Be warned that this is the least effective mode of change. Bureaucracy is an attempt to put order into chaos, but the order gets stuck in its own self-importance. To mend its ineffectiveness, leaders mistakenly add more steps and complexity. Consider instead: clarifying the aim, the mission, the end result, the principles, and allowing your systems to self-organize. Group around a task and disband when done.

Frequently Asked Questions

“I am appalled at the size of our Policies and Procedures manual. No one could read all of this, much less understand it. Then we have to police it. What to do?”
One leader I know (and he’s reading this with you) publicly burned the monster, with a ceremony, to symbolize the purge of bureaucracy. Then he began anew, articulating a handful of principles by which organizational members could guide their behavior. He did this with them, not to them. There is only one rule in Nordstrom’s handbook, reflecting three generations of trusting employees to make good decisions. Quote:
  • Use your good judgment in all situations.
  • There will be no additional rules.
  • Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any questions at any time.
“If I abandon rules, don’t I lose control?”
First of all, most rules are built for the exception. There is an implicit message that without the rules, most people would lie, cheat, and steal. In the words of W. Edwards Deming, most policies are constructed for the “special cause.” What this does is insult the larger mass of people who would willingly comply with the spirit of the rule, if they understand its purpose. There is another peril. When you treat adults like children, guess what … they act like children. Incidentally, you never had control in the first place. Organizations and people (what’s the difference?) run themselves, and at best, you can only hope to influence them in a positive direction.
“If not an org chart, then what?”
Complex, adaptive systems cannot be described in such a static fashion. Still there is no harm in everyone knowing what their job is and how it contributes to the whole. Some people have flipped their org charts upside down to put the customer on top, as the boss. Some newer, more dynamic depictions I have seen are molecular designs, constellations, a fern leaf, pods attached to a hub, circles upon circles upon circles, overlapping circles, a tree, clusters.Notice the organic theme. Margaret Wheatley (Leadership and the New Science, 1992) described these as “process structures” – things that maintain form over time yet have no rigidity of structure.


Key Associates can help you revision your organization via Search Conference.

Business e-coach with 25 lessons from Jack Welch.

Term papers and essays on bureaucracy: Bureaucracy Essay outline

Max Weber’s classic essay on bureaucracy: Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Useful Websites & Newsletters

The CEO Refresher. How to identify bureaucracy and five methodologies to revision it: The CEO Refresher.

How people view and are viewed in a bureaucracy: Theatrics of Leadership.

Pitfalls, misconceptions, alternatives to bureaucracy: Bureaucracy.



Buy MK’s latest book!