Thursday, June 05, 2008

Constraints and Bureaucracy: Do you slow down your organization?

Most people I talk to will say that they want to keep bureaucracy at the minimum. At the same time they will say that a minimum set of policies, rules, and procedures need to be in place so that an organization can exhibit discipline and consistency across the board.


But then think of this: Your team interacts with lots of different other teams and individuals in order to work on projects. In addition there are cross cutting concerns such as administrative things (e.g. access to the building), HR (e.g. papers you need to hand in), Accounting (e.g. your last expense report), and so forth.

From each department's perspective they impose only a small little item (or two or three). And each item is just a very small thing by itself. And from that departments perspective each of the items is required and reasonable so they can do an excellent job.

The problems start when you pile the all the items up that come from different departments. Then progress in your organization may slow down significantly and may even come to a grinding halt.

So what to do? I have friends who have simply given up on some of these items. If they are given a spreadsheet to fill in they may decide to just throw in some (almost) random data (except if it is financial data). (Sorry, but I won't reveal names here to protect the individuals.)

Let's take an example: If asked to assess your team members and fill in 50 or 60 items in a skill matrix and given a team size of 15 or 20, we are talking about between 225 and 1,200 items to fill in. You probably need to think about each item for at least 10 seconds (this is a wild guess). But maybe you want to do a good job and do justice to the people in your team. Or maybe you want a realistic and true picture so you can be better at managing your project. So you spend 30 seconds on each item (Too much? Too little?). Then just this "simple" exercise amounts to 2 to 10 solid hours of your working time spent on a single spread sheet! Doesn't sound like much? Well, don't forget those other spreadsheets, reports, presentations, etc. that are waiting in your inbox!

So whoever thinks they are at the low end of bureaucracy, please think again! From a person's perspective who is affected by your actions the world may look entirely different, and your "small" request may amount to just that tipping thing that may keep those people from being successful. You may achieve quite the opposite of what you really wanted.

My recommendation would therefore be to consider for all your actions: How could you do less and still get a good enough outcome? (Or Google this: TSTTCPW. It applies to non-software engineering items, too.)

BTW: I will do the same myself and see whether I can't find an item where I might be causing avoidable overhead myself. I'm probably as guilty of this as anyone else....

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