I Love Bureaucracy

I used to complain about “bureaucracy” all the time. I was trying to bring new technologies to Sberbank, and at every step I was slowed down by procedures that either did not apply or did not exist. And when they were applicable and had to be executed, another level of organisational resistance intervened, the “bureaucrats” that did their job veeeery slowly, either because of overwork or just lack of a normal enterprise process execution pace and accountability. A more extreme example involved requiring a tax certificate to pay an invoice — most countries issue them once a year, my bank considered them valid for one month only, so you essentially had one month each year to pay invoices from a foreign-based company — good luck with that…

When I tried to understand “why”, it became clear that bureaucracy was not the problem. Well designed procedures are the essence of a well-functioning organization, and actually liberating. When the rules are clear, the steps simple and well understood, it is much easier to hire people, select a technology provider, pay an invoice, report on a project status. The chaos that results from ad-hoc behaviour is almost acceptable at a startup (mainly because problems are orders of magnitude simpler) but actually adding a level of energy loss and stress that partially explains the joke about an entrepreneur trading a 9-to-5 job for a 5-to-9 one.

Not even talking in detail about the societal parallel — I have lived in both times of mindless, soul-crashing bureaucracy, and in times of chaos where “everything is possible” (and one would argue that those times are still there in my native country today). The “well oiled machine” metaphor is used evidently to describe procedures that work and are well executed — and everybody likes them.

But good rules work — and are essential if you want to do a good job. Think of airline pilots going through their checklist before each flight, or the work of Atul Gawande exploring the use of checklists in all areas of human activity (The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right”). I know it can be done, seen it done well in pockets of the organisations I worked for before, and I now do not complain about bureaucracy anymore.

Instead, I am advocating a “well functioning bureaucracy”, with checklists that make sense, simple and effective procedures, good and accountable execution pace, and use of technology in as many steps as possible. Workflow applications including use of mobile apps, electronic signatures, timelines aligned with interconnected processes, they are all simple steps to take to improve the organization and move beyond complaining.

So yes, I love a functioning bureaucracy, it makes my life much simpler so I can focus on what’s important and not spend half of my week figuring out how to pay an invoice.