• Opinion
  • February 7, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Tear down these walls: Bureaucracy, government and the future of work

Opinion: Workplaces need flatter structures, more co-creation and a focus on user needs


This piece was written by Petra Nilsson AndersenChief of Innovation and strategy for the City of Oslo, Norway. For more like this see our government innovation newsfeed.

Wouldn’t we all love to work in an open, transparent and inclusive organisation? A workplace for co-creation powered by a flat hierarchy and few layers of management? Most of your colleagues would probably answer yes to these questions, but we don’t all work in agile and dynamic environments. In fact, do you know how bureaucratic your own organisation really is?

Bureaucracy is an outdated, centralised control system for organisations that do not work with an ethos of co-creation and that do not believe in shared value. Today we need user-driven innovation: we are all important contributors in finding solutions for serious societal challenges. Bureaucracy is not the solution, and Max Weber saw its weakness: the individual’s freedom and potential is trapped in an iron cage of rule-based control.

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The estimated cost of unnecessary bureaucracy in all 32 OECD countries is nearly $9 trillion. So, here are some clear actions that should be taken in order to cut hierarchic structures and give way to more agile processes.

Hierarchical, bureaucratic structures suck up a lot of time and energy and undermine your organisation’s ability to innovate.

Gary Hamel, the noted business thinker and visiting professor at London Business School, called in 2017 on the Harvard Business Review community to investigate “the bureaucratic sclerosis” of their organisations by using a Bureaucratic Mass Index (BMI) tool.

Hamel could extract a number of takeaways from a survey that generated 7,000 responses from different HBR readers. Only a staggering 13% of the respondents said that their organisations had become less bureaucratic in the past few years. And, the majority of the individuals involved in creating customer value as customer service, sales, logistics and R&D were the ones with the heaviest bureaucratic burden.

Organisations who really innovate do not let one group dominate

In an ever changing world, the best performing organisations are those working with new management models that create arenas for employees and external partners — arenas fit for humans. Organisations who really innovate do not compromise or let one group dominate, but work with open practices.

The Chinese company Haier is an example of how a company can replace formal bureaucracy with a decentralised and empowering business model. By using self-managing units, microenterprises and open platforms, challenges are addressed and innovation projects are developed together with value networks of hundreds of thousands of contributors. The company has succeed in decentralising coordination, minimising management layers and creating an employee-driven ownership. Netflix is another great case of how an organisation can develop a human-centric workplace by avoiding the bureaucratic trap.

Many employees bring their body to work, but their heart and mind stays at home. What are the incentives for employees in the public sector who do not have the pleasure of gaining company options and bonuses? And, how can public and governmental organisations reduce their bureaucratic and hierarchical infrastructures and empower a flat, cooperative and innovative army of civil servants?

Responsibility and freedom are important drivers for employees to feel empowered

Beyond a willingness to contribute to solving the grand challenges of our time, responsibility and freedom are important drivers for employees to feel empowered and devoted to work. The principle of trust is the main single factor for creating an open and agile organisation.

In fact, inspiration starts from trust. As we all know, you don’t mandate innovation, you have to create an environment for it. Without trust based leadership and management, it is impossible to grow and nurture a culture of innovation, and silos and clay layers of controlling middle management will remain.

How then does a public sector organisation minimise the damage of bureaucracy and optimise the opportunity for smooth collaboration?

Find a top leader in your organisation with a thorough understanding of why value is created from agile cooperation and open innovation who can be your champion at the top. Develop a mandate for a group of crusaders from all units who can mobilise a grassroots movement of innovation together with key partners. Together you capture user insight, the real needs of your target groups, create a co-creation agenda and forward it to the leaders.

The iterative work of digital transformation is one case of how organisations can contribute to pulling down bureaucratic walls. Starting from the user’s point of view is a great driver for cross-sector cooperation and hopefully seamless service delivery.

By adapting Haiers self-managing units, microenterprises and platforms, combined with the use of trust-based leadership and open innovation, the public sector can tear down those bureaucratic walls! — Petra Nilsson Andersen

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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