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Why you should declare war on bureaucracy

Your shareholders will love you. So will your best employees.


Insidious as termites, as hard to destroy as a nuclear-hardened bomb shelter, disguised as health food but as nasty as deep-fried butter ― bureaucracy may be killing you.

Tolerating organizational bureaucracy is like breathing secondhand smoke for decades. You can see it, it’s annoying and it’ll eventually kill you, but it won’t kill you today, so you allow it.

It starts with well-meaning human resource policy or the legal department doing its level best to eliminate some risk. It ends with the company grinding to a halt — choking to death on the gunk in the gears that prevents innovation, abhors speed and loathes change.

It’s like cholesterol. You have to have some, but less is better. And like cholesterol, it naturally rises with age and size. If you’re smart and disciplined, you work like hell to keep off the pounds, eat healthy, stretch to maintain flexibility and exercise consistently — hard exercise, not a trip around the yard on your riding lawn mower. The same applies to managing bureaucracy. Without active management, it’ll increase like your cholesterol.

Annual planning, I’ve grown to understand, if often the fertilizer for bureaucracy. Disguised as new programs to keep you safe, comply with some new requirement or disinfect against all risk, it grows like the bindweed in my front yard (now also in my backyard).

Oddly, however, the annual planning exercise can also be a tool to root out bureaucracy. But it takes a tough-as-nails CEO to ensure that it happens, just as strict as the family member or coach who ensures that you avoid Twinkies and bust your ass in the gym for an hour a day.

Diagnosing excess bureaucracy requires some invasive tests. You just won’t see it on your daily trip into the office, past the coffeepot with your schedule protected by those who are most interested in not only keeping the existing sludge in place but also actually building more.

You need to do one or all of these three things: (1) Ask the front-line people sincerely, “What is screwed up around here?” (2) Query customers, “How can I make it easier for you to do business with us?” (3) Get a fresh set of eyes with an unfiltered mouth attached to look at your business to find the sludge.

I’ve had several clients tell (not ask) their people to cut dollars from the budget and activity from the calendar and, being that they’re bright and reasonable people, it always positively affects the company. Sounds harsh and arbitrary, doesn’t it?

Good-meaning people put those expenses and activities in place, just like mold on the chicken salad that you’d put in the back of your refrigerator and forgotten about. It’s not going to throw itself out! Redeploy those dollars, valuable people and time from your calendar to something that adds value!

At every annual planning session, declare war on your bureaucracy. Your shareholders will love you. So will your best employees. They’ve been wondering all year when you were going to clean out the fridge!

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is president of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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