Beyond bureaucracy – the continuing search for wisdom

In Uncategorized on November 13, 2009 at 7:42 pm

Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible”-  Javier Pascual Salcedo (Author)

If there is a way to delay an important decision, the good bureaucracy, public or private, will find it” – One of Parkinson's laws 

A committee can make a decision that is dumber than any of its members” – David B. Coblitz, (Author, Inventor)

Bureaucracy sucks, the problem is we need it If we are going to have large organisations. 
In reality it’s only the extra bureaucracy that sucks, bureaucrats however often feel that quality is improved by making extra bureaucracy.    

We’ve all been there, when some “more than my jobs worth” type insists that even though they know its crazy they have to subject you to some idiocy or indignity.  

Why do they do it? After all it’s not in the organisations best interest to antagonise their customers or hobble their own employees. 

Institutional and organisational blind spots abound, how do we change this?

Practical Wisdom

Barry Schwartz has some interesting thoughts over at TEDS

I have summarised some of the important ideas below:


An appeal to virtue, morality matters.
Virtue is vital to a full consideration of value.
human interactions ( kindness, care and empathy ) are an essential part of the job.

Moral Will 


Moral skill


Practical Wisdom

A wise person:

  • Knows when to make an exception to a rule
  • Knows how to improvise
  • Knows how to use their skills in the service of the right aims
  • Is made not born

Wisdom depends on experience. 

A wise persons must be allowed to fail sometimes and learn from failure.

You don't need to be brilliant to be wise. Without wisdom brilliance isn't enough.

When things go wrong we reach for two tools, rules(better ones, more) and incentives(better ones, more)

  • In the short run they create improvement in the long run they create a downward spiral.
  • To be fair rules are often imposed because previous officials have been lax, however Instead of improving vigilance the typical response is to make new and additional rules.
  • A focus on Incentives alone often leads to one dimensional, short term thinking and demoralizes workers.
Neither rules or incentives are enough to do the job.

Problem, our entire modern society is built on rules and incentives,
We don’t trust people to act Independently of the rules.

Practical wisdom is an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy.
Rules often fail us, incentives often backfire, and practical everyday wisdom will help us rebuild our world.


I loved this talk my only issue  was I felt it didn’t go far enough in terms of advancing practical advice. 
After years of both following and trying to implement rules and procedures relating to race and equality, here’s my contribution.

At the end of the day it’s about effectiveness

Focus on how well someone does their job not just how efficiently they carry out their tasks.

All decent quality reviews consider three dimensions, Efficacy, Efficiency and Effectiveness. It’s typical for bureaucracy to get overly concerned with effectiveness to the detriment of the other two. 

Strategic decisions focus on all three with the greatest focus being on effectiveness.

If you are in an organisation working with or dealing with people (customers, patients, clients etc) then part of your effectiveness will depend on how well you interact with people in your environment.  

This rarely shows up directly in performance figures unless it’s a specific element of a job.  Even then the real importance of personal interactions and responses to true effectiveness is often underestimated. It shouldn’t be.

I think the key is to create more human institutions. This means work built around people rather than abstract job roles. It is not about being less focused on function or skills it simply means being more human centred when considering what’s involved.

Real jobs, for Real People

When someone leaves they create a person shaped hole.  No two people are alike. 

Create job specifications that details what you need and what you would like, then be flexible about how it gets done and consider what unlooked for benefits a new person brings to the table. 

In reality Job roles shrink or grow over time as people and circumstances change.  The focus is always on what the organisation needs now. 

This is not necessarily the same thing as what they had before, even if what they had before worked well. 
New people mean new opportunities and new solutions.

You need to have a person not a calculator making decisions.

Many rules coming down from on high are just that rules that must be obeyed no matter what.
They often ignore common sense and judgement, they were written by people assuming that those carrying them out are either lazy, stupid or both.

If we are going to stop people acting counter to their own common sense and organisational interest we need more courage and more latitude.

9  human rules about rules (well they are really more what you’d call guidelines)

  1. Many rules are written to meet legal constraints, make sure they work towards achieving organisational goals.  
  2. If you are trying to introduce a new rule make sure there is a way to ‘suspend and fix it’ quickly if it proves to be stupid.
  3. Look for reasonable behaviour not set behaviour.
  4. Have strict rules when they are needed but also have guidelines that leave room for manoeuvre. 
  5. It’s important to focus on efficiency and getting a job done but leave some redundancy and latitude for human interaction.
  6. Be reasonable with how many rules the average person is expected to obey.
  7. Have a person that understands the organisational objectives not just a calculator make the final decision on how or whether a new a new rule or policy should be implemented.
  8. No rule lasts forever have persistent feedback mechanisms that work in place.
  9. Remember its ‘effectiveness that’s key, does a rule or policy still help us achieve our overall objective.

(C) You can take what I say, quote it, use it and reproduce it, but don’t steal it, thanks Warren

Posted via email from Urban Ascetic


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