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In Defense of Bureaucracy.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have an on-and-off project aimed at defining the vocabulary of innovation management--taking on the profession's terms of art in an effort to provide new clarity, restore their power, and perhaps get a glimpse of where innovation is heading. This month's column is related to that project, although perhaps only tangentially. This time, I'm not mapping the variations of usage around a concept that has come to be understood in a variety of different (and sometimes contradictory) ways, or even exploring the emergence of a new term. Instead I want to invite you to rethink your preconceptions about a very old word, one almost universally uttered only in revilement: we need to talk about bureaucracy.

Last summer I hired an assistant. I had always managed my assignments on my own, from start to finish, but I was taking on a big new challenge that meant I had less time, and less attention, for the peripheral administrative tasks that make up a large chunk of any meaningful project. I needed to offload the things that didn't specifically need, well, me. So I posted a carefully written ad, collected resumes, interviewed a few people, and hired a very smart woman who seemed to be on my wavelength. After I gave her a list of things that needed doing, 1 breathed a sigh of relief and checked that task off my list.

And then things started going wrong. Not badly wrong, but we had a few miscommunications and a task I thought was simple came back to me incorrectly done--more than once. I was frustrated and annoyed, I'm sure my new hire was irritated and anxious, and I had no idea what the cause was or how to fix it.

Finally, I talked to a friend about my dilemma, and she passed on the tool she uses to train and manage research assistants--a series of checklists she created for repeatable tasks, which she generated as she did the tasks herself (to ensure they were complete) and then handed off to her assistants. The assistants tested and modified them (while they were getting the work done). New assistants use the established checklists to quickly figure out what she needs and how to deliver it.

When I got home from that visit, I took everything back from my assistant, turned my task list into a series of checklists, and handed them off to her. Bingo! I started getting the results I needed, every time, and with minimal additional investment in training. I couldn't be happier, and I think she is pleased too.

What we needed, it turns out, was a bit of bureaucracy. And contrary to at least some expectations, that bureaucracy produced some innovation--having worked her way through my checklists, my assistant has been able to suggest new, more efficient approaches.

Bureaucracy gets a bad rap, especially among innovators. It's known for being rigid, rules-driven, paperwork-bound, and allergic to change. It's so universally accepted as a prim downer of an innovation killer that even Merriam-Webster has piled on; the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, once it gets past the technical definitions, defines bureaucracy as "a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation." Closer to home, the definition writers at see bureaucracy as "a system of administration distinguished by its (1) clear hierarchy of authority, (2) rigid division of labor, (3) written and inflexible rules, regulations, and procedures, and (4) impersonal relationships."

That bureaucracy kills innovation is so widely accepted as to be a truism. Management innovation guru Gary Hamel insists, in the Harvard Business Review, that "Bureaucracy Must Die." Andrew Lark, the Chief Marketing Officer of Australian cloud software company Xero, in a blog post titled "How Bureaucracy Kills Creativity and Innovation at Big Companies," boasts about the lack of bureaucracy at his company without ever examining the premises of his argument--there's no need to prove that bureaucracy does actually kill innovation. And Brad Power can talk about an innovation initiative at the Department of Defense as "Innovating Around a Bureaucracy"-- never in concert with or within the bureaucracy, because we all know that's just not possible.

But let's not forget, innovation also long had a bad name, as I outlined in the Resources column for our 60th anniversary issue a couple years ago. That column pointed out that innovation wasn't a positive pursuit until the mid-20th century; before that, "innovation was not a thing to be pursued in church, statehouse, or factory." Being known as an innovator could get you hauled before the Inquisitor, excommunicated or shunned, or at least fired.

And, as Roger Smith points out in a 2016 column in RTM, bureaucracy was itself an innovation. Indeed, bureaucracy has a much longer history than innovation--it emerged in ancient Sumer as a way to get food distributed more efficiently, so that fewer people starved. Smith finds in the history of bureaucracy a "central contradiction ...: it is a foundational innovation that may actually serve to suppress innovation."

It is also absolutely essential to sustain innovation.

The enemy, contrary to popular belief, is not bureaucracy itself. Rather, it is a particular kind of bureaucracy. Gary Hamel defines that kind of bureaucracy aptly in his call for its death: "Strategy gets set at the top. Power trickles down. Big leaders appoint little leaders. Individuals compete for promotion. Compensation correlates with rank. Tasks are assigned. Managers assess performance. Rules tightly circumscribe discretion." Hamel dismisses this particular structure with the global epithet "bureaucracy." And yes, this "150-year-old mashup of military command structures and industrial engineering" is, as Hamel notes, "inertial, incremental and uninspiring." But it's not the only architecture of bureaucracy.

Nor is the "controlism" Hamel refers to the only possible ideology of bureaucracy. Sumerian bureaucracy did centralize information and planning capability around food distribution; it also empowered a network of representatives to implement that planning. Access to information from across the kingdom enabled good local decision making, which then fed back into the kingdom-level planning. Today, emerging management systems, like those based on John Doerr's OKR structure, use bureaucracy to create cohesion and alignment in decentralized organizations and surface the innovative ideas bubbling in any organization.

Indeed, every management system, even innovation guru darlings like Lean and Agile, comes with some elements of bureaucracy: forms and reports that have to be completed, organization charts that detail who reports to whom for what, formulas for allocating resources and accounting for returns, ways of disseminating information-- and innovation--through the organization. No organization works without these things; some flatter, more open organizational forms may actually require more of them, as information must flow in many directions at once rather than simply up the chain. Whatever the organizational design is, some structure must be in place to make sure knowledge and information are available to the right people at the right times.

If we look beyond blanket condemnation of bureaucracy, we find that innovation and bureaucracy can work together. Alexander Styhre and Sofia Borjesson study the interaction between organizational structure and innovation at two very large companies, Volvo and AstraZeneca, and find that those companies' employees don't perceive their hierarchical structures as inhibitors of innovation. In fact, employers felt that "new managerial practices, in many cases of American origin" presented more roadblocks. Styhre's book, The Innovative Bureaucracy, while academic and to some extent philosophical in approach, may also be of interest for its wider discussion of the role of bureaucracy in innovation.

Bureaucracy can, in fact, free up space for innovation. Cotton Ni, in a blog post for Medium surveying a number of sources on this topic, suggests that some bureaucratic apparatus like, for instance, consistent policies, can streamline routine tasks and standardize communication, leaving more time for innovation and allowing employees to share ideas more readily.

Furthermore, Jeff DeGraff points out, the structures of bureaucracy themselves create the whitespaces where innovation happens. By illuminating what's known and manageable, bureaucratic structures highlight the gaps, the spaces between disciplines and functions, where innovation can thrive--and where it's most needed. DeGraff argues that those whitespaces also provide a "safe haven" from the bureaucracy, but he also notes that both outsiders and insiders--"the powerful leaders of a business who have an innovation focus"--thrive in those spaces. The whitespaces are like expansion gaps in concrete, the places where the bureaucracy allows the organization room to grow and adapt without destroying itself. In other words, in some ways bureaucracy actually creates the space for innovation.



John Doerr. 2018. Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs. New York: Penguin-Portfolio.

MaryAnne M. Gobble. 2017. The rise of innovation. Resources. Research-Technology Management 60(1): 60-62.

Roger Smith. 2016. Bureaucracy as innovation. Innovation for Innovators. Research-Technology Management 59(1): 61-63.

Alexander Styhre. 2007. The Innovative Bureaucracy: Bureaucracy in an Age of Fluidity. Routledge Studies in Innovation, Organizations and Technology 3. New York: Routledge.


Jeff DeGraff. 2015. How rules and bureaucracy breed innovation. Inc., April 20.

Gary Hamel. 2014. Bureaucracy must die. Harvard Business Review, November 4. /bureaucracy-must-die

Andrew Lark. 2015. How bureaucracy kills creativity and innovation at big companies. Business Insider Australia, January 5. how-bureaucracy-kills-creativity-and-innovation-at-big-companies-2015-1

Cotton Ni. 2016. Does bureaucracy affect organizational innovation? Grow through Thinking & Experience, March 23. organizational-innovation- 61c255797fa5

Brad Power. 2013. Innovating around a bureaucracy. Harvard Business Review, March 8.

Alexander Styhre and Sofia Borjesson. 2006. Innovativeness and creativity in bureaucratic organizations: Evidence from the pharmaceutical and the automotive industry. Presented at OLKC 2006 Conference, University of Warwick, March 20-22. https:// www.resea and_creativity_in_bureaucratic_organizations_Evidence_from_the_pharmaceutical_ and_the_automotive_industry

In this space, we offer a series of summaries on key topics, with pointers to important resources, to keep you informed of new developments and help expand your repertoire of tools and ideas. We welcome your contributions, in the form of suggestions for topics and of column submissions.

DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2019.1541731
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Title Annotation:RESOURCES; business administration
Author:Gobble, MaryAnne M.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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