Don’t buck the process

November 12, 2012

Frank Herbert's Dune series is one of the classics of science fiction and fantasy (it bridges the two).  It lost its way a bit after volume two, but was fully restored to its original inventiveness in the final volume Chapter House Dune.  I don't count the low quality pulp material produced by Hebert's son; if you want good quality trash then E.E.Doc Smiths Lensman series is much better!  Interesting Todd, son of Anne Mcaffrey seems to be an exception to the general rule that children should not seek to trade from their parents books.  His latest offerings in the Dragon series are well crafted, those of the younger Herbert are simply trash intermingled with a degree of unnecessary dado-macochism.  

To the point.  One of the valuable aspects of Dune is the quotable quotes.  Well crafted words that make profound points of relevance today.  One of those from Darwi Odrade has become a regular feature of my presentations about complex systems strategy.  Remember, in a complex system we deal with the evolutionary possibilities of the present rather than managing to an idealised future.  So if you want to change things you need to start with reality.  A part of that reality is well summarised in said quote:

It is naïve to expect any bureaucracy to take brilliant innovations and put them to good use. Bureaucracies ask different questions…

These are the typical questions, … : Who gets the credit? Who will be blamed if it causes problems? Will it shift the power structure, costing jobs? Or will it make some subordinate department more important?

Now this may be frustrating, but its life.  If you are working in government, or companies such as IBM (in my experience the world's largest bureaucracy) then the above quote has to be your starting point.  One of the things I found to my cost in IBM is that selling up does not necessarily work.  You can have the support of a main board member, but there are limits to what they can do if three layers down the system is working against you.  

My favourite example of this is when I was briefly made an EBO, or Emergent Business Opportunity.  The idea was to repeat the IBM PC Florida experiment by creating unites exempt from IBM process to encourage innovation.   The idea was good, but reality was different.  We wanted to produce a brochure and discovered that approval would cost us $25K in an internal charge to a “cost neutral” department.  I was amused by that, when you have to accept charges its more like a protection racket I would have thought.  When we created an innovative innovation programme that would cross geographical boundaries and use multiple suppliers the process would not let us.  Instead we were told to sub-contract to a specialist provider.  Net result the cost went up four fold.  

I could go on, there were many many examples.  At the same time, if you could find a way to work with the bureaucracy things happened fast, including things that you were not technically allowed to do.  The problem is that this introduced what in other circles is called a culture of illegality.  In order to get results you have to break or work around the rules.  Transparency is dangerous, deception and acting in a canny (a wonderful Scottish word) fashion develop as key skills.  In several cases I knew a few creative VPs who employed a Director or two (a high cost) just to work out how to re-describe what they had already decided to do in a form that the bureaucracy would understand and accept.

Now all of this is a terrible waste, but if you want to make things work then at times you have to respect one of the basic and most fundamental rules of working in a bureaucracy: don't buck the process.  It is all a part of being pragmatic and living with reality.  Idealism may make you feel pure, pragmatism is dirty, but its the way to get things done.  

Mind you, I failed to learn my own lesson on many an occasion.  Douglas Adam's thoughts on Vogon's and bureaucracy were depressingly familiar at times:

Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy- not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.

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