The law of emergent bureaucracy

October 20, 2008

In the final weeks of English Nature I was running a workshop for Price Waterhouse and I asked “if anyone had any advice on what to look out for in a merger”. After I finished a man came up and whispered quietly that “the most bureaucratic in a merger always wins”. I went back to our office with this nugget and we pondered its significance, how can it be true, what does ‘win’ really mean.

A couple of weeks later we were meeting with the new teams and having meetings over policy and strategy, purpose and working arrangements and I was on the lookout. Someone suggested “we get our ideas out on the table”, another that “we should prioritise our actions” and a small voice said “I have a spreadsheet that we can use”. “OK” said everyone. The small voice continued, “For the spreadsheet we should name everything year:month:day:subject so that they are easily sorted into date order”. “OK” said everyone.

There we have it, bureaucracy introduced simply and quietly and accepted by default. While everyone was concentrating on the important high level nature of the business, the bureaucracy slid in and we hardly spotted it until we were awash with spreadsheets, targets, measurement systems, traffic lights, performance indicators and balanced scorecards. Performance reporting meetings, performance reporting planning meetings, practice performance reporting workshops … you get the picture.

Why is it that this kind of perceived structure and order is so readily applied and accepted in the face of our current understandings that they are more likely to be damaging and detrimental to success than to increase favourable outcomes.

Dutch researcher H.E. Wielinga has an interesting take on this in his paper ’Human networks as living tissue A study on knowledge, leadership and the role of government in Dutch Agriculture since 1945
‘ In it he says:

Each network develops structure as a complex of agreements, procedures, institutions, culture and material circumstances, which channels interaction. Without structure there is no added value. Structure is the tissue which gives shape to living processes. Maintaining structure requires energy, but the balance is positive if more energy is released by the interaction enabled by the structure.

In human networks regression can be recognized when procedures and control are predominant over enthusiasm and satisfaction. This results in decreasing willingness of people to provide their input and to attune to the network. This is a process that is self reinforcing too.”

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