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How bureaucracy kills speed and innovation (and how to fix it)

There is nothing that slows you down like bureaucracy. And for most parts, it's not necessary. You just have to learn a particular skill or put in some rules to keep it at bay. Get real examples of how Facebook, Google, and Amazon does it.​

Søren Vasø Hansen

Søren Vasø Hansen

Here is one of the most beautiful emails I have ever gotten:

“I just realized the bureaucracy I instigated. I’m sorry. You make the call. Let’s move forward.”

That email came from a good friend and CEO.

Let me give you the full short story:

I was hired as a designer some years ago, to help a company build its new visual identity. In the process, we needed to pick out an icon that was used in their software. Nothing special, but the CEO got involved and wanted to nail this.

So, what he did was to involve 2 more from management in an email thread, asking for their input. One of those guys then asked one of the marketing-girls for input, and a product developer also got involved because he could have an opinion as well.

It escalated: A work week and 21 replies later there were 7 people involved and no one was closer to making a decision.

And that was when I got the “sorry” on email.

He realized that involving so many people in such a small decision wasn’t moving the business,  but it sure was slowing it down.

So, he went back to the original creator (me) because that’s why he hired me. To make decisions for the company in the space where I have more skill, greater insights, and better judgment.

And this is what I want to discuss. Because there are valuable learnings and processes to install in any organization to avoid bureaucracy slowing you down.

Paralyzed on bad feedback

Imaging getting looped into that email thread as person nr. 8. There is no way that person would have a clear image of what the problem was and what solutions had already been played out. So what happens is that he will just be stabbing away with wisdom hoping it will match the problem.

What’s even worse is that you are probably getting feedback that points in every direction, which makes your choice even harder to make.

The intention is good. You want to let everyone have a word, but with most decisions it’s not necessary.

Instead, it leaves you paralyzed like a deer caught in a light beam. None the wiser but a whole lot poorer on time.

Distribute decision-power to match the skillset

We want to distribute decision power to those who have the skillsets and knowledge to make the best decisions. To move efficiently forward and keep internal politics and bureaucracy sidelined.

It doesn’t mean you should make a decision and not inform anyone. But making a wrong decision and then fixing it will always be better in the long run if you learn from it – simply because of the speed you pick up.

Here are some insights on how some of the fast-moving companies in this world do it: Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

Don't decide - experiment (Facebook)

What you need to do instead is to pick your battles as a leader. Don’t challenge decisions that only have little impact and are easily changeable. Even if you believe they’re wrong decisions, let them fly.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has a radical approach you could follow.

He simply asks: Will it kill the company? If not, he’ll run any experiment.

Now, Facebook has a pretty neat setup for experimenting, which we covered in another episode of the Gap. But the point here is to experiment.

If you can run an experiment, why even make a decision?

Let’s pretend you have a scenario where you are weighing two options against each other. Why would you ever bury one of those options, if you have the slightest doubt about what’s the better choice?

Experimenting is both cheap and effective today:

  • Is it something on your website? Do an A/B Split test with Optimizely.
  • Is it what sales technique that works the best? Do a count of KPI’s in your CRM.
  • Is it which messaging that works the best? Do a user test on Usabilityhub
  • Is it which employee to hire? Hire both to do a project and compare results.

There is almost nothing you can’t test, and you can boil it down to two reasons why we aren’t doing it more.

  • Unwillingness to learn it and spend time doing it
  • Overconfidence in ourselves to make the right choice

Now, you don’t have to go all aboard like Mark Zuckerberg, but you could implement simple rules to make sure leaders don’t micromanage and force bureaucracy upon decisions that are not worth slowing down for.

It could be like in this example:

If an experiment can be set up within 1 hour of work time and a decision can be reached within 5 workdays, do anything you want, unless it could be damaging to X, Y and Z.

Anything goes, if... (Google)

Google does it a bit differently. They have two rules in place.

They let their product managers work on ANY idea they want and get as many engineers they need to do it. The simple rule is that they must convince the engineers the idea is worth working on. The Engineers have freedom to turn any idea down they don’t think is great. That means all ideas are well designed before ever presented and feedback is well received because the product managers want to keep projects alive.

This makes sure the internal politics and bureaucracy never catches on.

Make sure to read The Gap on Google: The cow brain scenario — How Google innovates and manages chaos.

Weekly decision making (Google)

Google also has a director meeting every week, so if you raise something that needs approval, you will get a go/no go within 5 workdays. No matter how big a decision, it must be taken on that meeting.

To prove the point – It was in such a meeting they decided to buy YouTube for $1.65 Billion.

That’s how they ensure they always move forward and that things are never stuck in decision-stage.

Written arguments (Amazon)

Amazon does something similar. They too have regular meetings where anyone can bring up suggestions to be decided. But anything discussed has to have a written argument of two A4 pages, sent out in advance, so that everyone is on the same page when the meeting begins.

Having to write two full A4 pages about something requires you to think it trough and only lets significant stuff sip through the filter.

How do you do it?

© Cameron Spencer – no infringement is intended

No matter which approach you choose, just make sure to pick one and start tomorrow.

Experimenting on stuff to learn and adapt is a practice that is way overlooked by most companies, and as a result bureaucracy is not fought hard enough.

If we want to keep evolving as companies and keep the smartest people we need to start moving the needle.

In fact, I would put it like this: Not distributing decision-power in a world that is growing exponentially is like starting 30 meters behind Usain Bolt in a 100-meter sprint.

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