Bureaucracy is the Ebola Virus of the Business World

Once a business is infected by bureaucracy, very few survive, let alone thrive.

Everyone likes to rail against the stultifying impact of bureaucracy, but most believe that, like an Ebola virus, once a business culture is infected, nothing can be done about it, so they just shrug their collective shoulders and accept their fate.

That’s a shame. Because by doing the right things at the right time, bureaucracy, just like the Ebola virus, can be defeated. But also like Ebola, if the virus of bureaucracy is not eradicated, or at least contained, it can kill anything it touches.

Breaking Free from the Bureaucratic Straightjacket

The striking thing is that inoculating yourself against the ills of bureaucracy is a fairly straightforward process and it’s almost always effective. While you might not be able to eliminate the plague of bureaucracy, you certainly can become immune to it and still function effectively, even in its midst.bureaucrat_2

There are a number of actions that  savvy businessmen and women have learned to confront bureaucracy—the Ebola of business. The first thing to understand is that the intensity of bureaucratic resistance to a new idea or action is in direct proportion to the potential benefit for the business. In other words, the more opposition your proposed initiative generates within an organization, the more you should be encouraged to pursue it, because it likely is a good idea.

Remember that a bureaucracy exists in an organization to protect the status quo of its existing business model. The philosophy is simple: The organization would not have grown large enough to be bureaucratic if its business model had not been a success, so everything must be done to protect and preserve “the way we have always done it.”

The trouble is, you can’t beat an entrenched bureaucracy by butting heads with it. But you can circumvent its power by going around it. And when you find yourself trapped in a bureaucracy, look for ways to beat it without attacking it.

A Lesson from History

Remember the highly fortified Maginot Line constructed by the French before World War II? This string of concrete obstacles, fortifications and weapons was installed to thwart the advance of the Germans during the 1930s. But surprise, surprise! Rather than attack the French line head-on, the Germans simply went around the formidable barriers and rendered them irrelevant.

The trick to beating a bureaucratic Maginot Line is to outflank the existing business model as much as possible, while still allowing the bureaucrats to believe the ultimate result and control rests within their power. This may seem conflicting – if not confusing mumbo-jumbo – but in reality this “end-around” strategy can be simple.

How 3M Outgrew its Bureaucratic Leanings

3M is a fantastically successful company. But along the way from its meager beginnings in 1902 as a manufacturer of sand paper, it also developed a  famously bureaucratic culture. And because of that bureaucracy, the flow of new products virtually dried up.

In an effort to thwart the embedded bureaucracy, the management of 3M fortuitously decided that new product ideas should be explored outside the existing business model. The company allowed those pushing the new ideas to set up small, independent “companies” to delve into and develop new product ideas.

Since these initiatives were set up outside the existing “business model” they were not a threat to the company bureaucrats who were likewise virtually helpless to stop them. Yet, because they were still part of 3M, the bureaucrats felt that ultimately they would have control.

As a result, some of the most creative and profitable ideas that have helped 3M continue to be successful have come from “outside” the company. Small wonder the company that started as a manufacturer of industrial abrasives now sells some 55,000 different products worldwide, from dental implants to Post-it notes.

Seek approval for your idea or plan at the highest possible level within the organization.

The security system for bureaucratic control of an organization is based upon layer upon layer of approval and checkpoints that become a “black hole,” from which no idea can escape. The way to avoid the roadblocks of bureaucracy and not get sucked into the black hole is to make your proposal as far up the power-pyramid as possible.


When as president of ITT Life – a subsidiary of Hartford Insurance – I developed a marketing plan that was in diametric conflict with the Hartford business model. (I wanted to compete against the other insurance companies, rather than with them for business.) If I had followed the process and procedure of the Hartford bureaucracy, my plan would have been immediately sucked into the black hole, never to be seen again.

Instead, I waited until the annual “business planning” meeting. This was a large, long meeting in which all the subsidiaries of Hartford presented their business plans to the CEO and senior management of the Hartford. It was at this meeting that I sprung my plan. Needless to say, all the staff bureaucrats attending the meeting were a tad bit upset since this was the first time they had heard of the plan. But this meeting was not a place for the bureaucrats to raise a protest. (For one thing, they did not know how the CEO would react and they certainly didn’t want to be on the wrong side his opinion.)

Bear in mind, my only objective at that meeting was to receive the CEO’s acceptance of the concept of my plan, not the details. Once the concept of the plan had been approved by the CEO (he had assumed the bureaucrats had reviewed the details) the path was not cleared for our actions, but it gave us powerful ammunition to fight the good fight with the bureaucrats.

Agreement from the “bigwigs (at least bigger wigs than you are) on you concept is all the license you need to battle the bureaucrats over the details. No true-blue bureaucrat ever wants to appear to be in a position of disagreeing with those at levels above him or her. As a result, the more levels of bureaucratic roadblocks you can outflank to present your idea to higher levels of the company, the more chance you have to beat bureaucracy and be successful.

Always allow the bureaucrats to believe they are still in control.

I call this the “Br’er Rabbit” strategy because your success rests on being a trickster who wins using wits rather than brawn. Use your wits and planning to overcome those who seek to block your plans. In simple terms, never get in a planning (or pissing) session with bureaucrats. Remember, your objective and those of the bureaucrat are invariably in direct conflict. The way to resolve this conflict is to present the bureaucrat with a plan and what appear to be various options. Bureaucrats are less threatened and can sometimes even help, when you lay out specific plans and offer them the right to be involved. And if you do it right, whatever option they pick you can live with because you have selected the choices.

Once the concept has been approved, be relentless moving forward without waiting to gain agreement on the details.

If you live and operate in a bureaucratic world, you will never ever receive final sign-off on the details, so don’t waste your time waiting. The Bureaucracymantra for the bureaucrat is, “Okay, we approve what you are doing, but we just need you to make a few changes and everything will be fine.” Don’t believe it. There will always, always be “just one more thing.”

The best way of avoiding being bogged down in a debate over details is to move forward under the assumption of implied consent. You know the old saying about keeping one step ahead of the sheriff? Well, if you are to be successful fighting bureaucracy, the same logic needs to apply. You have to constantly keep one step ahead of the bureaucrats. If you let them catch up or get ahead of you, they will build roadblocks. If you keep them in your dust, all they can do is shake their fists at you.

And the Moral of the Story …

Never forget that bureaucrats never give up. Bureaucrats have nothing to do but be bureaucrats. If they stop trying to do nothing, they will have nothing to do. Bureaucrats are more dangerous than a jilted lover who works in a gun store. A good bureaucrat is nothing if not relentless. Understand that they have more resiliency and comeback power than crabgrass on steroids. The only way to outflank them is to be even more determined and resilient.

Never talk yourself into believing that you can eradicate the Ebola virus of bureaucracy, but you do have the power to take simple actions that allow you to circumvent and contain it. But to do so you have to be just as committed – if not more so – to getting something accomplished as bureaucrats who define accomplishment as doing nothing.

3 responses to “Bureaucracy is the Ebola Virus of the Business World

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