Bureaucracy Can’t Be Eliminated—But It Can Be Beaten

The very intransigence that gives bureaucracy its power is also the weakness that allows it to be circumvented.

Bureaucracy is presented as a benign way to bring order out of chaos, but often that is just a subterfuge for a variety of darker objectives. A key goal of Bob MacDonaldbureaucracy is to enable those who have done things a certain way to make sure others do it the same way. In other words, bureaucracy often becomes a tool used by those in power to keep others from coming to power. For the lazy or incompetent, bureaucracy offers security against urgency and a shelter from accountability. As a result, those entangled in an entrenched bureaucracy find that any effort to bring about creativity or innovation can feel like trying to roller-blade through a swam. But there is hope when it comes to confronting bureaucracy. While it is not possible to eradicate bureaucracy, it is possible to outwit it. Here’s how.

The strength of bureaucracy – inflexibility – is also its greatest weakness. Bureaucracy does not deal well with ideas and actions that are outside the norm. When confronted with anything different, bureaucracy becomes even more rigid and responds by either attempting to ignore the threat or by becoming even more inward-looking. This reaction provides the creative innovator with the opportunity to “end-run” bureaucracy. To “end-run” bureaucracy means to avoid its strengths – blocking new ideas and actions that start at the bottom – and instead, attack its weakness which is resisting actions that come from the top down.

Putting the “End-Run” Strategy to Work for You

Let me offer a couple examples of how the “end-run” strategy might work for you as you battle bureaucracy.

In September of 1950, the Korean War was at its height and going badly for American forces and its South Korean allies. Several hundred thousand North Korean soldiers had formed a rigid line and had pinned down Allied forces at Pusan, threatening to push them into the sea. It would have been sheer futility to attack the North Koreans head-on; that was the very core of their strength. Instead, General Douglas MacArthur (against the wishes of the bureaucrats in the Pentagon) loaded 75,000 Allied soldiers on some 300 ships and sailed them north on an “end-run” around the entrenched North Koreans and invaded the port city of Inchon in North Korea.

Inchon was lightly defended because the North Korean military leaders were too inflexible (bureaucratic) in their thinking to anticipate such an attack. Once in control of Inchon, MacArthur’s forces were in position to cut the supply-lines to the North Korean forces in the south and within two weeks Seoul, the capital of South Korea was liberated and the North Korean army was forced to retreat back to North Korea. I know this is a war story, but in its own way battling bureaucracy is a “war” and there are parallel strategies for fighting bureaucracy that can be just as effective as MacArthur’s “end-run.”

In no way was it as important or as dramatic as MacArthur’s action in Korea, but 30 years later I applied my own “end-run” strategy to fight bureaucracy. I had just been appointed president and CEO of ITT Life Insurance Company in Minneapolis. ITT Life was a small, failing company owned by Hartford Insurance. (Hartford was itself owned by the conglomerate ITT.)

Hartford had charged me with the task of revitalizing and growing ITT Life with the clear message that if that did not happen, the company would be dismantled. Accepting the challenge would have been fine except for the fact that Hartford was (and is) the poster-child for corporate bureaucracy. Hartford has more than once gagged on its own vomit of bureaucracy.

The problem was not just developing strategies and plans to grow ITT Life; even more challenging was figuring out how to get the bureaucracy of Hartford to approve the plans. What evolved was a double “end-run” strategy; to end-run both the insurance industry and the bureaucracy of Hartford.

When it came to the entrenched insurance industry it was obvious that ITT Life could not compete with the established companies so the strategy was to compete against TheHartfordthem by attacking the traditional products of the industry and offering creative, new alternatives. Going against the insurance industry was challenging enough, but it paled by comparison when it came to seeking approval for these plans by the Hartford bureaucracy. The only hope for these plans was an “end-run” around the strength of the Hartford bureaucracy.

Hit Bureaucracy Where It’s Not

What gives organizational bureaucracy its strength is layer upon exhausting layer of review and approval needed for a new idea to go forward. Each layer is a formidable defense against the threat of doing something new or different. The bureaucratic defense of sameness starts at the very lowest levels of the organization, forcing any new idea or innovation to run a gauntlet of skepticism and rejection designed to kill anything that is different.

At the same time, this strength is also bureaucracy’s greatest weakness. Ideas that come down from the top of an organization can short-circuit the power of the bureaucracy. This means that the higher you can go in an organization before your ideas are challenged, the better chance you have to beat bureaucracy. Top-down actions don’t eliminate bureaucracy, but they weaken it to the point that it can be overcome.

Our strategy at ITT Life was to bypass the Hartford bureaucracy by taking our marketing plans and ideas to the highest possible levels at Hartford and even the parent company ITT. As we developed our business plan for review by the lower levels of Hartford’s bureaucracy we didn’t lie to them. Instead, we outlined the plans only in general terms (which is typical of bureaucratic business plans), without real specifics, which we knew would not be approved.

When the time came to present our plans it was part of a large annual “planning meeting” where all of the Hartford subsidiaries presented their business plans for formal approval by the CEO and senior officers of the Hartford as well as the CEO and senior officers of ITT. It was at this meeting that we sprung our “end-run” around the bureaucracy. For the first time we explained in full detail what the general words in our plan really meant. In short, we explained that we were going grow ITT Life by aggressively attacking the traditions of the life insurance industry.

We had two advantages by using this approach to circumvent the Hartford bureaucracy: The senior executives at the meeting assumed that the bureaucrats had approved these plans or they would not be presented at the meeting. Secondly, Hartford is primarily a property and casualty – not life insurance – company, and its executives had little experience or concern with life insurance. The result was that our “end-run” worked and out plans were approved. The approval of these plans at the highest level of the organization gave us license to aggressively resist the bureaucracy that we knew would not give up.

Needless to say, the Hartford bureaucracy was less than pleased with me, and the innovative advertising campaign that buttressed our maverick approach. But alas, they Whole_Lifewere handcuffed and unable to do diddly squat about it. The bureaucrats did not want to admit to senior management that they had been unaware of our plans; that would make them look like they were hopelessly out of the loop. And the bureaucrats did not want to be seen resisting plans specifically approved by both the Hartford and ITT CEOs. Since the bureaucrats knew they could not stop us with a frontal attack, they were left with only the hope that our efforts would fail and they could then take their retribution. How ironical that the bureaucrats assumed the position of wanting to see actions that would ultimately benefit the Hartford fail; but their interest was only in protecting their turf.

Fortunately, the strategy worked and ITT Life began to grow and prosper. ITT Life’s advertising like that above created a firestorm in the industry that translated into increased sales and profits. The bureaucrats were thwarted, but they were not happy.

What we learn from this . . .

Bureaucracy cannot be eliminated; like death and taxes it will always be with us. But bureaucracy can be circumvented by figuring out how to “end-run” it by avoiding its strengths and attacking its weakness. The strength of bureaucracy is its inflexibility and its ability to block ideas from the bottom up. With creativity, flexibility and making an “end-run” around bureaucracy to higher levels in the organization, there is an opportunity to beat bureaucracy.

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