For entrepreneurs, bureaucracy is an anathema. It frustrated the heck out of me. But I still took away important lessons--and you can use them to make your business stronger.
As an entrepreneur, you probably have a low tolerance for bureaucracy.
For one thing, you've traded the apparent security of working for someone else--especially for a big company or even for the government--to launch your own venture and improve people's lives. (You deserve a heck of a lot of credit for that choice, by the way.)
Believe it or not, however, there are lessons to be learned from government bureaucrats. And I don't even mean in a snarky, do-the-opposite kind of way.
I've lived in Washington, D.C., on and off since the late 1990s, and I've written extensively about the government. At different times, like just about everyone in this city, I've even been a government employee myself. (I was a federal government lawyer in a previous career, and I also served in the Army. Later, I wrote for the government-owned, military newspaper, Stars and Stripes.)
I've probably known thousands of government workers. Many were inspiring people dedicated to a lifetime of public service. Others were talented men and women who wanted to get some credibility in their fields before heading to the private sector. (Of course, some were clock-watching, unmotivated lifers who sucked the life out of everything and dragged everyone else down with them. I try not to think about them too much.)
Still, I can think of at least five lessons that government bureaucrats can teach entrepreneurs.
1. Take the long view.
On my first day of orientation working at a federal government job many years ago, a group of workers leading the program went around the room, reciting how many years they'd worked there (and how long they had to go until retirement).
Granted, counting down years isn't exactly the most motivating way to welcome a bunch of new employees. But it drove home an important point: Careers are long. It's the same with entrepreneurs. To quote H.G. Wells, "The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow."
2. Work to live.
Sure, some government workers seem as if their jobs are the culmination of a lifelong dream. But that's probably the minority. More prevalent in my experience have been people who wanted to do a good job, but then go home to be with their families and enjoy other parts of life.
As an entrepreneur, you make sacrifices in other parts of your life, but it's good to remember that nobody can live by entrepreneurship alone. Heck, according to Walter Isaacson's book, even Steve Jobs didn't wish at the end that he'd spent more time at the office.
3. Put process over results (at least sometimes).
One of the hardest things for me personally working for the government was the sense that process mattered more than results. In the end, however, I grew to appreciate this (if not to enjoy it). Suppose you're applying for a government benefit, or your business winds up on the receiving end of a government investigation. The best you can likely hope for is that the government employee assigned will apply a fair process, remove all bias, and work without any preferred outcome in mind.
Granted, that's not really how entrepreneurship works, but the focus on creating replicable processes can be useful. The less time you have to spend worrying about day-to-day business concerns because you have good people executing solid processes to take care of them, the more time you can spend on thinking strategically and improving your venture for the longer run.
4. Put fairness first.
Government decisions can often seem capricious. But in terms of how it treats its employees, the government often bends over backward to be more than fair. In fact, I think that's why a lot of government workers choose to continue working for the government.
That's not a bad lesson to take into any business that you run: Treat employees fairly, and they'll generally respond better, appreciate work more, and stick around.
5. Sometimes, good enough is, well, good enough.
Maybe you've heard the phrase, "good enough for government." It's certainly a negative one, but I think maybe there's a flipside for entrepreneurs.
And, it reminds of a quote from one government worker in particular, the late General George S. Patton: "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week."
As an entrepreneur, of course you want your venture to be the best it possibly can be, but the truth is that there often are not enough hours in the day to perfect everything. You have to prioritize, and sometimes that means accepting "good enough" in less important areas so that you can focus with passion on perfecting what really matters.