Bureaucracy is not a problem limited to Fortune 500-size corporations. It can creep into small startups, even in the early days. And when it does, it doesn't take much of it to hamper progress. A gargantuan-size budget becomes unwieldy, so upper management feels it must control spending with more and more policies. Or, a team suddenly has too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough incentive to speed up the cooking process.
In his new book, F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation, Air Force officer Dan Ward explains how to make projects short, snappy, and tightly focused. Recently, I spoke with him about concrete ways to make sure bureaucracy doesn't strangle a startup's progress. Here are his tips:
1. Make intentionally short delivery dates.
One of the concepts Ward explores in the book has to do with making projects as brief as possible. It's a brilliant idea and one I know from personal experience. In my job as a tech reporter, I know I'll work harder and faster if my deadline is a week, not a month, from now. Ward explained to me how the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous project (NEAR) at NASA became famous for three-minute meetings meant to discuss the very next project deliverable. "This discouraged bureaucratic barnacles from latching on and slowing things down," he says.
2. Only count what counts.
Ward makes several points in the book about making sure you do not make it a bureaucratic imperative to track every project deliverable as if it were on an accounting spreadsheet. In NASA's NEAR project, for example, he says the schedule had only 12 items on it at any time, helping reduce bureaucracy and focusing the team on the important tasks. Having fewer major tasks means they become higher priorities.
3. Minimalism is a maximizer.
Ward says small companies also have a tendency to want to create only a few large big-budget projects. That's a mistake, he says, because bigger projects create more bureaucracy. Small projects--and smaller teams--work harder to finish tasks. Upper management has more of a hands-off approach to smaller projects; it won't interfere as much because the risks are lower. "If we keep the budget tight, we present a less attractive target for people with bureaucratic tendencies," says Ward. "Keeping the team small helps us stay off their radar screen."
4. Delay the creation of formal policies.
Ward says small companies tend to want to operate like big companies. They might make a long list of best practices (a term borrowed from the enterprise world), when the length of that list should be as small as the company itself. "Just because a large, successful company has a thick binder of corporate policies doesn't mean there is any relationship between binder thickness and organizational success," says Ward. "Adopting the formal trappings of a large company in order to appear more credible or prestigious doesn't fool anyone and actually reduces performance."
5. Co-locate your team.
Ward says one of the best ways to minimize bureaucracy in a startup is to situate employees together--no more corner offices. "When people sit side by side, there is much less pressure to institute formal, bureaucratic structures to manage the relationships," he says. "Instead of inflexible roles and responsibilities, co-located teams naturally develop relationships marked by direct communication that happens at the speed of need."
6. Forgo the constant meetings.
Meetings are for big companies, right? At times, it makes sense to gather the masses, but Ward says a meeting can be a form of overlord control. "Bureaucracies set up regularly scheduled meetings in order to bring people together, but there is often a misalignment between when the meeting is scheduled and when the conversation is needed," he says.