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6 Ways to Avoid Turning Your Company Into a Bureaucracy

Bureaucrats aren't just in governments, utilities, and health care companies--they infect companies big and small.

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Certain industries are known for overly bureaucratic procedures. Health care, telecom, and power companies, come to mind. Indeed, every company has some bureaucracy and people who behave like bureaucrats.

The challenge for growing companies is to implement just enough processes and procedures to allow them to scale their business while maintaining a culture that encourages entrepreneurial spirit, flexibility, and adaptability.

It's a balancing act, to be sure, and one I'm quite familiar with, having worked with dozens of companies at various stages of growth.

Here are six ways to avoid the tyranny of bureaucracy. And pay attention; they're not as obvious as you might think.

Better meetings. Yes, everyone says they hate meetings, but what they really hate are unnecessary and poorly run meetings. The truth is that meetings are where goals, strategies, plans, budgets, and just about anything else that matters in business are discussed, debated, and agreed upon. Also, periodic one-on-one meetings among peers and direct reports are excellent ways to stay aligned and resolve issues before they get out of hand.

Constructive confrontation. When you encourage people to address issues head-on and debate them in constructive ways, that breaks down barriers, streamlines performance, and diminishes organizational dysfunction like pet projects, silos, sacred cows, and passive aggressive behavior. If it gets heated, just remember: address the problem, not the person.

Fewer titles and layers of management. Relatively flat, simple organizational structures tend to outperform complex, top-heavy ones. And title inflation makes matters worse. I've seen plenty of tiny companies with more senior executives than Apple. That's just nuts. If you've got three levels of VPs, that's probably two levels more than you need.

An entrepreneurial culture. A culture that shuns yes-men and group-think, that questions the status quo and challenges conventional wisdom, can't go wrong. Just don't forget to make and record decisions, and stick with them. Also fire anyone who says, "Because that's how we do it here."

Top down strategic planning and goal setting. Strategic planning has a bad rep because very few companies and consultants know how to do it effectively. Done right, it ensures that everyone knows the company's vision and goals, its strategies for achieving them, and how each and every one of their jobs fits into the big picture. That actually promotes true employee engagement--the enemy of bureaucracy.

Initiative and "can do" attitude. Bureaucrats are forever pointing fingers at everyone else, covering their own behinds, saying, "It's not my job," and generally making excuses for why they didn't get something done. Instead, promote accountability and reward people who take ownership, solve problems, and get things done. A "can do," "how can I help you" attitude is key to organizational effectiveness.

Last updated: Feb 7, 2013

STEVE TOBAK is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
@SteveTobak




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