How to beat the bureaucracy holding business back

Stifling procedures can suffocate creativity and alienate staff, underlining the need to strip out unnecessary bureaucracy 

Here’s a baffling bit of jargon: socialising the hierarchies. At one major high street bank, it’s a compulsory part of any project. When a proposal is made, it must be approved by a long list of people in every department it affects. A simple thing, like signing off a story about a business loan that helped an entrepreneur expand her company, might take 30 signatures before being published.

The signatures must be obtained in the right order and that sequence must be sent to all parties, hence socialising the hierarchies.

You can break down bureaucracy by giving every team in the organisation a level of autonomy

It’s a hideous phrase, reflecting a bureaucratic nightmare. But this bank is hardly alone. Large organisations are often crippled by bureaucracy. Harvard Business Review calls it “tax on human achievement”.

But can anything be done to cut bureaucracy? At boardrooms of the world’s biggest companies, there’s no shortage of experimentation. The rewards are so big, and the dangers of failure so perilous, that radical schemes are being embraced.

How artificial intelligence can help beat bureaucracy 

At telco Tata Communications, which handles a quarter of world internet routes, the latest breakthrough is artificial intelligence (AI).

“There are a number of ways in which innovations such as AI can help maintain uniformity and controls while making the job faster and easier,” says European head Mark Weait.

“We have used it to sharpen our recruitment processes. Our hiring managers save time and effort, which was earlier being used to skim through job descriptions to shortlist candidates, by using an AI-based automated tool that auto-matches a candidate with best-in-class individuals, and the latter acting as the benchmark.”

Feedback and evaluation of employees is AI assisted at Tata. Forms and responses can be filled in automatically by AI. Over time, more and more routine functions can be completed this way. Employees will only enter the missing bits of data.

How Mars’ innovation initiative is shaking things up

Standardisation can help. Ensuring there is a single form for basic tasks can make life easier for employees. But creating a standard process can help complex activities too, such innovation. At Mars, the confectioner, there is a scheme to formalise how innovation is generated.

The Launchpad, as it is known, asks senior staff to identify areas of the company in need of overhauling. If they get the green light, they establish a new unit and bring in help from small external agencies to work towards improving processes. It’s like having an endless supply of disruptive startups bubbling up within Mars.

“Because Launchpad has its own funding and support structure within our business, it gives us the freedom to take risks,” says Gulrez Arora, global lead of Launchpad at Mars. “There is so much change that even a company as big as Mars can’t find the smartest solutions as quickly as we need them. But by working with startups, embracing collaboration, we are letting our associates benefit from the strength of our existing culture, alongside outside expertise.”

Importantly, everyone in Mars knows how an innovative project can be conceived, approved and run with the minimum of interference or uncertainty.

Trust is key to killing bureaucracy 

At the heart of current thinking on slim-line bureaucracy is the idea of trust. The celebrated management thinker Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health, at Alliance Manchester Business School, sees it as the key factor. “We need to breakdown corporate bureaucracy,” he says. “It’s killing innovation, particularly in mid-management roles.

“Nowadays, there’s a culture where people are too frightened to make decisions and this isn’t helped by the amount of red tape in place. In my view, there are several ways of overcoming this.

“You must trust people. You can break down bureaucracy by giving every team in the organisation a level of autonomy. Give the manager of a team the autonomy to look after their own team members. Not only does this make them feel valued, but it also reduces stress in the workplace. The main thing that causes unhappiness at work today is not having control or autonomy to make decisions.”

Sir Cary argues that a simple change in mindset can trigger the right responses. “To break down the layers of red tape, you shouldn’t treat the organisation as a tanker heading to a port, but as a group of ships or a flotilla. While you may be heading for the same destination, business leaders need to realise there are different units and routes involved in getting there,” her says.

“You have to give people permission to fail from time to time. Let them run and you’ll see a more agile, engaged and innovative workforce as a result. This will help people remove the fear they associate with decision-making, too.”

Giving staff autonomy can revolutionise how business works

In the end, the threat of competition may force larger organisations to strip out the paperwork. Their fear of making mistakes will be overtaken by their fear of being overtaken by more agile rivals.

Employees will simply be given more rights to take action without oversight. Shaun Thomson, chief executive of Sadler Training UK, which helps companies improve sales and management, argues that a key sign can be whether employees can act instantly.

He recalls: “I was in a hotel lobby, waiting to check out, when the gentleman in front of me was very unhappy about his his room. Not enough towels. The receptionist did not budge an inch. After a heated discussion, the guest went away with no concessions and the receptionist almost turned to the guests with an ‘I won’t smile’.

“In a second hotel, a guest was checking in too early. The room was not yet available. The receptionist offered him lunch with compliments of the hotel and an upgrade to be ready in 45 minutes. I told her she handled it very well.

“She told me that the management of the hotel empowered the front-desk staff to be able to authorise up to £250 spend to give outstanding customer service. She said they had to be able to stand behind their action and justify their reason for the actions they had taken. But in the five years she had worked there, she had never been challenged by her manager as to why she had done any particular action with a client. She also added, unprompted, it was a great place to work because she was valued.”

AI, structured innovation and autonomous work groups are going to be the headliners in the battle on bureaucracy. But old fashioned trust still goes a long way.

Case study: Futurice

John Oswald, advisory team global principal at digital innovation consultancy Futurice, explains how the company took an axe to bloated paperwork.

He says: “Bureaucracy is really a synonym for control, especially in larger companies. People are fundamentally reluctant to cede control or to show trust, for fear that things will go wrong.

“At Futurice, we’ve been growing steadily for a number of years, and at one stage, when the company got to about 50 people, the founders instituted tighter processes to manage the finances better. A few weeks in, the rallying cry came, ‘Have people suddenly become stupid and irresponsible?’

“So, we experimented with a radically new approach to managing the team: complete trust in people, with a simple guideline, ‘Do the right thing by the client, our people, the numbers, now and in the future’. We agreed on a decision-making framework known as the freedom radar, which helps people plot what is sacred to the company and what should be left to individual or team discretion at the edges. And we dropped all other processes.

“It worked. The company has gone from being a small player in Finland across two locations to being a significant European design and innovation consultancy, working with some of the top clients, not only in Finland, but across the Nordics and Germany. There’s a strong emphasis on company and employee culture, which builds on those earlier decisions to abandon process in favour of trust.”