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Subordinate bureaucracy is endemic in most established organisations, particularly larger corporates that have multiple layers of management structures. Insidiously and surreptitiously it inhibits creativity and expression, working against innovation and derailing attempts to tap into the organisational pool of individual and collective innovation potential. You may think it’s not happening in your company, the chances are it is and the cancer is growing daily, don’t let it be the death knell of your organisational innovation efforts, start the surgery now.
We've all experienced it, that collective hushed voice of our fellow colleagues, you can't do that, it’s not allowed! Why you ask? Because Mildred said so is the reply. You ask Mildred; the response is shrouded in vague safety or financial acronyms that seem to have little relevance. Despite this, you know your great innovative idea makes sense and you develop it further, but before long you are stopped, disciplined and labelled; you learn and never do it again. Multiply this experience 100 perhaps even 1000 fold and hey presto you have the makings of an insidiously surreptitious cancer that feeds off subordinate bureaucracy and ultimately is the down fall of many a senior manager’s grand plan to tap into the collective employee potential for innovation.
With the rate of change accelerating at a phenomenal pace, sustainable success is measured in the proficiency of today’s businesses to perpetually reinvent their services, processes and products through innovation. Someone, something, some organisation is just a heartbeat away from gaining advantage and pushing what was once a relevant and successful business into irrelevancy. Additionally, no longer is it sufficient to confine innovation to the realm of a select few senior managers or skunk work type clusters. A successful organisation will tap into the innovative potential that exists within its societal populous and look to build an enthusiastic organisational culture that perpetuates holistically endemic innovation.
Yet, while the importance of holistic innovation is well understood, innovation utopia across the organisational masses has proved to be a difficult task, as many have tried with few succeeding. Larger established firms are particularly challenged as they find their hierarchical bureaucratic structures and processes work against the very nature of innovation by resisting change, creativity, flexibility, freedom and risk taking.
Often, innovative specialists are brought in at great expense to an organisation with the objective of tapping the collective employee innovative well. After assessments and discussion, they generally start to work on transformation, often moving to diffuse managerial control and shift from top-down to employee centric models. Concurrently, recognising the importance of establishing a nurturing environment, a great deal of effort is put in to middle-management structures. Employees are extolled the virtues of innovation and taken down a path of innovation renewal through education and practice. Truth telling, sacrifice and intentionality are acclaimed, groups are formed, successes are celebrated and finally intrinsic collective organisational innovation is pronounced as ‘in place’. The problem is that even with the best of intentions many efforts splutter and fall to the way-side over the following 12 to 24 months with most of the remainder tenuously clinging on, but in spirit only.
A key reason behind the lack of success is not the effort of the specialist, resource allocated by senior management, constructs so lovingly built by the innovation zealots, the organisation’s openness to innovation or even employee’s capability, but instead a cancerous construct which is often whispered and even flippantly joked about within organisations but rarely addressed called subordinate bureaucracy.
Subordinate bureaucracy often enters the organisation under the guise of legitimate rules (e.g. safety regulations, stationary, petty cash and governance). However, over time the rules are ratcheted and subverted by subordinate gate keepers to a level where they become a pseudo power base upon which the controlling subordinates reign over the employee masses.
The more innovative and less risk adverse employees initially push back and test the boundaries but are often publicly punished which over time intrinsically teaches all employees to passively comply by avoiding questions, risk and conflict. Just like a flea in a jar that tries to escape but over time learns the lid is the confining boundary; when the lid is removed, the flea doesn’t realise and continues to jump to the boundary level that the lid had previously set. Little wonder that employees have trouble absorbing the knowledge that the company now wants them to be innovators; the lid may be removed, but the confining bureaucratic subordinate cultural boundaries still exist.
Additionally, the surreptitious nature of subordinate bureaucracy causes risk aversion, rigid and black and white behaviour paradigms which are implicitly absorbed and as such become unconscious. This means that the sub culture created is often invisible to senior management. Senior management encounter this bureaucracy directly in the secondary reactive guise when organisational innovation initiatives are introduced. Over time, for reasons unknown, it becomes apparent that employees are inadequately adopting innovation even though employee enthusiasm for innovation appears to be high. Lurking behind the scene is the cancerous subordinate bureaucracy dictating a rigid employee behaviour paradigm which is unconsciously restricting creative thinking, risk taking, conflict and stifling innovation growth. As management are unaware of the undercurrents, it is often misinterpreted as employee capability inadequacies. This can lead to managerial channelling or even abandonment of innovation initiatives.
‘This isn’t happening in my organisation’ many senior managers say, however, if one cares to talk to the employee masses they would note middle managers and staff diligently avoiding eye contact as they pondered those unpopular but very powerful subordinates that rule the pseudo company roost.
For those that do seek out and uncover the affliction, the cancer needs to be proactively removed and, like many diseases, there is pain involved. Structural changes to address offending personnel are the starting point. While repatriation to less influential positions is an option, history and experience suggest that it is better to part ways with some personnel who will prove to be disruptive, costly and become ‘well poisoners’. A large organisation will likely have at least one such subordinate bureaucrat per division.
Additionally, proactive efforts to show employees that the lid is removed and freedom to innovate is possible needs to be proclaimed loudly. A good idea is to publicly appoint a ‘bureaucracy buster’, someone who can seek out and eliminate unnecessarily obstructive rule sets and behaviours. Providing this person has good people skills, is positioned as an innovator champion and publicly celebrates successful exhumations, employees will quickly join in, discover their innate innovative talents and explore growing expressions. Yes, further innovation training, environmental, structural and empowerment activities will be necessary to make the process sustainable. However, the difference in this case is that by rooting out subordinate bureaucracy first, the foundation will be solid and the ground sufficiently fertile to nurture innovative green shoots and grow a sustainable endemic innovation culture within the organisation.