KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Bureaucratic mindset

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An example of British bureaucracy at its finest–courtesy of “Little Britain”

The UN is often spoken of as being very bureaucratic, and not in a good way. And those of us who work here have all had days when we struggle with trying to maintain optimism and getting things done due to the challenges of following myriad rules written and unwritten (see an earlier blog post “working with one hand tied behind your back”).

I’ve also written before about some of the problems with how we develop rules and the large number of them (see earlier post “afraid of responsibility – try regulation”). But rules are also very valuable in ensuring that as public employees are accountable both to our donors and beneficiaries, to help us systematically follow good practice that has been developed from experience, to ensure that we are consistent and fair in how we work, to minimize risks and to save time and energy by avoiding us making up new procedures every time we do a new project.

But while we can criticize the number and nature of some of the rules we have to follow and how they constrain us – I’m increasingly aware that it’s often not the rules themselves that cause the problem but the mind-frame that many people within the system adopt in applying them, often after a career of frustrated attempts to change things. Often when we are “fighting the system” to get things done it feels like we are actually fighting ourselves – or at least our bosses and colleagues.

So what’s behind this mindset? A few things include:

1. Risk aversion – Public bureaucracies are notoriously risk averse – and not without reason. Both donors and internal control mechanisms encourage compliance with rules, long deliberation and sticking with fixed plans over taking initiative and seizing opportunities or doing something bold. This translates at an individual level to taking it slowly, consulting widely often to cover your back as much as to seek insight, and ensuring everything goes through multiple formal review mechanisms and sign-offs.

2. Tall poppy syndrome – a fear of taking initiative and drawing too much attention to oneself for fear of being “cut down to size” by others in the system. This can be especially true in a bureaucracy as the culture is one of duty to the institution and the system over pushing ones own ideas or agenda.

3. Reluctance to change. We’re all to some extent resistant to change – but in public organizations the organizational culture is one of stability or slow change. Security including job security is one of the motivating reasons why some people choose to work there. Of course public organizations do frequently have change management processes introduced or imposed on them – but in practice these are often quite painful processes that awake resistance rather than something that motivates people to change. A part of this is because the processes are usually imposed by external forces who see public organizations as rigid and the employees as something that needs to be fixed. (I’m currently taking a course on “Leading strategic innovation in organizations” with Coursera and heard this great quote from the course professor, David Owens “Innovation is something you do to others, change is something that is done to you”).

4. Losing sight of the results. In a large organization it’s easy to end up focusing on the mechanics and processes of your work and your specific tasks (and thus following procedures and rules) rather than focusing on the larger goal to which your work contributes and how you do your work fits in with that.

5. Split between doers and enforcers. Often in the UN our work is divided between two groups of people – those who develop ideas or programmes, and those people who perform the operational support that to happen. This means you often have “programme officers” who want to get things done but who don’t know the rules and  “operations and support staff” whose job it is to keep them in check and make sure that all the rules and procedures are followed correctly. This often means that programme people can’t understand why we need to follow certain procedures to protect the organization and operations people don’t feel they have a stake in the results the programme people are seeking.

How can we overcome this?  There are a number of systemic issues I’d love to change such as the relationship with donors, or the organizations approach to innovation and risk management, but while we are waiting for Godot those to happen, we should ask ourselves: what can we do as individuals to overcome the bureaucratic mindset in colleagues, or in ourselves? I don’t have any silver bullets since if I knew how to overcome this I’d probably already own a highly profitable consulting firm by now Smile but here are a few thoughts that are looking for feedback:

1. Focus on identifying the results you want to achieve first – then figure out how to achieve the results within the rules.  It might be necessary to modify your plans in order to do them according to the rules and to get people to buy into what you are doing – but you should continually remember what it is you are trying to achieve and whether your modified plans are still getting you where you want to be. If you start by thinking about what you know you are able to do you are already restricting your possibilities. Better to work backwards from an ideal that starting off with something that is already limited. Even if your work seems a small contribution to a much larger distant goal, it’s always good to retain focus on the larger picture and judge your work on whether it continues to support it.

2. Don’t rush to judgement. Try to identify multiple possible solutions to any problems you are facing including a few crazy ones. Don’t assess and discard them too early or rush to pick a single solution until you’ve had chance to think of the problem from different angles. The more ideas you have the more likely that some of them will be good, and you might be able to pull things from the ideas you discarded to help you later in the project – but only if you had them in the first place.

3. Challenge your assumptions – or have someone challenge them for you. If you think something can’t be done – try to identify explicitly what the barriers are that you are seeing and look to see if there is some way to overcome them or what might happen if you lay them to one side for a while to be dealt with later while you flesh out the easier aspects of the problem. Getting someone from outside your usual circle to look at your problem might also help bring in new ideas or avoid getting stuck on familiar barriers.

4. Develop a support network. There’s nothing more discouraging than having someone say “I told you so” after an unsuccessful attempt to do something new. Try to develop a network of other people who have a similar mindset and mutually support each other both with ideas, but more importantly with moral support whether it be encouragement to keep going when there are setbacks or actual substantive support if you are in a position to do so. And just as you count on others for support, so they should also be able to count on you. (and a quick plug for the UN Transformation Network a group of UN staffers and consultants who work with the UN who are dedicated to transformation from within).

5. Build bridges to create co-ownership in the results – in particular try to get the people in procurement and human resources or elsewhere on board with your project and to also want it to succeed so that they will help you find a way to get it done that also conforms to the requirements of the organization. This way your result will be a better one both because it’s more likely to make it through the administrative hurdles, but also because you will have profited from the expertise of your colleagues in formulating it in the first place.

6. Get advice – but take your own decision. It’s likely that someone else has faced a similar situation to yours in getting things through the system and that they will have valuable lessons for you, even if they were unsuccessful.

7. Do something – even if it is small. Use whatever opportunities you have to make a change – even if it is a limited pilot or prototype. If you can’t persuade your bosses or “the system” to make a major change or take on a large project – try to get the space to do something small and experimental so that the risks are not too large, but that will allow you to test your ideas, refine them and prove that they can work (or try something else with your reputation intact if they don’t).

8. Finally, be true to yourself and your values. Try to keep focused on why you joined the organization and the change you wanted to make and don’t compromise on that, even if progress is slow. And try to set an example that others can follow, and get feedback from others on whether you are living up to that.

Fellow travellers: What are your suggestions for avoiding the bureaucratic mindset? I’d love to hear from you.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 18, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. UN complexity has often been addressed with complicated rules and processes. In fact, managing or ‘doing things’ in a complex environment need simple – but very well internalized – fundamental principles. I do believe that we, in the UN, should elaborate more on the deep meaning of being an international civil servant.

    Vincent Defourny

    March 19, 2013 at 4:51 am

  2. […] An example of British bureaucracy at its finest–courtesy of “Little Britain” The UN is often spoken of as being very bureaucratic, and not in a good way. And those of us who work here have all had …  […]

  3. Aren’t these characteristics you’ve mentioned typical of any large organization? I like the video comparison but would also be interested in hearing more about how the UN does try to dispel some of these stereotypes or have had successes in changing over time. Or, are there none?

    sunny yang

    April 5, 2013 at 12:33 am

    • @Sunny – yes, you’re right these can apply in any large organization, but I think they are stronger in public sector organization because the rules are more numerous and complex and because people stick around in the same jobs for longer and so risk getting more set in their ways.
      In terms of what the UN is trying to do about this – I know that there are a number of innovation related initiatives in various agencies that are trying to introduce new thinking and ways of working. There are also many individual leaders who are very focussed on results and not just on process. The challenge is that these are not all connected and are not present across all parts of the UN. Making this more systematic and also better incentivizing the right kind of behaviours is the real challenge that needs to be addressed.

      Ian Thorpe

      April 5, 2013 at 10:39 am

  4. […] a previous blog post I wrote about the challenges of the bureaucratic mindset, and how we also need to look at our own actions to see if we are just going through the motions […]

  5. Dear Ian,
    I wish to respond to your great blog on the Bureaucratic mindset (could this trail contribute to the first draft of our 1 hour presentation for the ‘transformative UN leaders’ course?). I situate my comments in the context of humanitarian bureaucrats.
    I wish to agree with the 5 primary drivers behind the mindset – u could choose to call them ‘blinders or lethargies’ that are synonymous with the bureaucratic mindset (I probably would want to add that the bureaucracy attracts mostly left-brainers who are logical, practical and detail orientated and this self-selecting ‘group’ often automatically re-inforce negatively the 5 primary drivers u emphasize in ur blog). I would also highlight the point that these 5 primary drivers result in a real ‘bleeding’ of energy from the bureaucrats: so essentially we turn the whole dynamic into a downward and negative spiral…I give extra weight to ENERGY because what happens in the workplace is only part of who we are and when our lives outside of work turn into negative energy spirals (eg. through the death of a loved one, etc) then we have additional impetus towards being de-motivated/de-energized, etc..
    Regarding what ‘to do’ to overcome the mindset I would add 2 key issues to the 8 that u have identified:
    a) Seed compassion and empathy right at the heart of ones actions and
    b) Synthesis thinking needs to be a foundation stone for our work.
    Compassion and empathy: I believe these are fundamental building blocks for every bureaucrat but most especially a humanitarian ‘bureaucrat’ who by definition is removed from the challenges and messnyness of the field. Over recent years, I have started to see that some of the mission statements coming from the multi-national sector are starting to sound as if they come from the Agencies-NGOs involved in development-emergency work. One of the key differences between the MNC’s and the social sector is that humanity (as say opposed to last quarter profit and loss trends) is at the heart of our mandate-mission. The more this core heart of our mandate-mission is actualized (eg. through regular exposure to field work) the more we empower ourselves to overcome the inherent lethargy of bureaucracy. When we remember (or are reminded) of the primary reasons why we chose this type of work we re-gain the energy to combat the 5 ills u identify…

    Synthesis thinking: the irony of this element is that I am suggesting the left-brainers systematically train themselves to build from their inherent weakness (ie. logical thinking) and turn it into a strength-opportunity. The bureaucrat who wishes to fully harness their full being will be able to take her/his work to the next level if they undertake activities which actively question their left-oriented approaches to the work. For example before finishing a strategy or evaluation report, spend time listening to music or playing a musical instrument. (Another option might be to spend time fly-fishing or in mediation prior to finalizing the report.) The essence of this point is summed up in the following Einstein quote:
    ‘The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.’
    Our world and its challenges grows ever more complex and logical thinking will at best maintain the status quo – I don’t believe logical thinking will find the holistic solutions the next 7 generations of humanity are asking us to find…
    Hope the above assists..

    gerald ddaly

    April 8, 2013 at 6:32 pm

  6. Dear Ian, thanks so much for this very interesting and timely post! Timely because I hope that with our upcoming leadership training with the UN Transformation Network we can build on this.

    On your suggestions ‘to make things work’ I’d like to add to find champions, ideally higher up in the chain. These champions can be ‘hook’ and just aligning an idea to ‘solid’ colleagues might well armor fresh ideas of being shut down too early. Once a good idea gets traction some people will want to be associated to it which fuels the imitative further – which is hopefully more energy than the one from naysayer trying to cut tall poppies.

    Having worked for large companies which of course are also bureaucratic to some extend I believe that there is still lots to learn from them. Their feedback cycles from their clients are much more direct, eg if a large company produces a non-effective product or service they will either complain directly and strongly or vote with their feet until the company either changes or vanishes within few years.

    I believe more direct ‘client’ contact, authentic leadership and more entrepreneurial (risk-aware rather risk-averse) mindset would bring us much closer to the modern UN we envision.

    All the best!

    Juergen Nagler

    April 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm

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