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 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.