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How To Break Through Bureaucracy To Keep Projects Moving

Want to break through the bureaucracy that's stifling innovation at your company? Start by asking the right questions - and lots of them.

Contrary to popular opinion, innovation can happen in big companies. Look no further than Apple with their consistent device and software creations, Google with their long-awaited “Google+,” or GE with their string of healthcare breakthroughs. If you work in (or with) a big company, it may be tempting to blame bureaucracy – namely, the company’s size and excessive procedures – for the lack of innovation. But the true culprit is often our own inability to navigate it.

Bureaucracy is like the icy surface that glazes over a frigid ocean. Small cracks can provide enough headway for a ship to pass. When you sit still, you risk getting stuck. But if you gradually break up the ice as you go, you can keep moving forward. Rather than surrender to bureaucracy, take it upon yourself to break it.In subzero waters, icebreaker ships rely on a specially designed steel hull to plow forward. In climate-controlled offices, we can rely on a different weapon: The persistent question.

Try breaking up the ice with questions like:

  • “Why does it feel like we are having the same meeting and discussion, over and over again?”
  • “Why don’t we just try it and see what happens?”
  • “Specifically what (or who) is getting in the way of us making a decision?”
  • “When exactly will we have a final answer on this?”

You don’t have to be the boss to ask these questions. On the contrary, they are best asked by the people tasked with operations and execution. I heard from a friend that, during a lunch with Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, Chenault was asked the secret to a fast career progression at the company. “I make my bosses make decisions,” he said. “You can’t just sit around and let people think about stuff, you must make them make decisions.”

Rather than surrender to bureaucracy, take it upon yourself to break it.

Breaking up the ice is a painful responsibility, but the person who does it is the person who enables the ship to pass, the person who moves the entire project forward.For the sake of empowering organizations to make great ideas happen, I make this plea:

  • Be the person who asks the annoying questions.
  • Don’t try to get everyone to agree. Instead, put people on the spot to share their objections.
  • When there is ambiguity about the next step, call it out!

What Do You Think?

How do you break bureaucracy?

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (27)
  • Jason L.

    This is a great reminder. I have been hesitant to accept jobs at larger companies / organizations because of bureaucracy holding up progress! It’s a good reminder that I can be the one to break the string of habits and hold-ups. Well put!

  • Pedro Rezende

    Choose one way and live with it.

  • Another Mr X

    I think the real question in large companies is how do you break through mediocrity of larger companies?

    Sure there are a few companies who pride themselves on the quality of the work they produce, such as Apple and Google, but let’s face it there are a million other companies who are not as good at that. Dustin Curtis incident with American Airlines is more the norm than Apple or Google.

    In fact the vast part of Apple & Google’s success has been in bucking that trend, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

    I spend half of my working life in a government design job. My boss has no creative experience and is basically seeing his days out till he can retire in 5 years – he was the least talented member of the team and in true government style, was promoted away from real work and when the boss left, he got his job by default. He finds no reward in doing a job right and light heartedly mocks other members of staff for caring that things get done right when a poor one will garner the same pay return. He fails to see the long game, only focussing on the short.

    The problem is that there is no creative person above him telling him that this is wrong, and despite the fact business is in the toilet nothing changes. We are a team of highly skilled people producing distinctly below average work and I can find no way to fix it because the truth is no one wants to fix it. I used to blame “bureaucracy” but have slowly come to realise that low expectations of everyone above the team involved, and a poor system of accountablility, is to blame.

    I’ve been the person asking these very questions in my company for 6 years and now find myself increasingly cut out of the loop by a boss who knows I will cause him problems. In my field, and I’m sure in others, the vast majority of middle management don’t want to raise their heads above the parapit because they will be found out, so they aim to be successful but unremarkable and don’t take the risks necessary to be awesome.

    I’m focussing on getting myself out of that environment and into a more positive one before it destroys me, but any hints or tips on how to change my current predicament into a positive one would be very much welcome!

    Is this a flaw of public sector work, where the cut-throat expectations of the real world that force us to do our best or perish don’t apply, or is there something else I can do?

  • David

    “Why don’t we just try it and see what happens?” – Yes please. 90% of the projects we work on aren’t life & death or even customer impacting. Instead of meeting to death on every thing that comes up, some times it’s just more appropriate to say “this is what we think the solution for this problem is, it won’t impact existing customers, if it fails, here is what we need to do to roll back. Go.”

  • Ryan Colley

    Great read.  As an IT professional, we are not exempt from this as well. Here are our thoughts on how IT Professionals can insert themselves into the company as a solution provider.

  • Scott Belsky

    Thanks for the comment. I agree: It’s downright scary when you’re forced to tolerate complacency.

    No doubt, the best solution to mediocrity is meritocracy.

    I’m going to think more about your point, it’s a good one.

  • Scott Belsky

    Thanks Jason; glad you got the empowering intention of the post. Often times, these questions are best asked from the bottom-up, and asking them opens up career opportunity to boot.

  • term paper help

    i love this article
    your tips is usefull for me thanks for share

  • AlexBarris

    I did this. Soon I was excluded from meetings for being a troublemaker.

  • essay writing

    DAmn Bureaucrats they always make do to much unhealthy things!

  • essay writing

    Man thats not so easy!

  • businessmodels

    This is the curse of knowledge….

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Really excellent points Scott.

    I’ve heard large bureaucracies referred to as tankers–hard to turn, but also hard to sink–while entrepreneurial businesses are like speed boats–easy to maneuver but also easy to sink.

    When working with large organizations or coaching those within them, I’ve found that these strategies help break through the inertia:

    -Push on Openings/Weak Spots: Is there another employee who is also enthusiastic about moving forward? Is there a project where you could be given lots of autonomy? Is there a crisis that must be solved? Move forward in those areas and you’ll skirt around the main glacier.

    -Don’t Wait for a Unanimous Vote: If you wait until you know everyone absolutely agrees with you before moving forward on anything, you’ll create a lot of resistance for yourself. Get the buy in of the key stakeholders, including your boss, and then start to make headway. Most people will get on board when they see results.

    -Find an Advocate for an Intro and Reinforcement: Just like an MC gets a crowd fired up for a speaker, a good intro from a respected authority figure can pave the way for overcoming resistance. It can also help greatly if you can turn to him or her to resolve issues behind-the-scenes when a few key individuals are blocking your path.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Saunders

  • Jacob

    Quit your job. NOW.

  • feistyelle

    It’s the public sector because innovation isn’t supported much for the reasons you mentioned AND the challenge of doing design work for a company or organization that doesn’t have experience in producing good design. Your best bet is to get out and work on projects that challenge and nourish you.

    That said, I know where you’ve been and wish you luck!

  • Carlazilka

    Nice Scott. These questions must also be asked by the CEO to their team. As a restructuring expert and efficiency, and advisor to Fortune 1000 CEOs, bureaucracy starts at the top, as you well know. Breaking it from the top allows the lower levels to reap the benefits as well. I can tell you, being an executive at GE, I constantly questioned and asked, “Why?” “How come”, “What about this way”, until I realized after several years that the only way to be hear was to go to the top, which I did. My manager hated me and I couldn’t stand how ignorant she was, having made it to the top only due to the number of years in her role and not her skill, which was lacking.

    The ability to be curious and question the status quo is everyone’s right, with no backlash, but unfortunately in a CYA culture that is the corporate world, this is not so.

    Carla Zilka
    Founder & Principal Advisor
    NexGen Advisors
    Twitter: Carla_Zilka

  • Scott Belsky

    Great points Elizabeth. I guess the tanker’s “hard to sink” attribute is what makes companies find comfort in complacency. They believe they’ll be ok regardless, and thus fail to take risk or spend much energy trying.

    Great tips, thanks for sharing.

  • Jodie

    I have found that the same thing happens to me, my manager says things are in the too hard basket.

  • Aaron Tait

    Nice Scott. After being in the military for seven years I can certainly empathise with the frustration that many have within bureaucracies. 

    Some of the most exciting projects that I am now working on as a social entrepreneur have been in partnership with energetic ‘intrepreneurs’ – individuals driving change from within large bureaucracies (in many of these cases the government). 
    Perhaps the more that bureaucracies flirt with collaborations between ‘intrepreneurs’ and ‘entrepreneurs’ the more innovative and relevant their organisations will become.Aaron  

  • Another Mr X

    Thanks Scott, I agree meritocracy is the solution but it’s beyond my control.

    I didn’t want to spoil the argument you were putting foward. In fact, there is so much of what you have laid out that I agree with. I’ve worked in better run companies in the past and being the guy who demands better is the golden ticket to the top. Good upper management don’t want yes men, they value those who question the decisions – so long as they follow them up with solutions!

  • Chris Roy

    Having worked in large corporates and also in small office outfits, I have seen it from both sides of the fence. I also work freelance on a number of projects, so I can really appreciate the span between restrained progression, and full-control. The trick is to push ahead and be firm without stepping on toes, which can be a delicate situation at times. To cite the saying, “the proof is in the pudding,” it is almost always a requirement that you can substantiate your reasoning and need to drive the project on, and prove why the progression must be made in understandable terms. Sometimes, people just don’t appreciate the background, or underlying effects certain projects have, and there for the onus falls to those that do understand to educate and advance.

  • Lelesurabayamadura

    To break through, do it!

  • Mahsa

    I totally agree. My experience has been that if you break down the reasons why the bureaucracy prevents your idea from moving forward, and try your best to persistently and tactfully address each step, you can make miracles happen. Behind the big bureaucracies are humans who are doing a job in what often seems a large labyrinth of rules and regulations. Take the time to build a one-on-one relationship with those individuals! Trust me. 

  • Grant Carlile

    I like the advice here; it’s clear and to the point. Thank you.

  • Fonda Mentalis

    Bureaucracy is an invention of the human mind. As such it is an illusion. My advice: don’t pay attention to it. And keep on moving, connecting, developing.

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