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The Futures of Bureaucracy
Here's an investigation into the future possibilities of bureaucracy
Last week, I spoke to a couple dozen people about the futures of bureaucracy. This was the biggest group I remember speaking to, and I was anxious. My mind assaulted me with what-ifs and not-good-enoughs. But I was also prepared; I knew this subject.
I'm happy to say it was a success.
Here's the original talk (I was slated for 5 minutes but ran 9 minutes. Sorry, Daniel, Stephanie and Gerald!):
I want to expand on what I said in the video. So, this is an expansion of that original talk, "The Futures of Bureaucracy".
Origins and Thoughts on Bureaucracy
We should look to the origins and thoughts behind bureaucracy if we are to understand the possibilities within bureaucracy.
It was a French economist who coined the term bureaucracy. He combined the French word "bureau" (desk) and the Greek root "kratos" (known to us as "-cracy", rule. It translated to “the rule of the desk”. And the French economist who employed this term seems to have used it in quite a derogatory way. Saying that, “France suffers from ‘bureaumania’”.
Writing about bureaucracy is incomplete without Max Weber. He was the first person to study the idea, and from his study I started to see that bureaucracy was neither bad nor good.
To paraphrase a significant body of work, Weber saw bureaucracies as a system that was efficient and useful, but also threatening to individual freedoms. If you want to read more, here's a link to his essay.
Regardless, bureaucracy wasn't always the villain. Or at least not always the main one.
I read Alvin Toffler's Future Shock recently. Sometimes it felt like he spoke directly to me. Toffler spoke of a time in which people had to endure rapid change, and where because of this change people were becoming more transient in their dealings, were burdened with over-choice for the first time in history, and novelty was on every corner. This was 1970, but I felt it could have been 2021.
I don't think of bureaucracy often, but the message of Future Shock arrived just as I started thinking about it again.
In Future Shock, Toffler said that because of transience, novelty, and diversity, bureaucracy would fall apart. If it did, something would have to succeed. The successor would have to be flexible enough to handle the transience and would also have to cope with loose structures of people. Toffler’s answer was adhocracy. (Ad-hoc + -cracy). In an adhocratic system, groups would organize around a project and then dismantle at completion. Because of this structure, these ad-hoc groups must be able to make decisions without hierarchical control.
It reminded me of start-ups. Start-ups don't stay in adhocratic organization for long, though; executives’ longing for control and efficiency breed bureaucracy. 51 years later and we still aren't fairing any better.
Thanks to my new friend Stephanie, I stumbled onto a modern incarnation of post-bureaucratic thought. Though it had another name, many of the ideas felt similar to adhocracy. Its name is Humanocracy. The concept comes from a book by the same name and written by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. The essence of Humanocracy is in empowering the "genius" within all people within the organization by giving people space to create, take initiative, and be daring.
There are other post-bureaucratic propositions, but these two suffice as basis for futures exploration.
The Narratives We Use
Sohail Inayatullah's writing on Causal Layered Analysis taught me that we have to focus on changing narratives to incite enduring change.
The CLA Iceberg. Source: Sohail Inayatullah The Causal Layered Analysis Reader
What narratives compose bureaucratic and post-bureaucratic thought? Narratives of decisional control, repeatable outcomes, uniformity, conformity over originality, and specialism drive bureaucratic thought. While post-bureaucratic thought consists of: flexibility over rigidity, autonomy over top-down control, empowerment, and impermanence.
The Narratives We Could Use
Life is complex. Some say that it’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), and others say it's turbulent, uncertain, novel, and ambiguous (TUNA). Whatever acronym you use, those factors are accelerating in concert with change.
I can't promise you that we'll see Toffler's vision. That's not how the future works. What I hope to do instead is provide you a narrative to help you navigate your futures in dealing with bureaucracy.
This is a modified version of a Wardley Map. Once I learned how to Wardley Map, I knew I could use it in my futures practice. The vertical axis represents the possibility of a given component and the horizontal represents how far in the future until realization. Together we get a map of the future potential of a specific context.
The future of bureaucracy is mired in many things that seem near impossible. Autonomy for a bureaucrat feels like an oversaturated utopia. Yet, I believe they only seem this way because we have constrained ourselves to the bureaucratic thought narratives. Could we clean the murk from these ideal narratives to navigate the present?
That's what I leave you with, what I leave myself with: Empower and Befriend the Bureaucrat. If you are in a position to do so, give the bureaucrat space to break rules when they are harming the organization or the people within. Give them the flexibility to form ad-hoc groups to address problems, and the safety to dare to solve whatever problems they might see.
If you aren't in the position to do so, befriend the bureaucrat. They were never the enemy. The system forces the bureaucrat into rigidity, and causes your efforts to stagnate or collapse. It’s never been the bureaucrat. Making a genuine friend of a bureaucrat will unlock flexibility we otherwise don't get to see. When you can empower them with your friendship and support, you can achieve much more, especially when compared to antagonizing the bureaucrat.
The future is unknowable. No matter what post-bureaucratic organization will be called, or how it will function. It is undeniable that empowering and befriending the bureaucrat play a part in that future.
Great Things I’ve Read
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (Book)