Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: No. 1 :: March 1998
A Different Beat
``Either dance well or leave the ballroom.''
That's what people would like to say to bureaucracies, especially government. Bureaucratic private enterprises, to their chagrin, are learning it the hard way: the competition doesn't tell them -- it just shows them, and when its quite late too. In India, some bureaucracies, the Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), are supposed to make a profit -- they don't exist for administration. The liberalisation process has ensured that these shape up or be left out.
Bureaucracies are not just structures; they are made up of people, and most people know how chaotic people can be. When one talks about people, one talks about variety. And this is what bureaucracies seek to eliminate. There is obviously some distrust of people new to the organisation till they become `one of the boys'. Initially, when a new bureaucrat is being shown how things are and how they work, the concept of roles, role taking and role making gain significance along with `power'.
``Powerlessness corrupts. And absolute powerlessness corrupts
What makes bureaucracies very susceptible to corruption? Power, sometimes, and the lack of power, at most times. All managers know that authority and responsibility should fit the task at hand. In a bureaucracy, a job is broken down into so many insignificant tasks and the power is also thus fragmented. The authority delegated is so little that it is almost zero. And, what's more, people in bureaucracies tend to have little in common except for a fanatical clinging to rules and procedures.
``The trouble is Mr Goldwyn, that you are only interested in art,
and I am only interested in money.''
The quote is just perfect. How can people with completely different mental models work together? It is impossible to find two people thinking about most things the same way but there has to be some congruence, some similarity in thinking and approach. And this similarity cannot be brought by rules and procedures. It has to be brought about by sharing information, sharing goals and objectives and above all by sharing values. But will sharing just all these ideals and ideas work? No.
``You can get people to develop their skills not by steering them
by fixed rules but by giving them total responsibility to achieve
a specified result.''
People have to go through a proper and well designed induction programme and also have to be inculcated with a sense of responsibility. Accountability is a different concept: it just seeks a scapegoat and beats the paths to lay blame. Responsibility is closer to the heart: it is a question of honour. It is also a question of trust.
``Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility
upon him and let him know that you trust him.''
Charles Handy, in his latest book The Hungry Spirit, narrates an incident with a courier: The man has difficulty finding Handy's cottage and calls up his London base by radio. The base calls up Handy for instructions and the instructions get messed up and the courier gets lost again. He calls up his base again and the base calls Handy again and finally, the courier turns up at Handy's doorstep. Handy tells the courier that he could have called his cottage direct and saved trouble and time. The courier responds: `A call will cost just pennies but I am not allowed to call you direct. That shows you how much they trust us.' For the sake of a few pennies, look at the amount of effort and time wasted. It has all the ingredients of a bureaucracy.
``The best way to predict the future is to invent it.''
Well said and well thought but with quick-on-their-feet organisations in mind. What one needs to `invent' the future is initiative and creativity. Unfortunately, these two words are anathema to bureaucracies and even leaning towards these would earn the black sheep a reprimand. And why?
``Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is where
no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your
comfort, and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can't
get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite
knowing what you are doing. What you'll discover will be
wonderful. What you'll discover will be yourself.''
Does one hear the words ``Objection! My lord!''? One: Bureaucracy is a rational-legal system -- the system won't back members on `hunches' and intuition. Two: Risk!? Forget it -- the system won't allow that. Three: Self-discovery? ``Shut up and work! You people will be the ruin of us. And, don't talk about leaving the comfort of the city and all that. It's painful.'' Here are more quotes that could easily have been `famous last words':
``There is a world market for about five computers.''
``Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?''
These two quotes are from people who did not want to take a risk. And, here's more on risk:
``If you spend your time trying to avoid risk you are unwittingly
taking the greatest risk of all. Failure to adapt.''
That's a good return to the objections raised above. Look at the way bureaucracies have evolved (or not evolved): When the form was introduced, the environment required something like it and over a period of time, the environment has changed but the form has not. That's why there is a general perception that bureaucracies are ancient and antiquated.
``The art of governing consists of not allowing men to grow old
in their jobs.''
You could read that quote in two different ways. One, encourage people in the organisation to be creative and initiate changes and thereby keeping themselves (and the organisation) young (at heart). The other reading, of course, is not to have old men in jobs. But that's not what we want. What it could be read as, though, is to promote people on the basis of performance rather than on the basis of seniority.
Also, what happens when people get old in their jobs is that they tend to view their area of control or supervision as a personal fiefdom and once that happens, they acquire a craving for more and more power. And, because they have been in that position for long and know the system inside out, they do eventually achieve what they want. This is where the trouble starts: you know of the `keeping up with the Joneses' syndrome. Now, all the bureaucrat's colleagues want a share of the pie -- their own fiefdom. Here's a quote befitting this scenario:
``But it is not by the consolidation, or concentration, of
powers, but by their distribution that good government is
Just looking at the concept of power in a bureaucracy, one tends to ask the question: ``Is a collective effort against these fiefdoms not possible?'' Well, the answer is simple: all that the chieftain has to do is not allow teams to form. Here's a really ancient quote on that:
``We trained hard... but every time we were beginning to form up
into teams, we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life
that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising... and a
wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress
while producing inefficiency and demoralisation.''
Bureaucrats also tend to form their own old boys network and it sometimes go to the ridiculous extent of making or breaking the career of a fellow bureaucrat. Also, for most bureaucrats, the bureaucracy becomes the whole world to them. They do not accept the new realities that go against the grain of the form's paradigms (right or wrong).
``He is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and
island are the laws of nature.''
And, here's a quote from a `pop'ular star:
``I used to think that anyone doing anything weird was weird. I
suddenly realised that anyone doing anything weird wasn't weird
at all and it was the people saying they were weird that were
Well, at least he realised it. One can only hope that more and
more bureaucrats come to the same conclusion. The word
bureaucracy immediately conjures up an image of an ancient, slow-
moving structure that just seems to wait and wait and wait...
``The nearest thing to immortality in this world is a government
And how is that possible. One reason:
``A bureaucrat's idea of cleaning up his files is to make a copy
of every paper before he destroys it''
One result of that is:
``Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the
quo has lost its status.''
Other images that appear are that of the request for meaningless
information, and also sometimes performing or endorsing totally
irrational action. And feedback from the system? Well, that too
tends to be meaningless.
``I said to the First Officer, `Gad, that sun's hot!' to which he
replied, `Well, you shouldn't touch it.''
A Dustbin of Milligan, `Letters to Harry Secombe',
``To conserve energy, we marched lying down and only stood up to
And do you always get this feeling that the bureaucracy exists
``A floor so cunningly laid that no matter where you stood it was
always under your feet.''
In conclusion to an essay on different aspects of bureaucracy, which is, according to Max Weber the ultimate `rational-legal' system, here's a quote on rationality and logic:
"Reason's last step is the recognition that there are an
infinite number of things which are beyond it."