Beware of energy vampires

Culture  Productivity
25 July, 2016

Bureaucratic bloat kills speed and agility

As we get larger, we have amazing opportunities to capitalise on the benefits of scale and our presence in multiple geographies. At the same time, we have to watch out for the classic pitfalls large multinationals face – becoming slow, not making effective decisions, not innovating fast enough or pushing unnecessary paperwork.

Noted strategist (and ex-colleague) James Allen points out that energy vampires can really slow a company down. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, How to Stop People Who Bog Things Down with Bureaucracy, he writes:

“Companies are filled with energy vampires. We all know who these people are: When their names come up on your phone, you automatically stop and think, “Do I have the energy to take this call?” They’re the people in the company who have demonstrated repeatedly that they will suck the life out of you and others in every interaction. They schedule lots of meetings. They fire off lots of missives that force your people to stop serving the customer and instead respond to yet another information request. They exercise pocket vetoes on key decisions, and stop action with their requests for one more round of analytics.”

So, my message this week is on how to stop these energy vampires and the bureaucracy they perpetuate.

Here’s why you need to be concerned – the energy vampires are much more than just annoying; they seriously sap energy and divert you from the real issues that need focus. Well known author and business thinker Chris Zook, in his Harvard Business Review article, The Greatest Barriers to Growth, According to Executives, says that 85 percent of executives believe the greatest barriers to achieving their growth objectives lie within their organisations. This figure rises to a whopping 94 per cent in the largest companies (Incidentally, Chris Zook and James Allen’s latest book, The Founder’s Mentality, is an excellent read and is just out).

Zook attributes this to what he called the ‘Growth Paradox’ – growth creates complexity and yet, that very complexity is what could kill profitable growth. Bureaucracy and the energy vampires become a vicious cycle of sorts. Ironically enough, we end up fighting way more battles internally, than we do outside our company. But, given the demands of the macroeconomic and socio-political concerns that we are navigating, we just can’t afford to have so much paralysis within.

What’s breeding bureaucracy?

Anne Fisher, in her article How to make sure nothing gets done at work, references the ‘Simple Sabotage Field Manual’. This document was published back in 1944 by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (which pre dated the CIA) as a guide for European spies to undermine the Axis powers from within. The similarity between the eight guidelines detailed there and what fosters bureaucracy within organisations, is uncanny. Take a look. You’ll probably find this rather familiar:

1. “Insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit short-cuts to be taken to expedite decisions.”

Our agility helps us navigate the ongoing macroeconomic uncertainty in the markets where we operate.

Being able to respond quickly to changing on-ground realities allows us an advantage that most multinationals can’t have. As we grow, we have to find a way to protect this.

We can’t afford to get caught up in the endless hoops of channels and convulated processes that scale brings.

2. “Make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.”

If you find that people rambling on is disrupting your meetings, politely and firmly, call it out. This can easily throw discussions off track. It goes back to being much tighter about who gets to speak and when. Stick to relevant people and be very clear about the focus of the message.

3. “When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.”

It’s great to try and allow everyone a voice. But where do you draw the line? One of the biggest downsides of this approach, is that everyone ends up clamouring to get heard. Push back. Everyone doesn’t need to be a part of all teams. Some just want to be there to stay in the loop. In an earlier blog post, I had shared my ex-colleague, Michael Mankin’s research on the ‘Rule of Seven’ – every person added to a decision-making group over seven reduces decision effectiveness by 10 per cent.

4. “Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.”

Don’t let your meetings get hijacked. Stick to the agenda. This is where it helps to have a detailed plan. Insist on sending across a pre read at least a day prior. End each section with definite questions that need to be addressed during the meeting. Hold people accountable if they don’t come prepared. Don’t allow discussions to stray. Have someone keep track of this.

5. “Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, and resolutions.”

Detailing is absolutely important. You need to record the minutes of meetings for later reference. But don’t get so caught up in the fine print, that you forget what really matters. We have to start trusting each other much more. Instead of arguing over the exact wording, let’s shift to creating more robust plans on accountability and the way forward. That’s what really matters.

6. “Refer back to a matter decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.”

You think you’re well into the third stage of your project. Then, at the update meeting, you find that one thing leads to another and before you know it, everyone is questioning the very points you (finally) closed at your last meeting. (Which are also probably the points you have worked on for the weeks following that.) Everyone seems to be shying away from taking a call. You’re back to square one. Does that sound familiar? If you had to be honest, how many times have you been the person doing the (re)questioning? What triggers it?

7. “Advocate ‘caution.’ Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow conferees to be ‘reasonable’ and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.”

Being able to take risks is increasingly important. We can’t truly innovate without that. There will be enough situations where we won’t have the answers detailed and where we wouldn’t have dealt with something similar in the past. Being overly cautious will not help us. Failure is a very real worry. No one quite wants to sign up for something that could fail. But without that, we can’t take chances. As leaders, we need to find a way to encourage much more experimentation. To create a culture where it is okay to take a chance.

8. “Be worried about the propriety of any decision. Raise the question of whether [it] lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

Passing the buck. We have all been there. Nothing throws a decision off more, than going through the motions, only to have someone question the authority of the team. We have been driving a focus on 100/0 – 100% responsibility with 0 excuses. That means taking ownership. This isn’t about hierarchy. If we are empowering people to own their work, then we have to be okay with trusting them to take the right calls.

How to tackle bureaucracy

Like with any other change, combating bureaucracy too starts with first acknowledging that you have a problem. If any of the indicators listed above sound familiar to you, then you certainly need to think hard about making a change. It won’t be easy, but perhaps the way to do it, is to start small. Take a look at the everyday processes that you lead or are a part of. Start there. Then, scale up. Here are some of the suggestions that Chris Zook and James Allen make. I found them quite helpful:

  1. Make sure the opposite of simple is “complex,” not “advanced”. As we grow, we tend to believe that every additional layer we add in, makes us more progressive. That isn’t so. Delayer. Cut down on processes that aren’t adding any value. Don’t do things in a certain way just because they have always been so.
  2. Fight the tendency to make problems bigger. That doesn’t mean that you don’t take a longer term view. It just means that you prioritise immediate concerns. Don’t end up caught in conjecture.
  3. Expose the vampires. These usually smart, well-intentioned managers who inadvertently slow down their company.It’s just that they just have “too many questions, too much analysis, too much process – and not enough action”. Find them, because it is the first step towards stopping them from derailing your objectives.
  4. Don’t let the “thinkers” push out the “doers”. It will not be enough to have great ideas. Being able to drive last mile execution excellence is absolutely critical for us. Having an action bias will help cut through the layers of bureaucracy and focus attention on deliverables.
  5. Make people more accountable for the outcome than the process. Recalibrate how you incentivise people and measure success. For starters, outcomes matter. This fundamental shift will force people to start refocusing their energy.

Do take some time this week to think about where we need to start making changes. Talk to your team members for their thoughts too. We are at a very interesting point in our growth journey. It is so important that we continue to build on and leverage the benefits of scale and processes that we have, while continuing to remain agile. I look forward to your thoughts.


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