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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

3 Truths To Help You Create Impact Despite the Bureaucracy

I’ve spent more than 50% of my life working to create positive impact inside a bureaucracy. I had more failures than successes along the way, but I learned a few lessons along the way. Here’s what you need to know:

Bureaucracies don’t innovate. Fighting against this reality wastes time, effort, and money as the bureaucratic machine delays, derails, or destroys ideas that could be game-changers.

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t innovate despite the bureaucracy.

Whether you are buried deep inside a mega-bureaucracy like the US Department of Defense or the mini-bureaucracy of your local office, there are 3 truths you have to understand if you want your ideas to create the impact you imagine:

Truth 1: Bureaucracies are going to bureaucratize

A scorpion begs a frog for a ride across a river. The frog is reluctant because he knows the scorpion is likely to sting and kill him. The scorpion assures the frog there is no way that would happen because it would mean they would both die. The frog finally agrees.

Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog.

“Why would you do that? Now we will both die!” the dying frog asks.

“Because I’m a scorpion. That’s what I do.”

No matter the business, industry, or segment of government anywhere in the world, bureaucracies exist to do one thing--create predictability.

Bureaucracies literally make the trains predictably run on time, and if the train is not on time, bureaucracies are constructed so the person responsible for the delay can be identified quickly.

Each bureaucracy has its own “trains”. Military bureaucracies maintain a predictable budget to make it easier to get financial support from Congress.

Corporate bureaucracies are designed to maintain predicable growth for shareholders.

Being predictability-centered has its drawbacks.

If you have ever worked inside a bureaucracy and made a request for anything, you know there is exactly one person working in that massive department who can do the thing you need done.

“Oh, I’m sorry…Jane handles that. She’s out for a few days, but you can email her. No one else knows anything about that.”

Having two people who could do the job is redundant. Redundancy is waste, and waste is unpredictable.

Bureaucracies aim for a state of equilibrium much like the circular flow economy Austrian-born, Harvard economist (and one of the first to examine entrepreneurship) Joseph Schumpeter describes in his landmark Theory of Economic Development. Policymakers produce policies for administrators to administrate. Administrators execute policies until inevitable change pushes against the margins of predictability when they ask policymakers to make more policy.

Everyone else in the bureaucracy either provides direction and oversight to ensure predictability is maintained or supports the policymakers, the administrators, or the leadership. The larger the bureaucracy grows, the more overhead it needs to ensure predictability.

“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy,” as Oscar Wilde said (maybe).

Small, incremental changes can be quickly absorbed by the bureaucracy and equilibrium easily restored. It is this resilience that allows it to maintain predictability despite variations in the capability of the people who make it up.

It is also resilient to changes in leadership. Leaders come and go with new strategies and new priorities, but the bureaucracy efficiently restores equilibrium and continues performing the same function in fundamentally the same way with only small changes around the margins.

The bureaucracy you work in is not anti-innovation…it is anti-unpredictability.

Few processes are less predictable than creativity and the quest for innovation. How much will it cost to make this thing? Will it work? When will it be ready for “prime-time”? No one knows, and not knowing is the bureaucracy’s kryptonite.

Given the option of pursuing an unknown, unpredictable (but possibly game-changing) project or the same mediocre approach that has delivered predictably disappointing results for the past 5 years, “knowing” wins every time.

Here’s what it means for you: If you work inside a bureaucracy and want to create impactful positive change, stop waiting for the bureaucracy to make it easier for you. It is not going to happen.

Build allies (the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum is a great place to start). Find people with a similar problem. Do user discovery over coffee. You want to be ready for the opportunity when the equilibrium has been inarguably disrupted (like during a pandemic), so you can propose a solution while everyone else is still getting their footing.

Truth 2: Innovation myths are part of the equilibrium

In 2018, the Department of Defense issued a National Defense Strategy (NDS) including a prominent section directing the Department to “Reform the Department for Greater Performance and Affordability”. Specifically, it directed the military to “shed outdated management practices”, “consolidate, eliminate, or restructure” parts of the bureaucracy that hinder performance or “lethality”, and to “streamline processes so that new entrants and small-scale vendors can provide cutting-edge technologies.”

This new strategy issued by the new Secretary of Defense working for a new Presidential administration disrupted the Department’s equilibrium.

In the months that followed, I sat in meeting after meeting where organizations argued “the 2018 NDS really isn’t new for us. It is what we have been doing all along.” This is the bureaucrat’s fast-lane to equilibrium. “We don’t need to change anything, just alter the way we talk about it.”

The military services restored equilibrium by doubling-down on new organizations to focus on this direction without disturbing the predictability of the rest of the bureaucracy.

(These “innovation” organizations are easy to identify. Their names all end with an edgy-sounding “X”.)

For these organizations to successfully fulfill their function in the equilibrium, everyone has to act as if these temples of innovation are successful.

But, if you use critical thinking to examine their claims, you find their evidence of success is all related to the inputs they put into a hard-to-define innovation ecosystem. Money awarded via grants, new centers established, rankings that say they are a good place to work…but, evidence of successful outputs leading to any of the 2018 NDS goals is sparse.

It is more efficient for the bureaucracy to repeat these myths than to make real, unpredictable change.

To be clear, the bureaucracy is made of valuable humans. We perform our duties and act according to professional expectations to serve some greater end. There is no need to work to maintain equilibrium or thwart innovation efforts. No conscious thought is required.

“All knowledge and habit once acquired becomes as firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth,” explains Schumpeter. In the critical thinking workshops we teach, we explain that our brains create illusions for us that make it easy to do what’s easy. It takes virtually no cognitive effort to maintain the status quo, but significant conscious effort (or trusting collaboration) to shatter these illusions and expose ourselves to uncertainty.

Herein lies the problem…conscious cognitive effort is not efficient, for individual humans or the bureaucracy. Critical thinking humans may come to conclusions that differ from the bureaucracy’s “approved solution”, and these differing conclusions lead to unpredictability.

Here’s what it means for you: Myths distort, rather than create, innovation. The myths are frustrating and distracting, but they are an inseparable part of the equilibrium they support in today’s buzzword world.

If you want to have an impact, you have to think past the myths and think critically about the problem you are trying to solve. Take advantage of the capabilities the myths offer (space, visibility, access to resources), but know that in the end they are unconsciously designed to maintain the equilibrium you are trying to disrupt.

Truth 3: Self-doubt is part of the process

Schumpeter identifies the entrepreneur’s self-doubt as one of the key sources of resistance in the pursuit of innovation: “In the breast of one who wishes to do something new, the forces of habit rise up and bear witness against the embryonic project.”

There is not so great a distance between game-changing creativity and madness. The idea that man could slip the bonds of earth and fly was considered madness by many, but a possibility by the Wright Brothers.

Only nine years after the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk, another dreamer created a parachute to help aviators trapped in a crippled craft. A Parisian tailor, Franz Reichelt, believed in his invention so strongly that he climbed the Eiffel Tower with it on a cold February morning. Despite protests from his friends and threat of arrest from Parisian police, Franz was undeterred. After a few deep breaths, he stepped to the edge of the platform and stepped into possibility…where he plummeted to his death on the frozen ground below.

Self-doubt protects you from embarrassment and, sometimes, death. It is the voice that keeps you grounded.

It is also true that self-doubt is the status quo illusion in a different form. It tells us “what is” is better than “what can be”. But, you can’t create something game-changing while tethered to the old rules.

Feeling the doubt doesn’t mean you are wrong, just that you are human.

Here’s what it means for you: There are two antidotes for self-doubt—collaboration and embracing responsible failure. Game-changing innovation is never a single-player game. Collaboration not only strengthens the underlying idea, but opens the opportunity for more objective, more persuasive, more bureaucratically-aware teammates who can advance ideas, take feedback, and persuade key stakeholders to deviate from their relentless pursuit of efficiency and aim for a little possibility as well.

Responsible failure is failure you can learn from. Along the pathway to innovation both the Wright Brothers and Reichelt failed. Only the Wright Brothers could learn from theirs Taking risks that end in catastrophe…death, bankruptcy, firing…can only be done once. Taking smaller, responsible risks by prototyping, testing, and experimenting with your idea first gives you opportunity to learn.

Innovation is possible despite the bureaucracy

Occasionally, despite its best efforts, game-changing ideas emerge from inside the bureaucracy. These are most likely when the equilibrium is most disrupted…say during a pandemic, war, threat of war, employment crisis, or economic depression. Impact-oriented thinkers who are aware of this potential look for opportunity in this dis-equilibrium. If you can act before the bureaucracy restores its balance on its own, your idea may become part of the new stabilizing, rather than disrupting, force.

Dan Manning is the Lead Instructor for #HumanIntelligence and the James Madison University Certificate in Leading Human-Powered Innovation. He helps innovators move their ideas and teams toward impact.

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