Bureaucracy: Humanity’s Superpower (Why are you rolling your eyes? Do you think I’m joking?)

When you step back and think about it, organizations are weird. We have all been part of an organization, whether through work, school, sports, or whatever. Though we have this visceral experience of being a part of an organization, they are not actually a thing. You cannot stub your toe on an organization. They are in our heads. We imagine them. We all agree to believe Company ABC exists and that some people work for it while others don’t.

Yet, for figments of our imagination, they have power. They have semi-permanence, many existing longer than a human’s lifespan. General Electric, for example, is one-hundred-and-twenty-seven years old. The average human attention span is ten to twelve minutes. How, then, did we imagine something that’s lasted over a century?

Beyond merely existing, organizations do things. They change the world. They transform raw materials into usable products, they develop new innovations, heal the sick, educate our children, and protect us from crime. Not bad for figments of our imagination.

They do things by coordinating the actions of large numbers of people–Walmart, for example, employs 2.3 million people. How on earth do you organize the activities of 2.3 million people?

This capacity to create organizations is our species’ superpower. No other creature we have encountered can do this. What are the mechanisms through which we transform our imagination into something so potent?

We create organizations through a specific form of rationality that we infuse with power. I have previously presented frameworks of rationality and power that I will build on here to explain how humanity’s superpower works. I will then close with thoughts on how these insights can benefit you.

Rationality: Creating an organization’s framework

In her book, Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing, Barbara Townley identified bureaucracy as a form of rationality.

Wait, what? The last thing anyone who has worked in bureaucracy would characterize them as is rational.

Yet, bureaucracies define truth and encode knowledge within an organizational structure. It achieves this through five mechanisms.

  1. Documentation defines and classifies objects, people, and activities
  2. Boundaries define scopes of activity and competence
  3. Rules define appropriate behaviour and eliminate discretion
  4. Processes standardize activities
  5. Procedures and roles specify who does what and how they do it

If you look closely at those five elements, you might notice something. Not only are these forms of organizational knowledge, but they are also means of control. They define who has the authority to do what, when they do it, and how.

How does Walmart coordinate the activities of 2.3 million employees? Through the application of bureaucratic rationality. How does General Electric survive generation after generation? Bureaucratic rationality. These five elements of bureaucracies persist, allowing the humans who fill the company’s roles to come and go while the organizational structure remains.

Structure, however, is not enough. We must infuse structure with power.

Empowering bureaucratic rationality

A janitor working for General Electric could not whip up a contract committing the company to a joint venture with another organization. The CEO, however, could. For bureaucratic rationality to work as a means of controlling the activity of the organization, it must have power. Giving these structures power requires individuals with authority to imbue them with power. So, how do we establish that a CEO can commit the company to a joint venture, but the janitor cannot?

The answer is … well … bureaucratic rationality. The fifth aspect of bureaucratic rationality I listed above was roles and procedures. These establish who has the authority to do what.

But wait. This is circular logic. To act as a means of control, bureaucratic rationality needs power, but this power is defined by bureaucratic rationality, but that bureaucratic rationality requires power to have an effect, etc. How do we start this chain in motion?

The founders of the organization agree to the initial bureaucratic structures. When an organization forms, the early members establish the founding bureaucratic rationality, either formally through a charter or informally through traditions. Founding members agree, “This is how we are going to organize ourselves,” and that agreement gives those bureaucratic structures power. Everyone who enters the organization after that does so with the tacit agreement that, “This is how we do things.” When those founders leave, these bureaucratic structures remain because enough people in the organization agree to abide by them.

How this insight can help you

Have you ever been frustrated with an organization of which you were a member? Have you wanted to change an ineffective process, had solutions people agreed were good, yet still failed to get the organization to implement the change?

Understanding that bureaucratic structures are vital conduits of power in your organization can help make the change. What bureaucratic structures currently exist in your organization to control activity? For your idea to take hold, what new structures will you need to create? Which old ones need changing or elimination? Who has the power to make those changes? How can you convince that person to act? These are the questions you must wrestle with if you want to make real change.

Conversely, change initiatives often fail in organizations. There are many reasons for this. One of them is, if you have not fully fleshed out new bureaucratic rationalities for your new system, people will revert to the old bureaucratic ways they know. Thus, if you want a change to stick, you must thoroughly map out the bureaucratic structures people will need to operate in the new system.

We all love to hate bureaucracies. Yet, our capacity to design them and then abide by their rules is the cornerstone of societal action. They are our superpower. Bureaucracies may frustrate us at times, but understanding how they work is key to creating change.

What are your experiences? I’d enjoy reading your stories of dysfunctional bureaucracies, as well as examples where organizations fixed their systems to improve performance in the comments.

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