How many times have you seen a manager start a new role full of vigor only to run directly into the immovable wall of bureaucracy? Have you gotten frustrated with tedious paperwork that hinders innovation? Hasn’t everybody? Now, Marina Nitze and Nick Sinai offer a basic manual on how to navigate bureaucracy successfully. They maintain that if you learn to work with the system, you can hack it to your advantage. From making the most of loopholes to forging valuable alliances, the authors guide you around and through the red tape to drive real change – one innovation at a time.
- Get outside the office to identify its real problems.
- Make a map of who has power in your organization.
- Pitch your ideas concisely and visually; offer solid data.
- Make small changes that can lead to big changes.
- Cultivate a team to help you accomplish your goals.
- Make sure your changes will endure.
Get outside the office to identify its real problems.
Many organizations – companies, non-profits, government agencies and other institutions – have trouble implementing real change at a reasonable rate due to the bureaucratic paperwork that real change requires. However, you can hack the system and find a path through the red tape.
To create change, you need clarity about the problem you want to solve. Most for-profit organizations have the capacity to research and identify customers’ problems. But the people who manage such institutions as schools or government agencies often can’t spend a lot of time or money considering end-users’ experience.
If you don’t have the resources for extensive investigation, forget the corporate handbook, get out of the office and start talking to real customers.
Start with your organization’s public engagement unit, and learn about the research its staff has conducted and the knowledge it has compiled about your clients. Then, get out into the field. For example, if you want to change a police department’s tech budget, take a ride with on-duty officers so you can learn how they use their equipment and how their priorities shape their work.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how things work in your institution.”
Being out in the field allows you to experience bureaucratic issues first hand. For example, many school districts invite outside teachers to visit to see how they handle certain problems. Once in the classroom, visiting teachers or administrators can understand in real time what problems the faculty and students face and possibly come up with solutions. The information you gather in the field builds your credibility as you make a case for fixing the problems you observe.
Shadowing your co-workers also can help you uncover useless extra paperwork. Consider Bob Stone, a federal employee in the Clinton administration. Stone’s nickname was the “bureaucracy buster.” He shadowed different departments to streamline processes, such as improving the efficiency of ordering the right pants for firefighters. You can make significant changes within your organization when you learn more about the needs of your fellow employees.
Make a map of who has power in your organization.
Most organizations have a traditional hierarchy, a chart of who answers to whom. In reality, though, org charts rarely tell the truth about who has actual power. Take the second-generation coal executive who needed to convince his company’s board to act on its impending financial troubles. Most board members didn’t trust the young executive until a mid-level accountant joined the conversation. This accountant had slowly spread the word of potential financial doom during his weekly company poker games and thus had gained internal credibility. The young executive realized how much authority people granted the accountant’s viewpoint and saw that his advice was pivotal to convincing the board.
The real power within organizations can come from unexpected sources. Find out who controls the flow of information, who doesn’t like change, who can push decisions through and what motivates the people who are important participants in any change effort.
“Formal leaders normally do not have the power necessary to transform a system.” (author Robert E. Quinn)
Understanding someone’s motives also gives you an advantage. For example, what if a corporate VP stands in the way of getting your project approved? Maybe it’s the end of the quarter, and she has no time for you because she needs to make her targeted numbers. Consider helping her. Your help could give her an incentive to sign off on your project, later, when she has time, especially if your project helps her reach her upcoming goals. Quid pro quo often outmaneuvers bureaucracy.
Avoid bureaucracy altogether by finding a loophole within current rules or processes. For example, a group of farmers in Washington state hated having to send their livestock hundreds of miles to one of the few slaughterhouses that had approval from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The law dictated that they could not butcher on the site where farmers bred their animals. So, instead of spending years lobbying to change the law, the farmers built a mobile slaughterhouse that met all USDA regulations, including a special bathroom for inspectors. Their licensed mobile butchering facilities became a hit with farmers across the country.
Pitch your ideas concisely and visually; offer solid data.
In most meetings, you have only a few minutes to make your case to those in charge. So, consolidate your data and other important information onto one sheet of paper. Create a concise proposal so everyone can understand exactly what you want. If British General Bernard Montgomery could write the plan for World War II’s D-Day on a single piece of paper, you can write your solution on one page, too.
As you deliver your pitch, describe the future your solution will deliver. Write a sample press release showing what potential media coverage might say. Your goal is to craft an enticing narrative about why your solution will succeed. This will inspire others to feel confident in your abilities and to get onboard with your plans.
“Think of the end at the beginning.”
Strong visuals are also persuasive. For example, in 2016, a group of architects created a re-design plan for Bratislava, Slovakia, with the goal of enhancing everything about the city – from public spaces to election processes. Monocle, a design magazine, featured their plan. The plan’s solid points plus its favorable press coverage helped bring in a new mayor who embraced the plan.
Hard data can also make your case. A UK physician, Dr. Lucia Coulter, wanted to run a large-scale project to persuade government officials of the need to protect children from lead poisoning. She conducted a study in Malawi to uncover the amount of lead contamination the country allowed in paint. She found high levels of the toxin in every paint sample she tested. While most governments are slow to ban substances, Coulter’s alarming data created a sense of urgency in Malawi. Within months, the country implemented regulations limiting lead exposure. You can use hard data to drive change no matter what position you hold in your organization.
Make small changes that can lead to big changes.
Unfortunately, in most large organizations, no matter how much money is coming in, employees often have to deal with a lack of resources. Budgets determine spending, and executives usually allocate funds far in advance. In agencies or nonprofits, managers rarely have money left over to make changes or improvements within individual departments. However, they may be able to trade services or swap other available resources to get the job done without spending extra cash.
“Do what you can, with what you have, from where you are.” (President Teddy Roosevelt)
Blogger Kyle MacDonald famously conducted a series of trades that started with one red paper clip. After 14 barters, he owned a house. Trading helps you get what you need and builds useful relationships with important gatekeepers, such as secretaries, security personnel and custodians. If you can deliver something of value to them, they often will open doors for you.
Start with the smallest improvements you can accomplish immediately. For example, in 2017, the New South Wales Department of Education started encouraging potential teachers by sending them application forms that were already mostly filled out. The department’s goal was to boost the number of job applicants for rural teaching posts. The department received three times as many applicants as it had when it insisted that teachers fill out the forms. Small successful changes build your credibility, a useful asset when you want to convince people to make bigger changes.
As a new physician, Dr. Peter Pronovost noticed that patients in his hospital’s intensive care unit often died from viruses they contracted in the hospital, not from the illness that brought them into the hospital. Doctors and nurses who were going from room to room spread new viruses among patients. Pronovost created a disinfection checklist for medical professionals to execute when changing rooms, including washing their hands and wearing masks. Within a year, his hospital’s rate of infection dropped to zero. This small change had a meaningful impact. Pronovost continued to transform his area’s healthcare system for the rest of his career.
Cultivate a team to help you accomplish your goals.
When you work in a bureaucratic institution and you encounter a problem, other people probably have hit the same issue. Find them and form an alliance. You might be able to find a valuable solution by combining their experience with your fresh perspective.
When Bethany McKenzie’s son received a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, the doctor recommended that he eat a certain amount of carbohydrates in each meal. Unfortunately, every time her son ate carbs, he felt sick. For years, McKenzie believed this was the only way diabetes functioned. Then she found Dr. Richard Bernstein’s book, Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution.
As someone who lived with Type 1 diabetes for decades, the author recommended a diet of low carbs, high protein and healthy fats. McKenzie started her son on this diet immediately and quickly found more parents on Facebook who had also embraced the diet for their children. The parents formed a non-profit called Let Me Be 83, providing support to other affected children and their families through sharing recipes, holding get-togethers and hosting summer camps.
“Find the people who can actually do the work and pair up with them.”
You also can turn to non-traditional sources such as fellowships, residencies and other part-time programs to bust bureaucracies. For example, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program cuts through the federal government’s slow hiring process, thus allowing talented people from tech industries to work on projects, such as fixing the HealthCare.gov website during the launch of the Affordable Care Act. These short-term fellowships bring in talented people from the private sector to help solve large-scale bureaucratic problems.
Make sure your changes will endure.
When new leaders begin in a position, they have an opportunity to push through new agendas. Since new leaders want to make a difference right away, they may be more open to bold changes.
“Changes in leadership bring new opportunities to gain a champion.”
To increase your chances of success, introduce your innovative idea when a new boss take office. For instance, try to be the first person to brief a new leader on your department and to discuss the changes you want to make. Seek common ground to build on and to refer to as you customize your pitch. Get to know the new leader’s staff members and their agenda.
A crisis offers also opportunities to enact quick change that a bureaucracy might hamper under normal circumstances. For example, most children in the foster care system end up in group homes because caseworkers don’t have the resources to address the shortage of foster homes. When COVID-19 hit, group homes had problems controlling the spread of infection. The epidemic forced caseworkers to find alternatives.
Many of the kids in foster care had family members – other than their parents – with whom they could live. COVID shifted foster care programs’ focus to finding the relatives of incoming kids. The new practice of seeking willing family members meant that fewer children had to be assigned to group homes.
To make a change stick, you need people who will maintain your agenda after you are no longer directly involved. Consider who will replace you and influence them to continue the changes you’ve made. Make sure your team can function without you. If your changes work only when you’re there, they won’t last.
About the Authors
Marina Nitze is a partner at Layer Aleph, and Nick Sinai is a senior advisor at Insight Partners.
“Hack Your Bureaucracy: Get Things Done No Matter What Your Role on Any Team” by Marina Nitze and Nick Sinai is an insightful and practical guidebook that equips individuals with the tools and strategies necessary to navigate and overcome bureaucratic obstacles in any organizational setting. With its emphasis on practicality and actionable advice, the book is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to maximize their effectiveness and achieve their goals within a bureaucratic environment.
The authors, Marina Nitze and Nick Sinai, draw upon their extensive experience in both the public and private sectors to provide a comprehensive understanding of how bureaucracy operates and how individuals can work within its confines to streamline processes, drive innovation, and accomplish meaningful outcomes. Their collective expertise shines through in the book’s thoughtful analysis and the wealth of real-world examples that illustrate their principles.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its focus on empowering individuals at all levels of an organization. Nitze and Sinai emphasize that you don’t need to be in a position of authority to effect change; instead, they highlight various strategies and “hacks” that can be applied by anyone, regardless of their role or title. This inclusive approach is refreshing and reinforces the notion that everyone has the potential to make a difference within their respective spheres of influence.
The book is structured in a logical and accessible manner, making it easy to follow and digest. Each chapter explores a specific aspect of bureaucracy, accompanied by practical tips, case studies, and actionable steps. From understanding the underlying dynamics of bureaucracy to building effective networks, managing stakeholders, and leveraging technology, the authors leave no stone unturned in their quest to provide readers with a comprehensive toolkit for success.
What sets “Hack Your Bureaucracy” apart from other books on organizational effectiveness is its emphasis on both mindset and skill set. The authors recognize that changing the bureaucratic landscape requires not only practical strategies but also a shift in how individuals approach their work. They encourage readers to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, fostering a culture of experimentation, taking calculated risks, and embracing a problem-solving mentality. By combining mindset with concrete skills, Nitze and Sinai offer a holistic approach to navigating bureaucracy successfully.
Furthermore, the book is filled with invaluable insights and nuggets of wisdom derived from the authors’ experiences and interviews with seasoned professionals. The inclusion of these real-world examples enriches the text, making it relatable and inspiring for readers facing similar challenges. The authors’ ability to distill complex concepts into easily understandable ideas is commendable, ensuring that readers can immediately apply the lessons learned to their own situations.
If there is one minor criticism, it would be that the book primarily focuses on bureaucratic challenges within organizational contexts. While this is undoubtedly the primary target audience, individuals seeking guidance in other bureaucratic settings, such as government agencies or educational institutions, may find some sections less directly applicable. However, the overarching principles and strategies discussed in the book can still be adapted and utilized in these diverse environments.
In conclusion, “Hack Your Bureaucracy: Get Things Done No Matter What Your Role on Any Team” is a must-read for anyone looking to navigate bureaucracy effectively and achieve meaningful outcomes within their organizations. Marina Nitze and Nick Sinai provide readers with a practical and empowering guide, equipping them with the necessary tools to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and drive positive change. By combining mindset shifts with actionable strategies, this book empowers individuals at all levels to make a difference and get things done in any bureaucratic setting.