I had a super week. It will probably only happen once in a lifetime that you move into a new home and a new office in the same week. I went from being homeless (we spent the summer couch surfing at the homes of various friends) and office-less (for a few weeks, I was a mobile office myself) in a matter of days.
But for these two moves to successfully happen, I had to dance to the rhythm of bureaucracy. It made me reflect more than once on the sense and nonsense of organizations. I spoke with utility companies – or with their automated answering machines, to be more precise – about closing an old account and opening a new one. Rest assured, I got lost in the automated loops. Who invented these systems? And do they ever work for anyone?
I spoke with a real live person – someone in India – about our Internet connection. She explained nicely that I had to return the equipment I used for the wireless service in our previous home and I would subsequently receive exactly the same equipment to install in my new home. “Why can’t I keep the equipment I already have and connect it in my new home?” I asked in desperation. Maybe it was a good question; there was certainly no good answer. Apparently, it just doesn’t work like that.
Our new office required a specific insurance certificate. I have the nicest insurance broker in the world, and he has been in the business for a few decades. Still, he had never seen the kind of certificate that our new landlord required. And so we spent a few days going back and forth trying to understand what was needed and how that could be provided.
I understand that organizations need rules. It’s like sports: It’s no fun if everyone is playing by her or his own rules. What I don’t understand is why bigger organizations need more rules. More and more rules limit creativity, flexibility and, indeed, efficiency. Every rule is created with the aim of smoothing a process; too many rules interfere with that very process.
In the early 1990s, the New Zealand government embarked on a bold adventure in de-bureaucratization. At the time, there were some 5,000 officials serving at the Department of Education, quite a large number in a country of some three million. These officials did what officials do: They made new rules. Every year, and with the best of intentions, they added new rules. The government saw the problem and decided to send 90% of the bureaucrats to teach at the very schools they were making the rules for; 500 officials remained to run the Department of Education. A brilliant move: New Zealand got more teachers, smaller school classes, better education, and fewer rules.
Another favorite example of mine comes from the town of Drachten in The Netherlands, where an experiment was carried out in which most of the traffic signs and lights were removed. As a result, traffic became safer as motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians were forced to consciously negotiate their way through traffic. Fewer rules meant more responsibility and more safety.
I have a simple suggestion. For every new rule we want to implement, let’s select one rule that we will get rid of. So the overall number of rules will stay the same. Can you imagine the debates in governments around the world to decide which rules will be disregarded to make place for the new rules?