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Beating the Blob of Bureaucracy

Back in the 1950s a very young Steve McQueen starred in what has become a classic sci-fi horror film titled …

Back in the 1950s a very young Steve McQueen starred in what has become a classic sci-fi horror film titled simply The Blob. In the movie, once the “Blob” (it was probably just warm Silly Putty) was released from inside a meteor that had struck the earth, it methodically grew from within itself and slowly but surely enveloped, smothered and eventually killed everything and everyone it touched. It may not have been intended as such, but I am convinced this movie was an accurate metaphor for the system of bureaucracy we all face.  

Think about it. Once the formalized process, procedures, rules and regulations of bureaucracy is turned loose in a business culture it exerts a paralyzing influence on the ability of the organization to respond to change. Bureaucracy can cause an organization to respond slower than a family member repaying a loan and is able to stop progress with a single decision. The system of bureaucracy blankets all it touches and is in our lives to fight innovation, creativity and individualism.  

Charged with defending the bureaucracy is a large force of “system police” commonly called bureaucrats. The motto of the system police is: Any change is a threat! A cadre of system police are stealth-like, formless – they have no backbone – and insidious in the way they can envelope an organization. A nesting colony of system police can grow to be powerful enough to control any organization – no matter what its size. When this happens, the culture of the organization itself can be identified by a single term – bureaucracy. 

Bureaucracy is the most prominent reason for an organization failure to maintain success once it has been achieved. The only way to continue a company’s growth and success is to declare war on and beat the system of bureaucracy. Everyone says they want to fight bureaucracy – but with all its legions of bureaucrats to defend it, one wonders if it is really possible to beat the system? After all, Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the U.S. nuclear navy, once said, “If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you, but the bureaucracy won’t.” 

Yet there are good reasons to attempt to beat the system of corporate bureaucracy. With beating the system there comes recognition that tradition is something to build on, not rest on. Beating the system of bureaucracy teaches the acceptance of the status quo, but only till something better is found.  

Understand that fending off bureaucracy in a culture will be a difficult and constant battle. Bureaucracy is more resilient than Texas crabgrass. You can poison it, dig it up, bury it, burn it and pave it over, but it will always fight to come back. Yet the blob of bureaucracy is not invincible, it does have a weakness that, when exploited, will allow you to keep it at bay. Bureaucracy fears no person, but it does fear the entrepreneurial spirit of people. If we can identify, build, imbue and sustain our business culture – no matter what size – with an entrepreneurial spirit we can beat the blob of bureaucracy. 

After all, I can’t think of anyone who knowingly applauds the stultifying results of corporate bureaucracies. But it is quite another thing to actually change thinking and adopt the entrepreneurial mind-set that can set you free (the Biblical lessons of John 8:32, “and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” notwithstanding). 

Now, I realize there are some who will argue that entrepreneurial change can only come about with a change at the top, and to a certain degree, I agree with the assessment. Major corporate change invariable springs from the front office and percolates throughout the organization – if that is management’s intention. But by no means do I agree with the notion that individual managers and employees can’t be entrepreneurial in their approach to their jobs. 

The critical step is recognizing the bureaucratic system for what it is and how it seeks to control and limit actions. It is important to start now – don’t wait. The blob is getting stronger every day. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to beat it. We can beat the system of bureaucracy by adopting an entrepreneurial spirit and by building an entrepreneurial culture within our organizations. The good news is that if we can beat the system, then we and our organizations can beat anything and be a winner. 

Robert W. MacDonald was president and CEO of Minneapolis-based ITT Life and later founded, LifeUSA, also based in the Twin Cities. He retired in 2002 as CEO of Allianz Life of North America and as its chairman in late 2003.  In 2006, he was lured out of retirement  to kick-start and serve as the chief executive of Allianz Income Management Services (AIMS), a new company formed by Allianz to respond to retirement income needs of retiring baby boomers and resigned from the position in 2007. He is the author of, “Control Your Future” (National Underwriter Press),  “Cheat To Win – The Honest Way to Break All the Dishonest Rules in Business” (Paradon Publishing), and the recently published, “Beat The System” (John Wiley).

BEAT THE SYSTEM: 11 Secrets to Building an Entrepreneurial Culture in a Bureaucratic World by Robert W. MacDonald ($24.95, John Wiley & Sons) is packed with proven, insider’s knowledge and advice that teaches readers how to be entrepreneurial in a bureaucratic world whether one is a mailroom employee, the guru in the big corner office, a middle manager, or a neophyte businessperson just spreading entrepreneurial wings. He describes how business cultures develop and then become prey to rigid procedures and red tape, and he offers real-life strategies for building entrepreneurial cultures that motivate everyone in an organization.

Robert W. (Bob) MacDonald, 64, is a 43-year veteran of the financial services industry, beginning in 1965 as a life insurance agent for New England Mutual Life in Los Angeles, and retiring in 2002 as CEO of Allianz Life of North America and as its chairman a year later. MacDonald is a regular columnist for two publications, a corporate director and the first person to be twice recognized as “Entrepreneur of the Year” in Minnesota. His latest book Beat The System: 11 Secrets to Building Entrepreneurial Cultures in a Bureaucratic World was published by John Wiley & Sons in November 2007.

About robert w. macdonald