Don't blame bureaucracy - use it as a leadership opportunity

Stressing over how to get things done is as old as a "how many people does it take to change a light bulb" joke. And just like the light bulb, bureaucracy touches everyone and burns those who linger too long.

Stressing over how to get things done is as old as a "how many people does it take to change a light bulb" joke. And just like the light bulb, bureaucracy touches everyone and burns those who linger too long.

Yet, to dismiss all unwieldy process as bureaucracy overlooks a significant contribution of communicators. Peel away the thickening layers of frustration and disdain, and what's left is a granular truth. What looks like - and can feel like - bureaucracy is really the messiness of decision making. Top communicators can take this opportunity to lead.

Check news releases, message documents, or strategy edits from different parts of an organization, and what can be found isn't just tit-for-tat over wording. Evidence exists of leadership's struggle to nail down company policies, actions, or positioning. It plays out in the work of communicators because that's the last stop before becoming public. Decisions become real and actionable. Utilize, understand, and plan for this occurrence. Isn't it better to have debate amongst the leadership before going public than to live to regret an ill-conceived action or thoughtless word?

Another target for angst is meetings. They are frequently viewed as the demon accomplice to bureaucracy. It's commonplace to hear or lead the rant about meetings getting in the way of work. Meetings are part of the work. Without meetings, communications can't be effective. The job is to provide counsel, develop and execute plans that advance business goals, and be stewards of good organizational culture. Doing this takes time and face-to-face interaction. If meetings are unproductive uses of time, maybe the culprit is planning, time management, or delegation. And not every meeting can be a bonanza.

The fact is that some organizations do suffer from hyper-scheduling disorder or chronic meeting syndrome. This signals a cultural issue that bears watching or directly addressing. In any case, it opens the door for another part of the communicator's job: change management.

There's a far more practical reason to factor bureaucracy into plans - to either build it in or battle it. Rarely do executives accept "bureaucracy" as a credible excuse for inaction. Either the job gets done, or it doesn't. There are times when it's better to take quicker action and apologize rather than ask permission. Yes, it's risky, but communications jobs are as much about risk and reading the tea leaves as they are about research.

Things do get done. Slowly, quickly, or through a tortured path, there is an end result. Capitalize on it. Limit fretting about that eagle of an idea that got clubbed to death by time and inaction. See the significance of communicators' role as catalysts for decision making. As Marshall Smith wrote in the "Principle of Displaced Hassle," "to beat the bureaucracy, make your problem their problem."

Lisa Davis is VP of corporate communications at AstraZeneca. Each month, she looks at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at lisa.davis@prweek.com.

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