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Avoiding the Bureaucratic Death Spiral | What’s Best Next

Matt Perman pulled a great quote from a book that I love, Good to Great by Jim Collins, over at What’s Best Next.  The basic gist (for those who won’t read below), is that bureaucracy kills entrepreneurial spirit, while discipline sustains it.

Entrepreneurial success is fueled by creativity, imagination, bold moves into uncharted waters, and visionary zeal. [Then] as a company grows and becomes more complex, it begins to trip over its own success — too many new people, too many new customers, too many new orders, too many new products.

What was once great fun becomes an unwieldy ball of disorganized stuff. Lack of planning, lack of accounting, lack of systems, and lack of hiring creates constant friction. Problems surface — with customers, with cash flow, with schedules.

The professional managers finally rein in the mess. They create order out of chaos, but they also kill the entrepreneurial spirit [emphasis added]…

The creative magic begins to wane as some of the most innovative people leave, disgusted by the burgeoning bureaucracy and hierarchy. The exciting start-up transforms into just another company, with nothing special to recommend it. The cancer of mediocrity begins to grow in earnest.

Here’s why this quote scares me: my current role on our staff is to create some order out of chaos.  We are in a season of transition as a church, and I am spearheading the effort to create some order.  So the real question is, how do I honor those who have innovated and created and create systems which still allow entrepreneurial freedom?

Collins’ answer is below:

Most people build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth.… An alternative exists: Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline. When you put these two complementary forces together — a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship — you get the magical alchemy of superior performance and sustained results.

So the answer is to create a culture of discipline…excellent.  Next question: how?

And this is what I’m spending most of my time thinking on.  How do I create a culture of discipline, which stays true to our vision and builds a structure for endurance, while also leaving room for innovation?  When do I say yes to great ideas? When do I say no?

I’d love your thoughts…drop me a comment!

By Todd Engstrom

Although I was raised in the church and had a knowledge of God, I didn’t embrace Jesus until I heard gospel preached and lived out by some Young Life leaders. God has proven faithful and good to me since that day, even in great suffering and loss. I have learned to treasure Romans 8:28 as a wellspring of hope and truth.

God has blessed me with an amazing wife (Olivia), three sons (Micah, Hudson and Owen) and a daughter (Emmaline). Growing up in the northwest, the thought never crossed my mind that I would have four children who are native Texans. Despite landing in the south, I still watch Notre Dame games with my children every Saturday in hopes they will land at my alma mater.

2 replies on “Avoiding the Bureaucratic Death Spiral | What’s Best Next”

Excellent book, my 3rd most favorite.

Another book that is a must read, my favorite leadership book above all other leadership books is Leadership Engine by Noel Tichy.

Perhaps your answer of figuring out a culture of discipline is first helping people articulate that and help everyone create Teachable Points of View that and propagate the views that are in alignment with the Stone.

Basically having leaders create leaders that created leaders, etc… that are all in alignment with the Stone’s vision and don’t need oversight, but rather are free to prosper.

Built to Last Meets leadership development basically.

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