What are you not doing while you’re doing what you’re doing?
The issue with bureaucracy is not inefficiency.
I mean… it is. Both of those things. But that’s not the worst issue.
The worst offence caused by bureaucracy and hierarchy is opportunity cost. Hear me out here.
A decade or so ago, I put in a request for a wireless headset at work.
Zoom didn’t exist back then, children.
We were on voice-only conference calls on physical phones a lot of the time. And as we were also in open plan offices, smashing the ‘speaker’ button was not an option. So having a phone conversation entailed a crick in your neck as you nestled the phone between ear and shoulder… or a massive drop in efficiency as you couldn’t take notes or type at the same time.
A wireless headset to free your neck and hands was the height of comfort. To allow yourself a walk to the water fountain as you spoke on the phone (or the ladies’ room… I was never brave enough to do that but a staggeringly gorgeous senior sales exec on my floor did more than once and I have so much grudging respect for the zero damns she gave it’s not even funny). But I digress.
The Madonna headset, as it was known, had to come from the US because… sourcing policies.
And it had to be signed off by my department’s budget holder. But because we sat in the office of the president, the budget holder was… her.
So my $130 headset had to be signed off by the bank’s president on the other side of the planet.
And she signed off. And fairly quickly, too. She was great in many ways and not lording it over her people was one of them.
But it didn’t feel right. In fact, I felt like I was wasting her time in a major way. Although we had followed policy, it felt ridiculous. I kept asking myself: what was she *not* doing while she was signing off on my Madonna headset?
Don’t be silly, said my boss, it doesn’t take much time at all.
Sure. Maybe not.
But it takes some time. And I am sure mine isn’t the only petty cash receipt she has to sign. This was not the only petty thing she had to take time in her day to deal with.
So it adds up, and I ask again, what is she not doing while she’s doing this?
Do you want me to ask the same question differently?
Why was I trusted, at that time, to produce research on the technologies that the bank should understand and spend time and money on, for its future… why was I trusted to design and oversee client co-creation programmes that went live in a variety of markets… and not trusted to spend $130 wisely?
It’s not like that, I hear you say. It’s policy, I hear you say.
Sure, it is. I agree.
But it’s also about how we structure the way our people spend time in our organisations. And where we determine decisions are made. Or rather, where we determine which decisions are made.
And this suggests that major decisions in terms of direction of travel are made across the organisation, but commitment decisions are made only at the top.
I couldn’t commit the bank to a DLT strategy. But I could eclipse it from the horizon. With some collusion from colleagues.
I could wage a campaign in favour of some technologies or solutions and against others. I could eliminate objections or narratives from my briefing notes. It would be unethical, and I didn’t. But I could have.
The decisions on what the decision-makers will make decisions on are made much lower down the organisation.
The decisions themselves aren’t.
What I am saying is maybe some should. And maybe some of the decisions not made lower down also should. In the name of efficiency, not freedom.
Let me ask the same question differently again…
Why was it considered a better use of her time to ensure we procured the headset appropriately rather than educate herself on the profound strategic implications of making technology bets for the future? Why was that left to someone lower down the food chain to educate themselves and distil their understanding and, let’s face it, preferences.
Now theoretically she could and should do both, but we all know how the days are long and fragmented and reactive. So our executives work hard and go where the organisation points them. They fight the fires they are presented with. They deal with what happens in the room they are in.
You may say it’s not binary, but I say it is.
Making small, mundane, insignificant decisions higher up in our organisations has two insidious side-effects: one is the infantilisation of decision-makers. I explain this at length in my new book – Bankers Like Us – (have you read it yet? Why have you not read it yet?) whereby big decisions are chopped up small to make it easy to run through a deck in 30 minutes.
The second is that, if the decision for a headset needs to go to the president, the suggestion to overhaul procurement would go… where? To the full operating committee? And a conversation around whether expense management actually costs more in time, systems and oversight than you would lose to inappropriate claims if you had budget independence for teams and a per diem for travel, a conversation like that, changing the ethos and risk definitions of the organisation, would go where? The board?
And I am not saying that these conversations would lead to policy reversals.
I hate to say this, but people tend to take advantage of low oversight in weak cultures and that’s that.
Or is it? Because if that’s the issue, where is that conversation taking place? The one about the culture behind the conduct behind the policy behind the paperclips.
I am saying the conversations need to take place. Somewhere. And that is not necessarily at the top, although that is where they will take place if they take place at all. And that’s OK. But they are not taking place.
Who is having the big conversations around what we will be in a changing world?
Or are they being had by the same people signing off on headsets?
The answer is in the middle, and that’s not where you want it.
There is no perfect set up.
There is no perfect risk matrix.
There is no fool-proof decision tree.
But there is a wrong set up. There is a risk matrix blind to opportunity cost. There is a decision tree that creates bottlenecks and leaves complicated, important decisions unanswered by taking up all the time and oxygen with the smaller decisions that could and should be made further down the organisation, freeing up time, energy and headspace to do the stuff that should be done at the top. With the knowledge, experience and accountability that comes with the positions at the top of the house.
That’s what hierarchy should be about: an increasing level of complex accountability.
Not a dazzling concentration of all decisions, from paperclips to the future of humanity. Because that can be rather a lot, and humanity being what it is, if you need to sort paperclips and the future of civilisation as we know it, you are most likely to start with the paperclips and see how you get on.
So all I’m saying is: we tried that, as an industry, and didn’t get on badly, but we didn’t go far. And time is against us, so leave the paperclips to someone else and do the hard work that comes with the job. Because nobody else is doing it while you are doing whatever it is you are doing, that someone else could and should be doing.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!
Follow Leda on Twitter @LedaGlyptis and LinkedIn.