How To Break Through Bureaucracy To Keep Projects Moving

by Scott Belsky

Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Contrary to popular opinion, innovation can happen in big companies. Look no further than Apple with their consistent device and software creations, Google with their long-awaited “Google+,” or GE with their string of healthcare breakthroughs. If you work in (or with) a big company, it may be tempting to blame bureaucracy – namely, the company’s size and excessive procedures – for the lack of innovation. But the true culprit is often our own inability to navigate it. Bureaucracy is like the icy surface that glazes over a frigid ocean. Small cracks can provide enough headway for a ship to pass. When you sit still, you risk getting stuck. But if you gradually break up the ice as you go, you can keep moving forward. Rather than surrender to bureaucracy, take it upon yourself to break it.

In subzero waters, icebreaker ships rely on a specially designed steel hull to plow forward. In climate-controlled offices, we can rely on a different weapon: The persistent question.

Try breaking up the ice with questions like:

  • “Why does it feel like we are having the same meeting and discussion, over and over again?”
  • “Why don’t we just try it and see what happens?”
  • “Specifically what (or who) is getting in the way of us making a decision?”
  • “When exactly will we have a final answer on this?”

You don’t have to be the boss to ask these questions. On the contrary, they are best asked by the people tasked with operations and execution. I heard from a friend that, during a lunch with Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, Chenault was asked the secret to a fast career progression at the company. “I make my bosses make decisions,” he said. “You can’t just sit around and let people think about stuff, you must make them make decisions.”

Rather than surrender to bureaucracy, take it upon yourself to break it.
Breaking up the ice is a painful responsibility, but the person who does it is the person who enables the ship to pass, the person who moves the entire project forward.

For the sake of empowering organizations to make great ideas happen, I make this plea:

  • Be the person who asks the annoying questions.
  • Don’t try to get everyone to agree. Instead, put people on the spot to share their objections.
  • When there is ambiguity about the next step, call it out!

What Do You Think?
How do you break bureaucracy?
Scott Belsky is the CEO of Behance and author of the national bestselling book Making Ideas Happen. You can follow him @scottbelsky.

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