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  • Writer's pictureAri Betof

Clearing the Path for Change Means Removing Bureaucracy

So you want to drive change. What’s standing in your way?

If you’re working on a strategic plan to support much-needed change in your organization, you need to start thinking about how to remove the barriers that keep you from moving forward. 

Management and leadership expert John P. Kotter quite literally wrote the book on facilitating change. In Leading Change (re-published by Harvard Business Review in 2012) and other works, Kotter outlines his eight-step change model that has helped organizations establish meaningful, lasting change that is profitable in multiple ways. His practical advice, as an author and consultant, has given executives the tools they need to understand what’s at stake, create a plan, and continue building on the changes they’ve implemented. 

Taking on the roadblocks

The fifth step in Kotter’s model is all about removing obstacles, breaking down barriers, and clearing the path to make way for the change you’re looking for. 

It’s the next step of a change process that moves logically from one focus to another, beginning with creating a sense of urgency. That sense of tension, of a need to strive for opportunity, leads us to the second stop: forming a guiding coalition of empowered stakeholders. The third step involves bringing the insights gained from that coalition together into a vision, and the fourth involves recruiting a “volunteer army” of enthusiastic ambassadors who can spread change through an organization.

But what happens when, as it inevitably will, your volunteer army hits a roadblock?

Welcome to Step 5. In one classic iteration of his change model, Kotter tells us in this step to, “Enable action by removing barriers.” He’s telling us to prepare for innovation by demolishing the metaphorical and physical walls, barriers, silos, and blind spots that keep us tied to an unworkable present. Until we solve this problem, we’re not going anywhere.

Keeping up the momentum

Once you reach Step 4, you’ll see the work of your guiding coalition, and especially your front-line volunteer army, beginning to take effect. Even though you can’t expect substantial momentum at this stage, your change ambassadors may still feel stymied in their efforts by experience of running into roadblocks. If they aren’t seeing any results (or adequate results), they can easily lose faith in the change project. To maintain and strengthen your “army’s” commitment, and to ultimately deliver maximum impact, your job at this point is to conquer the inertia and friction inherent in any established system: Get as many barriers as you possibly can out of their way. 

One important task for you as a leader in managing Step 5 is to keep alert to people or processes that are in the way of change. These may become evident, as the removal of barriers reveals pain points for your team. You’ll need to take proactive measures to head off any obstacles to progress that may be emerging. These may be rooted in inadequate staff training, an unworkable organizational structure, resistance from managers, or “undiscussable” aspects of organizational culture.

Step 5 also gives you the chance to recalibrate pre-existing organizational hierarchies and procedures to achieve the vision that is becoming reality. 

Confronting bureaucracy head-on “Bureaucracy busters” is a popular term among change consultants. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Bureaucracy means “red tape,” friction that keeps organizations stuck in time-worn, and often unhelpful, patterns. Unnecessary time-wasting in the decision-making process presents a special challenge to change-makers because it can often be so entrenched that it becomes invisible. 

Successful “bureaucracy-busting” at this point can put new energy into your team, letting them know they are empowered to actually turn the vision you gave them in Step 3 into reality.

It’s likely that your organization has at least a few—and possibly many—bureaucratic rules, processes, and systems that could stand to be removed.

The key part of bureaucracy-busting is that it solicits input from throughout an organization, particularly from the front-line employees who are often those most tied up in the red tape. By engaging your employees in the process of identifying and clearing away bureaucratic obstacles early in the process, you’re inviting them to create a better work environment for themselves.

One traditional approach involves having a central group of staff evaluate employee suggestions for cutting through bureaucracy and boosting efficiency. After winnowing down the suggestions to a set of the most practical ones, the team then invites commentary from people across the organization. It’s then possible to determine the top three ideas in terms of helpfulness and feasibility. In order to ensure the incorporation of these ideas into the change project, they should be championed by a group dedicated specifically to implementing them.

Bureaucracy-busting ideas that award-winning organizations have come up with in past years include Microsoft’s empowerment of its employees through coaching them, then allowing them to choose their own assignments. 

In Norway, oil and gas company Statoil decided to “kick out the calendar” and to do away with traditional budgeting cycles to build a more flexible and organic model of management. 

Australian software company Atlassian changed up its leadership style from a top-down, directive one toward an environment of greater freedom and autonomy in which employees were allowed to organize their own workload. To keep things on course, the company built in strategies to automatically nudge projects back on track if they veered too much from the sought-after direction.

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