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CEOs: Is red tape killing your employees’ initiative?

Jul 27, 2009 Business Daily, Leadership

“…Today, no meeting of the high and the mighty is complete until someone polishes the conventional wisdom: “Our big trouble today is getting enough good people.”
This is crystal-clear nonsense. Your people aren’t lazy and incompetent. They just look that way. They’re beaten by all the overlapping and interlocking policies, rules, and systems encrusting your company.
Do you realise that your people can’t make long-distance calls without filing out a report? Do you know what they have to go through to hire somebody – or buy something? Stop running down your people. It’s your fault that they’re rusty from underwork. Start tearing down the system where it has defeated and imprisoned them.”

ROBERT TOWNSEND, Up the Organisation (1970)

I wish I had read this book years ago; it would have saved me much of the hard work of coming to my own conclusions about organisations over the past 20 years. Then again, perhaps it’s better that I’ve found out for myself.

Robert Townsend was a true iconoclast, a much needed blast of fresh air through the executive suites of the world. His book is as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago. It made me want to laugh out loud or applaud on nearly every other page. Townsend was the famous CEO of Avis Rent-A-Car, and originator of the famous “We Try Harder” advertising campaign. I will give you many a tit-bit from this excellent book in the weeks to come.

In the excerpt shown, Townsend puts his finger on the thing that stifles so many large companies: crippling bureaucracy. As he points out, most companies are laid low not because they lack good people, but because good people are forced to work in a bad system. Most things are left undone just because it’s so damned hard to do them when you require so many approvals and permissions. And years after the ‘process reengineering revolution’ of the 1990s, little seems to have changed.

In Kenya we are especially fond of our red tape, the redder the better. You tell me: how easy is it for you to buy any unexpected item in your organisation? If an unbudgeted job position arises, how long will it take you to fill it? How many forms do you fill out in the course of an average month? How much do you enjoy your many, many interactions with Human Resources or, God forbid, Procurement?

What Townsend is refreshingly doing is placing the blame for this at the feet of the CEO. Too many of us are quick to pretend that these things are immovable beasts. Actually, we have these archaic approval systems because we can’t get rid of the entrenched culture of entitlement. You are only supposed to be above the nonsense when you get to the top. Not requiring approvals is a privilege of senior management, a sign that you’ve arrived. Mere mortals can carry on filling forms.

Indeed, in many large companies today the only way to get anything done quickly is to get the CEO to approve it. Otherwise, fill a form and prepare yourself for a very large wait. This kills creative talent more than anything I know. So if you’re the boss, give this a lot of thought. Sure, you need controls. In a fraud-ridden country like this, people would take you to the cleaners if you pulled down all the approval systems. But be very aware of the cost of excessive, overlapping, entrenched controls. The cost is in the death of the human spirit. Creative endeavour and innovation cannot come out of control-freak systems.

Intelligent bosses have to find intelligent ways of keeping control of the enterprise. So far, we have found the wrong balance. You could liberate a lot of people by finding a better one.

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