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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Understanding Bureaucracy: Beavers & Peacocks

All large organizations are bureaucracies. Since it is very difficult to make decisions quickly by consensus in large groups, hierarchies are used instead. So, some become leaders and the rest must become followers.

The second principle of bureaucracies is inertia. Since most subordinates are afraid to disagree with their bosses, policies & procedures rarely change. Instead, they tend to become highly formalized. By requiring subordinates to follow strict procedures, subordinates are prevented from doing things that might make their boss look bad. 

The third principle of bureaucracies is attention. This is where the peacock comes in. A peacock gets attention because it uses feathers to make itself look bigger and stronger than it really is. It does this to get the attention of peahens so it can mate. In a similar way, subordinates in a bureaucracy compete for the attention of the bosses so they can get promoted. Bureaucracies also compete for attention with other bureaucracies for customers, etc.

Thus, the most important goal for employees & bureaucracies is to look good even if you aren't and avoid looking bad even if you are. For subordinates, this means sucking up to the boss and covering up mistakes. Agreeing with someone and copying them is the easiest way to get them to like you. And the one the boss likes the most gets promoted. For bureaucracies, this means looking big and impressive with nice buildings, fancy logos, and eye-catching ads and deflecting bad publicity.
So, bureaucracies are like peacocks- style over substance.

In contrast, the beaver is small, ugly animal. It has buck teeth and funny tail. But beavers are hard-working, intelligent animals. They build dams to create deep ponds. Then they bury green branches in the mud at the bottom. The cold water preserves the bark in the branches so the beavers have something to eat in the winter. They also build lodges so they have shelter in the winter. They dig canals so they can get to trees without having to walk on land where their predators are. Beavers work smart and think ahead. Indeed, it's interesting that a creature with a brain the size of an egg is better at planning for the future than a fair number of people.

Individuals and groups can accomplish more by being more like beavers and less like peacocks. The key to success is focusing on results- not appearances or intentions.


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