The Enduring Appeal Of Choking Oneself To Death
Why the organizational equivalent of auto-erotic asphyxiation persists nearly everywhere
Bureaucracies are like cancer: a fundamental biological imperative (growth) runs out of control and ends up killing the organism of which it is a part. Without some form of bureaucracy, no organization can exist; too much bureaucracy and no organization can survive for long. It is a conundrum that very few organizations ever manage to grapple with successfully. This is because there are perverse incentives that work to encourage ever-more bureaucracy within an organization. This article will take a look at a few such incentives and we will see their malign effects.
Let’s begin with why bureaucracies exist in the first place.
All organizations have to manage the flow of information that travels within them. Were this management not done, there would be no possibility of coordinated intentional actions. We can liken this to an early city in the twentieth century: there are several major roads that intersect; without placing traffic lights at the intersections and coordinating the operation of these lights, all would be chaos. So the imposition of a few traffic lights at key intersections permits a reasonably coherent flow of traffic, thus enabling the city’s transportation network to function adequately.
Thus some minimal level of bureaucracy, whether formal or informal to begin with, arises out of the organization’s need to ensure that information flows can move around the organization with at least something approaching a reasonable level of efficiency.
So far, it seems, so good. Why, then, do things go wrong?
To stay with our city traffic analogy a while longer, here is what happens next: the management of traffic lights, originally engendered by the Mayor’s office as a way to speed the average flow of traffic, obviously can’t remain within the Mayor’s office forever. So a Department of Traffic Flow is created and the job of managing traffic lights is handed over to this new mini-organization. Which…