Get Bigger, Not Dumber: Tips to Grow Output instead of Bureaucracy

overworked businessman
overworked businessman

Small organizations and startups proudly tout their size, they boast about how they're more nimble, and they decry the evils of their large, monolithic counterparts. Yet, most of them do so during sales pitches for ultimately the same goal: growth. In the end, little organizations want to be big ones someday.

From my perspective, there's nothing wrong with that. I'm all for growth, and I'm an advisor to and fan of large organizations. I've spent some of the best parts of my career working with them -- both internally and externally, and the good ones are without equal in their ability to marshal resources for the production of intelligent output. Without large organizations, many of the positive elements of our society would simply not exist, at least not at costs low enough to allow widespread accessibility.

On the other hand, Dilbert, The Office, and Undercover Boss enjoy their popularity for good reason: When you organize people into groups, the results can be downright dumb. From the "safety culture" celebratory badge with corners sharp enough to cut fingers (true story), to the man in the hazmat suit who came around to pick up used AAA batteries (true story), to the security officer who wouldn't let an employee enter the building carrying company property (true story), we all have our examples of dumb at work.

Plenty of clear thinkers, faced with experiences like these, conclude something along the lines of "bigger equals dumber," and vow to steer clear of big enterprises entirely. But the truth is, even a moderately sized entity can become frustratingly ineffective and cumbersome. And on the flip side, in some sectors, big organizations regularly wallop their smaller counterparts in terms of both resources and flexibility.

So, how can large organizations enjoy the benefits of their size without succumbing to the inanity of bureaucracy? And how can smaller, growing organizations get bigger without dumbing themselves down? The full answer to that question is multifaceted and complex, but at its core it's all about focus and flexibility. Here are a few tips out of my consulting work to help you become the kind of culture-influencer that will keep your workplace aimed in the right direction, whatever stage of growth you're contemplating.

First, stay focused on useful output. In a startup where today's performance determines whether there will be paychecks tomorrow, it's actually easier to stay focused than to get distracted. But as soon as some size and stability enters the picture -- as soon as specialization becomes the norm -- it's too easy to lose track of what's important. The accounts receivable manager more interested in processes than in receiving payment, the engineer tirelessly improving a product that has no market, and the regional manager coordinating internal efforts that have no bearing on external results may all be competent, likable, and professional, but none add value to their organization. If you - or someone around you - can't draw a line from work in progress to a tangible, useful, beneficial, potentially marketable result, step back and revisit what you're doing.

Second, try not to let your primary job become internal presentation-making. As companies get larger, more and more demands for information creep in. Executives, managers in neighboring departments, and even customer advocates start seeking updates on a regular basis. Communication is good, and there's nothing wrong with giving an update on occasion. But, if you're spending more time in PowerPoint than you are working on your tangible useful output, you may have a problem.

Third, speak in terms of future output, not past activity. Is your job to deliver sales numbers to a forecast? If so, when you talk with management and peers, go heavy on how likely you are to hit the forecast and what's getting in your way - and go light on the long list of flights you took and prospects you called on over the last six weeks. Are you a product designer creating plans for a new user interface? If so, highlight how likely you are to hit design targets and timelines, and deemphasize the number and complexity of iterations already completed. Historical activity may seem important to you, but those around you really just want to know if you'll perform as expected, or if you need help to do so.

Finally, help your peers, direct reports, and even managers to become more comfortable reporting on reality. Forecasts are guesses, and things rarely go as expected. Smart organizations see trouble coming and adjust accordingly, while dumber ones either miss the signs of trouble entirely or - more frustratingly - see problems coming but fail to change course. Flexibility starts with intelligence, and intelligence starts with information: To change appropriately you must first know what needs changing. So, the more team members speak in realistic terms - and the less time and effort they put into creating false but alluring imagery that everything is going well when it's not - the better chance the organization has to respond intelligently.

It's not always easy to follow this advice, to be sure. If the culture around you seems bent upon bureaucracy and mediocrity, being the first person to act differently can be scary. Add to that, you must be careful about how much influence to exert; if you go overboard, your focused and flexible behaviors will literally be "rejected by the host." Sure, I can tell you of examples of people who have created culture change individually - I've certainly written about some. But in the end, you have to decide to start, a little at a time, doing what's comfortable and taking one small step at a time.

Or not. You can also decide to do nothing but tolerate the pain, and the choice is entirely yours. But don't be surprised if you soon find yourself disallowed from entering your office with company property, bleeding from safety-badge inflicted cuts, and searching in vain for a man in a hazmat suit to relieve you of your dead AAA battery. You won't be the first.