I began my professional career working for a large university. In the first three years, I worked in a small department, but I later spent three years in the central IT organization. I got a lot of exposure to the bureaucratic machinery. Then I went to work for a 25-person company for five years. When Microsoft — a company of over 130k employees — acquired my employer, I was thrown back into the bureaucratic machine. But it turns out my bureaucracy survival skills had atrophied a little bit.
It took about three months before I got my footing and was able to start navigating the bureaucracy again. I like to think that when I’m in shape, I’m pretty good at it. So I’ve collected some of the rules I’ve learned over the years.
- There are meetings for everything. — You may even have a meeting to plan the real meeting. If your deity is particularly mad at you that day, you’ll have a post-meeting meeting, too. This happens in almost all large organizations. It becomes too large and impersonal for people to keep up on what’s going on, so they’ll have lots of meetings so everyone can stay informed. Even if the meeting could have been an email, it will still happen because that’s the safer option.
- Meetings will always begin with 5-10 minutes of late arrivals and AV/conferencing troubleshooting. — Computers are so much easier to use than in years past. So much just works. But somehow getting the projector to join the web meeting will continue to elude even the smartest people in the room. And because everyone is invited to all the meetings, they’ll probably be a few minutes late to yours.
- The only thing worse than being in all those meetings is not being in those meetings. — It sucks spending all your time in meetings instead of doing your job. But decisions are (sometimes) made in meetings. If you’re not included, you’ll be left out of important decisions.
- Conway’s Law is real. — Anything your organization designs will look a lot like the org chart.
- People will take your responsibilities when it benefits them and give you responsibilities when it doesn’t. — In a large organization, you need to be visible to get rewarded. So if someone can benefit by doing your job for you, they will do it. But if it won’t benefit them, they’ll try to pass the task on to you.
- People are more likely to ask for volunteers than to volunteer. — This is related to the last one. It’s easy to put out a call for volunteers. It’s harder to step up and volunteer. This is in part because people will often not volunteer and if you step up every time, you’ll have way too much work on your plate. The solution here is to assign tasks instead of asking or hoping for volunteers.
- You can say no. In fact, you should. (to travel, to working outside of business hours, etc). — It won’t hurt your performance and it will help your sanity. I wrote about this in greater length last month.
- Everyone will agree about broken processes, but no one knows how to fix them. — Large bureaucracies will have a lot of processes that probably made sense at one point, but grew or decayed to the point where they are inarguably broken. But how do you fix them? Nobody seems to have a good answer. Sometimes there are people with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Other times, it’s just a really big ship to try to turn around and no one has the time to devote the necessary work to it.
- The only way to find out how to do something is to ask. There will be no documentation, and if there is it won’t be discoverable. — Every once in a while your predecessor will be someone like me who leaves the documentation in a better state than they found it. But for the most part, people don’t even bother writing documentation because they don’t want to, they’re not required to, and it will be out of date by the time someone reads it.
- References to products will survive a lot longer than the products themselves. — For months, I would hear people at Microsoft talk about “S+”. I figured out from context that it meant a meeting invitation, but I couldn’t figure out why. Turns out Schedule Plus was a product in the 1990s. I was there 20 years after the functionality was merged into Outlook, but I still heard references to it.
- Interpersonal relationships are how things get done. — Make friends. Make lots of friends. Make friends with people in other departments. Keep in touch with them as they and you move around the organization. Whenever you need something done, it’s much more likely to happen if you know someone you can talk to personally. Relying on official channels will, unfortunately, result only in waiting and inaction.
Those are the lessons I’ve learned. I’m sure there are plenty more. If you have lessons for surviving bureaucracy, let me know in the comments.