Essay, Story

Winning and Losing to your Bureaucracy

jujitsu2This starts by knowing how the game is played and knowing all of the rules, both written and unwritten, and then either exploiting or breaking them.


I love practicing jujitsu. It is a great art and sport, and helps build flexibility, strength, endurance, and confidence. The practice of jujitsu is a journey, and very few who study the art can claim to master it. I, unfortunately am in the majority here. As a mere novice in this art I frequently find myself humbled by the speed and skill of others.

One of the people I roll with is a guy named Ben. Ben is a bit of a freak of nature as he is older than me but remains one of the biggest, strongest, fittest people in the academy. I’m probably giving up about 30 pounds when I square off with Ben, and despite what TV tells you, strength and size make a difference. The other problem I have with Ben is his jujitsu is also better than mine.

When I roll with Ben I have no illusions that I will tap him out. My goal is to survive the five minutes without getting choked out. Sometimes I make it.

I attribute this not just to Ben’s size and strength, though. I think he’s so hard for me to beat because I don’t have the skill and knowledge needed to defeat him. Too often, the obvious, instinctual moves I thought would work land me in the biggest trouble.

When I watch the instructors roll with Ben I see a completely different struggle. Although our senior belts are giving up a lot more size with Ben than I am, they don’t seem to struggle as much. For every move that would finish me off, our instructors have a counter. They navigate smoothly away from danger and find opportunities I fail to see or can’t exploit. Then they bring out techniques that reduce Ben’s size advantage and put him in losing positions.

These guys didn’t get that way overnight.  How did they get like that?

They have studied and practiced their art for years. They have learned techniques through careful observation and training to be able to accomplish things we novices cannot. They sought the advice of experts. They tried new things, failed, and learned from their mistakes. They are continuous, lifelong learners.

In short, they have invested the time, energy, and had the right, humble attitude that allowed them to learn the nuances of leverage, timing, and balance that make huge differences in the outcome.

It strikes me that my struggles with Ben are a lot like the struggles that many people encounter every day. The difficulty of grappling with a bureaucracy or solving tough work problems is a lot like squaring off with a larger, more skillful opponent. As Joe Rogan once put it, “Jujitsu is complex problem solving under extreme stress.”

At work I see quite a few employees who function, like me, at the novice level. I see others who are like the senior belts. The novice-type folks try to navigate the bureaucracy the way I approach Ben: try the obvious, instinctual moves, apply strength against strength, and become frustrated when they don’t work. Eventually they have to tap out, admitting defeat.

But there are others who, like my jujitsu instructors, seem to face down the same challenges with ease. They counter the bureaucratic choke holds and use the system’s weight against itself, finding ways to get on top despite all the disadvantages of being smaller.

When I observe folks at work I see both kinds of people: masters and novices. Some of the novices watch and learn from the masters. Others continue to struggle on their own, succumbing over and over again to the bureaucratic Bens they square off with. Some of the novices are new and are learning. Some have been here for years and have stopped trying to beat the system. They have given up, and let the bureaucracy be on top every time. These folks are easy to spot, by the way. They are the ones who have an excuse or someone to blame every time they get stuck or fail to produce. They are the ones that get to “no” quickly whenever someone suggests something new or innovative.

The ones that emerge victorious are successful not because of the system, but in spite of it. They have figured out which techniques work and which ones don’t. They know that the instinctual, “follow the process” approach works until it meets real life, and from there you need to be creative. They have figured out what works and intuitively find ways to solve problems where others only see obstacles.

How did they get like that?

The same way my jujitsu instructors did.  They don’t suffer a setback or defeat without learning from it. They reflect thoughtfully on both failures and successes. They approached each struggle with an open mind, willing to try something new if the normal process doesn’t work.

Reflection, openness, humility, thoughtfulness.

As an aside I think there are people in both worlds that enjoy the spectacle of novices getting crushed. They sit back as spectators watching people struggle through their bureaucratic wrestling matches and do little to help them along. They often seem to be the most vocal grumblers about “how the system is against us.”

The real difference between my instructors in jujitsu and the masters of bureaucracy is that there is a group of people in jujitsu who have dedicated themselves to helping others perfect their jujitsu practice. These are the coaches of jujitsu.

There are, sadly, too few people in business who are dedicated to helping others fight the bureaucracy. But there are some. There are people who have figured it out. There are those that move easily through the bureaucracy and take pleasure in helping others do the same.  They have in mind the success of their organization and the success of those people who are willing to learn.

In jujitsu the people who do this are called coaches or professors. In business they are called mentors, and we need a lot more of them.

2 thoughts on “Winning and Losing to your Bureaucracy

  1. Sir, another great article. I can certainly relate to the analogy, trying to use my wrestling on the jujitsu mat and getting myself in troubling positions repeatedly. It took me a while to figure out that what I knew instinctively didn’t always work, both on the job and on the mat. Luckily I haven’t been choked out by the bureaucracy!


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