Essay, Story

Winning and Losing to your Bureaucracy

Winning 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 approach each struggle with an open mind, willing to try something new if the normal process doesn’t work.

Reflection, openness, humility, thoughtfulness.

I think we need more people who are willing to keep learning and keep fighting the bureaucracy. We need people who won’t give up just because Ben is bigger.

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.

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.


Get the Rock out of the Road: Leading Change amidst resistance

As a brand new Lieutenant I was welcomed to my first battalion by a senior lieutenant named Ed who was getting ready to leave the unit. He had been there three years and was headed back to the states to get promoted and go to Captain School. (It wasn’t really called that, but most of my followers aren’t familiar with the Engineer Officer Advanced Course, and I though Captain School sounded cooler).

Ed was full of wisdom. And since he was older and wiser and I was (as my platoon sergeant so eloquently put it) still wet behind the ears, I listened intently.

He offered advice when I attempted to buy an extra large rucksack. “Why do you need that?” To carry more stuff in the field. “We’re a mechanized unit. You have a vehicle for that.” I know, but we may need to dismount and walk a ways. “If you walk more than 300 yards you should fire your driver.” Ed was good at pointing out the obvious stuff for me.

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Bailing Water with a Cup

Three guys out fishing start taking on water. The first guy to notice it grabs the nearest thing he sees that can bail water: a tiny little cup. He starts bailing furiously, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. The other two haven’t noticed yet, as they are busy fishing. The first guy assumes this is a temporary problem and keeps bailing, all the while looking back at his rod in case a fish bites.

It starts getting worse.

The second guy realizes there is a problem, and he, too, starts bailing. He has a red Solo cup, so he moves more water than the first guy, but he still isn’t making a lot of headway. He doesn’t want to leave his fishing rod, either, so is pretty distracted from the bailing effort. Every once in a while he gets a bite, stops bailing, and tries to land the fish. He finds it is more difficult to net the fish when you have to rummage in the water in the bottom of the boat for the net.

The third guy is late to the party. He has been solely focused on fishing and finally catches on when he can’t get to the live well because of the water they are taking on. Something has to be done! He grabs a bucket and starts bailing, too, still with one eye on his rod.

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Animal House: Leading Change Blutowski Style

If you haven’t watched National Lampoon’s 1978 masterpiece Animal House in a while, it may be time to break out the VHS tapes and grab some popcorn. It is laced with famous scenes and features many budding actors that went on to highly successful acting careers. If you are one of those Millennials who wants to get some insight into the culture that influenced your grandparents’ generation, it’s worth figuring out how to stream this classic. If nothing else it is worth watching Blutowski’s inspiring “Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech.

This great film came to mind recently as I listened to a senior executive talking about the many changes he was trying to implement across his organization.  He had some great ideas about the direction his firm needed to go, and his energy and enthusiasm for the future was infectious. His audience was inspired and hopeful and the much-needed changes were long overdue.

But soon after the CEO left, the mid-level managers began evaluating the CEO’s proposals. “That will never happen, the VPs won’t implement that,” said one. “There are too many policies and too much institutional momentum for any of that to stick,” said another. “Unless you get rid of the old guard up there, none of this is going to get anywhere,” said a third. They all agreed that the CEO’s proposed changes were necessary, but none of them believed they would ever happen.

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Knife Fights and Strategic Thinking

We all get busy. We have these goals of getting to some project, or carving out time to do something different, or thoughts of making some long term, innovative plans for how to improve our organization. But the day-to-day tasks somehow seem to eat up the time.

I recently asked one of my senior leaders about his long term strategy for his division. He told me he was “working on it” but that it was difficult to think five years out “when you’re in a knife fight every day.”

That’s true. When someone is trying to stab you it is probably the wrong time to start making long-term plans.

But this begs some questions… like “why are YOU in the knife fight?” or “why are you in a KNIFE fight?” or “how might this fight end?” or “is this fight winnable?”

With respect to the first question, this isn’t always our fault: we often get dragged into knife fights that we want nothing to do with. The phone rings and suddenly you can toss today’s schedule out because somebody somewhere did or said something that will occupy all of your time for the foreseeable future. You pick up your knife and prepare to do battle. Continue reading


Rethinking Innovation in a Bureaucracy

About a year ago my organization embarked on journey to modernize. Recognizing that many of the best ideas for organizational improvement probably resided in the workforce not the board room, we began soliciting ideas from throughout the firm.

During a town hall meeting I appealed to newer employees who may have ideas from other organizations they have worked in, to younger employees who may have ideas based on exposure to new technology or ideas from school, and to our more experienced employees who have observed the organization over the years and probably have some insightful observations that could help us modernize. The seasoned employees also understand the bureaucratic systems and processes better than anyone and can help us avoid pitfalls as we move forward.

I got some criticism for that approach.

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Dribbling with Your Head Down: failing to see how you impact the bigger mission

In my spare time I coach youth soccer. I never thought of myself as a coach, but when my kids were starting off in bee-hive ball the leagues were always looking for volunteers to help out. Figuring this was a great way to spend time with my kids I signed on. Eventually my kids got older (as they are wont to do) and “better” coaches showed up to train my kids. What I found, though, is that I was still coaching my kids, only this time from the sidelines. I was frustrated because the coaches weren’t coaching the way I thought they should.

That’s when I figured out that nobody was going to coach the way I wanted them to but me. If I wanted my kids to get my brand of coaching I would have to put up or shut up, regardless of how busy I am with work or other distractions. (see Work/Life balance)

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