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Employment, Job Hunt

Honest Advice Series: Bureaucracy is an Unavoidable Evil

So here we are at the second entry in my series offering advice to those seeking employment in a large corporation or conglomerate.  If you made it past my earlier entry debunking the myth regarding job security and still want to keep looking at joining, then you’ve probably determined the other benefits you’ll reap will be worth the possibility of your manager telling you they need you in the offices eight or nine time zones away for the next two months (yes, that actually happened to a friend of mine).  As I said before, this is not an unreasonable assumption.  However you should know what you’re getting into before making this decision, so let’s talk about the most common yet most unfairly in my opinion vilified aspect of working at a large corporation … bureaucracy.

The issue at hand often masquerades under many different terms depending on the specific agenda of the user.  “Corporate politics,” “corporate governance,” “process management,” and “organizational structure” are just a few of the terms I’ve heard over the years to describe the same thing … bureaucracy.  The actual unemotional definition of a bureaucracy is “management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures.”  The fixed procedures can be thought of as policies, laws, or directives dictated by leadership.  The bureaucracy is then charged with implementing these directives, but (and this is important) they do not make the directives.  In practice for the rank and file this can be a difficult distinction to make since the bureaucrat (ie: manager, HR rep, security officer, etc) is interacting with them daily while the policy director is usually someplace much more theoretical called “the home office.”  So it seems this separation between the rank and file and the policy makers is then the root of most complaints about bureaucracy.

To explain this better, let’s reexamine the bureaucracy.  Bureaucrats are simply personnel charged with actually implementing policy as directed by decision makers.  In other words they exist in all companies with a hierarchical decision making structure.  Some one makes company policy decisions, some one has to follow said decisions, therefore some one has to both ensure the policies are being followed and often interpret these policies in a manner relevant to an individual’s work.  In small organizations the separation between the policy makers and the one who will enact said policy is small to functionally nonexistent.  In large organizations the separation can be quite vast depending on the level of homogenization practiced by the governing body.  The further the separation between policy maker and those directly effected the more layers of bureauracrats usually encountered.  More layers of interpretation and communication between the actors in this policy play means the less logical or useful said policies will generally appear to those at the receiving end.  To further confound most reasonable people, bureaucracies get really confusing when they are paired with the basic concepts of economies of scale and specialization & consolidation.

I’ve gone into the microeconomic theory of an economy of scale before but to summarize, the basic theory is the average cost per unit of producing something will at some point decrease if the amount produced is steadily increased.  The idea is that efficiency can be obtained through repetition and operating costs due to equipment will stay static.  In other words the cost per hole is high if we only dig one hole and purchase a new shovel.  However the cost per hole is small if one person digs a thousand holes in the same sort of ground and uses the same shovel.  In this way the cost of the shovel is spread out over a thousand holes and the operator will get more efficient as they dig more so time spent on each hole will decrease.  Eventually you should reach a point of increasing returns on investment, or at least that’s the theory.

The theory of specialization and consolidation is a new one for this blog, but its important and I apologize for the omission.  Specialization and consolidation theory relies on the metaphor I used earlier about the person digging a hole and expands on it.  Like most theories it sounds correct when stated simply.  The simple theory is that a person will get better at something the more times they repeat the process.  Thus it logically follows a person will become more efficient quicker if they are assigned a specialized role and asked to do it more often in a shorter time frame.  This theory is the heart of the much mocked “that’s not my job” phenomenon.  Consolidation naturally flows out of this concept because if you only expect a person to perform one task, it doesn’t make economic sense to have three people performing it.  Finally it makes even more sense to gather all the people performing that task or process into a common group so they can share best practices and knowledge.

Sounds all happy and nice, doesn’t it?  “What could possibly go wrong?” you ask.  Ah my little butter bean, you’re forgetting the bureaucratic distance we discussed earlier between policy makers and the people actually doing the work effected by said policy.  Implementing these two theories in a large corporation means you inevitably end up with distinct departments tasked with managing a portion of the larger corporate policies or business strategy.  The layers of disconnect have just been multiplied as the bureaucrats in each distinct department develop their independent interpretations of the policies and how to implement them.  The problem is so pervasive it spawned an entire industry tasked with solving it without actually solving it.  Six Sigma, for instance, is most often used to help remedy this problem.

So we’ve talked about how a bureaucracy is inevitable at large corporations where directives and policies must be interpreted, distributed, and enforced among widespread groups and divisions, but what about the really juicy part of all this?  What about the politics I hear permeate corporate jobs and culture?

Let me just address the supposed ubiquitous nature of politics in corporations by stating in nearly every place I have ever worked I have heard an incessant complain about politics and political favoritism.  Let me restate that in case you missed it.  The only job at which I did not hear those complaints was while working on my mother’s family’s ranch, and that was probably because all the workers were local kids and family hired on for summer temp work.  Any other time the workers were literally hired through nepotism since we were all family working for free or in trade.  Every other job I’ve held whether it was at the nightclub where people claimed a girl was made bartender because she was sleeping with the owner or the product line that was discontinued because the new management “had it in for our manager,” political gamesmanship is the easy answer to any question the answer to which might reflect poorly on our own performance.  It does exist, but I don’t think its anywhere as common as its assigned blame.

But exist it does and I will now contradict myself by saying actual political gamesmanship is more common in large corporations than anywhere else, except possibly actual politics.  How am I confident in that statement?  It’s really quite simple.  The bureaucratic disconnect we discussed earlier between the policy makers and the people doing the actual work goes both ways.  Bureaucrats don’t just interpret policies and decisions for distribution, they collate reports and status information for dissemination upward.  Anyone who has ever edited a document or created a report from raw data knows it is impossible to remove subjectivity from the result.  Subjectivity is built into the process of selecting what to include and what to exclude.  The more instances you have of subjective editing, the less likely a finished artifact will bear any sort of relation to objective fact.  The same process is true of actual work product.  The more removed your superiors are from your daily work, the more dependent they become on verbal updates, statistical analysis, or general impressions based on random encounters.  Promotions, bonuses, raises, cubicles with windows, private offices, and the like all then become subject to seemingly subjective criteria devoid of meaningful work content.

Into this breach steps a class of people I like to call professional deadbeats.  I’ve purposely made this class comically extreme enough to hopefully avoid offense.  I may suggest a generous bout of self-reflection if you find yourself becoming offended at my statements, however.  I call this class of people professional deadbeats since it typifies their attitude toward their working life.  The classic deadbeat is some one who makes constant efforts at minimizing the amount of work they must perform to maintain their employment.  These are the people who simply punch the clock every day and take longer and longer lunch breaks or review soccer scores or stock prices rather than work.  The professional deadbeat is some one who not only constantly seeks to perform the minimum amount of work, they seek to advance their careers while doing so.  I’ve never really done an in depth study of this mindset, even though its somewhat fascinating due to the paradoxes they represent.  The root causes are more than likely as manifold as the people themselves, but they exist everywhere.  These are the “researchers” who expect a mention on papers for performing a few hours lab work or answering a few interview questions.  They are the people clamoring for mention on the film credits (and SAG membership) after one day of shooting and a single line.  They’re the people with whom you unconsciously find yourself inserting double quotes as they talk about things like “group effort” and “all pulling together” on a project.  In short these people spend hours and hours of effort maneuvering, complaining, tattling, and plagiarizing all in an effort to avoid a few hours of actual productive work.

So what do these people have to do with large corporations?  Remember what I said about subjective reporting and a reliance on them by upper management to review performance and output?  Corporations with several bureaucratic layers embedded in their DNA provide fertile breeding grounds for the professional deadbeat to thrive, provided they don’t over reach their deadbeat abilities.  Since actual work and review of the work are naturally being edited and filtered, the professional deadbeat can insert themselves into whichever process they select simply by inserting themselves into the reports.  They can also game the system by editing their own reports to show the most positive light possible.  But these are secondary mediums for the professional deadbeat;  their real medium lies in the completely subjective and random impression of employees and work.  True practitioners of the art of being a professional deadbeat will not selectively edit their own work, but will instead insert themselves into the process for reviewing other’s reports.  They do this by constant physical presence and offers of assistance to those they deem have either a key position in the hierarchy or some other realm of authority.  The true professional deadbeat is the one always sitting in the boss’s office when you drop in with a question.  They’re the ones stopping by to make sure the director has taken time out for lunch.  They go out of their way to make sure they can insert a strategic opinion or subjective analysis of other’s work in a manner that leaves both a good impression of themselves and no physical record of the conversation that might be later used against them.  In a work where disconnect between those performing work and those directing work is embedded, this sort of reliance on personal relationships and influence is usually allowed to fester.  In other words, bureaucracy does not cause political gamesmanship as is usually asserted.  Rather the stratification of actual communication provides an environment where existing tendencies toward political maneuvering over actual production are allowed to exist longer than in other structures.

So to wrap up, this is the environment into which you will be thrust if you join a large corporation.  You will be multiple layers removed from the actual decision makers directing the strategic vision and direction of the company and your products or services.  No matter what the propaganda, you will have little say in the direction of your work and will instead be judged on how well you creatively implement directives from others.  You will be interact with and probably eventually report to some one who has made a career out of expending heroic political efforts in an attempt to not expend heroic work efforts.  All this will lead you to more than once feel like nothing more than a cog in a machine.  You will look longingly at your peers working at seemingly exciting small startup companies where they get to work shoulder to shoulder with the CEO and direct entire feature sets.  Of course you’ll completely ignore the six months they spend looking for a new company when their exciting startup either fails or is purchased by a company like your’s and their job becomes a victim of consolidation and specialization.  You’ll also ignore the fact they spend 80+ hours a week in the office and have no health insurance or vacation time off.

You’ll also ignore one salient fact of life in a bureaucracy most people ignore.  Bureaucracies only appear to be homogeneous.  The same tendency toward multiple interpretations of directives that can stifle communication and result in an apparent sea of meaningless and useless processes can also spawn creative and unique working environments.  Since differing levels of bureaucrats are expected to interpret and implement directives for themselves, they often end up at very different places.  This is where doing your homework before applying becomes vitally important.  You will never completely divest yourself from political gamesmanship or overweening bureaucracy, but you can find departments and teams in alignment with your personality and work habits.  The larger the corporation, the more likely a match can be found within the safe circus tent of your company.

The trick to this is finding it and that’s what my next blog in this series is about.


About cowboytesting

Hi. My name is Curtis S, and I'm a tester.


4 thoughts on “Honest Advice Series: Bureaucracy is an Unavoidable Evil

  1. Oh what a tangled web we weave,
    When first we practise to deceive!
    Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.
    Scottish author & novelist (1771 – 1832)

    An interesting study showed that money is the number 1 factor that push people away from their current job, but strangely enough, if you ask people why they are currently still staying with their company money is only listed as factor number 6. That implies, people are not staying with their companies because they are paid so extremely well that they don’t want to leave, no, there are 5 other factor that are more important that makes them stay. I only remember the article, so I can’t give a reference to it, however from experience and observation the follow is true:

    Try answering this simple question for yourself: Why do you get up in the morning to go to work? Job satisfaction is usually high on this list, the feeling of self worth, that you make a difference in people’s lives there were you work. The other reason is management and peer respect for the work you do.

    After reading the article by the TestCowboy, I have to agree, it is true, been there, done that too. A big corporate is NOT the place for a self motivated creative individual. A big corporate has what I call like to call “capital inertia”. You will find many managers that make so many illogical decisions that it would have wrecked a smaller company, but since a big corporate has a lot of capital inertia it usually survives these blunders. Same said managers usually also don’t have to deal with the staff turn over, the HR department just find new cannon fodder for these said managers.

    Lastly, as I mentioned, if you are creative, also a bad idea to start in a big corporate, simple reason is your creativity is not required nor asked for. You want to solve a problem? Shame on you for not reading the guidelines as to how to solve this type of problem. You will get a tick in your HR file for not following company doctrine. Basically, a big corporate already has their business well defined, what they need is clever monkeys that comes to work everyday and does just that, nothing more, nothing less. Another term for this type of problem is sometimes referred to as “Red Tape”. This type of company tape is even stronger than duck type, it can strangle the life out of you.

    Oh, not all is bad tho. Big companies doesn’t mind lavishly spending on weeks and weekend aways, it is called team building. Booze is usually free.


    Posted by Survivor | June 24, 2010, 2:02 pm
    • Hello to South Africa! Insightful and thought-provoking as ever. Do you have a blog of your own yet?

      I have to differ slightly with your generalized depiction of large companies, however. True most of them do have capital inertia, but departments and entire product lines often do not. There are always groups favored more than others, of course. They are usually designated as the “core business” meaning they generate enough perceived value for the company to be left to their own devices even if disruptive innovations completely alter the market. If you are not in one of those divisions, however, you will be subject to profitability and value pressures similar to a small company. In some ways it may be worse than a small company since outside the corporate structure you don’t often find a competitor walking into your office and “borrowing” your best people or resources.

      Turnover is a HUGE problem for most companies, as you rightly stated. But saying that, in my personal experience the pain is acute simply because of the bureaucratic layers buffering decision makers on policies and those feeling the pain directly. As a recent case in point, I was in the final stages of joining a very large company here in Seattle a little while ago. The position was somewhat unique and so had been an open slot for nearly six months. The principals were incredibly relieved and happy to have talked to me about the position and were ready to onboard me as soon as possible. Unfortunately unbeknown to me, a recruiter for another company had previously submitted me for the position months ago. Because of the prior submission, HR ruled I couldn’t join the team. So even though I had no idea I’d been submitted, had not given my permission to be submitted, and had never interviewed for the position it didn’t matter to the HR department. They did not feel the pain so there was no reason for them to change their policy or be flexible with it.


      Posted by cowboytesting | June 24, 2010, 2:22 pm
  2. Interesting idea, but no I don’t have a blog. I do post on LinkedIN as you are aware and network that way, I also enjoy giving training to junior QA and BA staff. I’m not sure I always get the point across correctly on the web, in person you can really zoom in and help a person to reach his/her full(er) potential. I’ll keep your indirect suggestion in mind tho!


    Posted by Survivor | June 25, 2010, 3:46 am


  1. Pingback: Honest Advice Series: Do Your Homework « Testing in The Wild West - July 12, 2010

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