Want your organization to thrive? Bureaucracy needs to die (review of Humanocracy)

Days can drag during the pandemic but the future’s arriving way ahead of schedule.

COVID-19 is accelerating changes in how we work, learn, shop and play. Trends that would’ve played out over years are happening within months.

While working from home is a hot topic, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini make a convincing argument for also rethinking how we work.  

The authors of Humanocracy say we need to seriously shrink our organizations’ Bureaucratic Mass Index.  

With a lower BMI, every job has the potential to be a good job.

Much of the work now being done by legions of well-paid administrators and managers could be transferred to frontline employees working in small, multifunctional and self-managing teams.

Turning low-skilled, dead-end jobs into get-ahead, automation-proof jobs would benefit individuals, organizations and our society as a whole.

And instead of wasting time, money and their careers on busywork, bureaucrats could be moved into jobs where they’d provide far greater value to their organization.

“Bureaucratic organizations are inertial, incremental and dispiriting,” say Hamel and Zanini. “In a bureaucracy, the power to initiate change is vested in a few senior leaders. When those at the top fall prey to denial, arrogance and nostalgia, as they often do, the organization falters.

“Worst of all, bureaucracies are soul crushing. Deprived of any real influence, employees disconnect emotionally from work. Initiative, creativity and daring – requisites for success in the creative economy – often get left at home.”

Bureaucratic organizations have timid goals, shun risk-taking, lumber along at a plodding speed, repress creativity, cramp autonomy, punish noncomformity and in return get tepid commitment from disengaged employees.

By comparison, a humanocracy maximizes everyone’s contribution. Organizations become as resilient, creative, innovative, adaptive, entrepreneurial and energetic as the people who work in them.   

“Rather than deskilling work, we need to upskill employees,” say Hamel and Zanini.

They profile humanocracy pioneers like U.S. steelmaker Nucor and Haier, the world’s largest appliance maker. These big companies show that it’s possible to have the benefits of bureaucracy – control, consistently and coordination – without the crippling costs of inflexibility, mediocrity and apathy.

“The experience of the post-bureaucratic rebels testifies to a single luminous truth: an organization has little to fear from the future, or its competitors, when it’s brimming with self-managing ‘micropreneurs’.”

If you work in a large organization, you already know the transition to humanocracy won’t be easy. Bureaucracies are fiercely defended. “People with power are typically reluctant to give it up, and often have the means to defend their prerogative. This is a serious impediment, since there’s no way to build a human-centric organization without flattening the pyramid.”

Hamel and Zanini’s book is a manifesto and manual for overcoming that impediment.

“Bureaucracy must die,” say Hamel and Zanini. “We can no longer afford its pernicious side effects. As humankind’s most deeply entrenched social technology, it will be hard to uproot, but that’s OK. You were put on this earth to do something significant, heroic even, and what could be more heroic than creating, at long last, organizations that are fully human?”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Published by Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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