The Zombie Guide to Surviving Bureaucracy (Transcript)

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WorkLife with Adam Grant
The Zombie Guide to Surviving Bureaucracy
October 10, 2023

[00:00:00] Ryan Grant:
I think I have a monthly bureaucracy event that I deal with.

[00:00:05] Adam Grant (VO):
This is my cousin, Ryan Grant. He’s a neurosurgeon, and there are few things he hates more than red tape. One of his most memorable run-ins with bureaucracy happened a few years ago, when he was in the process of getting credentialed to practice neurosurgery at a hospital. He submitted his documents and thought everything was good to go.

[00:00:24] Ryan Grant:
I then get an email the next day that says, “Oh, sorry, your CV has been rejected.” Um, I've never had an email like this before.

My curriculum vitae has been rejected? So I wrote back, I said, “I don't know what that means. Can you please explain?” Yes, we can. So their email back was, “Is there a way for you to reformat your CV?”

[00:00:47] Adam Grant (VO):
Yep, reformat. It turns out the hospital required the dates to be on the left.

[00:00:53] Ryan Grant:
My CV at the time was the dates are on the right. I wrote back, “What happens if I don't do this?” They won't credential you and you won't be able to practice neurosurgery. So I wrote back, “I'm not interested in doing this.”

[00:01:09] Adam Grant (VO):
They had a few back-and-forths.

[00:01:12] Ryan Grant:
And so we were at an impasse for a little while. They eventually accepted it. I don't know if they changed their policy. But, um, that is a definition of bureaucracy. We're going to prevent a neurosurgeon from practicing over the dates of a, on the CV.

[00:01:27] Adam Grant:
Wow. It's even worse than I remembered. What are the odds that you wasted more time on the back and forth with them than you would have reformatting the CV?

[00:01:36] Ryan Grant:
I thought about that, um, but it's to prove a point. Even if it took me three or four times as long to get my way, that would have been the right choice in my book. Bureaucracy is one of the many things that just holds the human race back.

[00:01:52] Adam Grant (VO):
Bureaucracy exists because organizations need rules and processes and standard operating procedures… but so often it just ends up slowing us down, preventing progress. It's no wonder bureaucracy is seen as a deadly sin of organizational culture. So, I want to know: Is bureaucracy inevitable? And if so, can we harness its powers for good?

I’m Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with the TED Audio Collective. I’m an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, we explore how to unlock the potential in people and workplaces. Today: Bureaucracy, and how to cut red tape without creating chaos.


[00:02:53] Adam Grant (VO):
Every organization has bureaucracy. It’s the formalization of rules and standardization of procedures. But researchers have identified two different kinds of bureaucracy. The helpful kind is called enabling bureaucracy. It’s where rules and procedures exist to empower people and fuel progress– rather than block it.

This is the actual purpose of bureaucracy: to help organizations maintain consistency, especially as they grow. Processes for hiring, firing, managing, and making decisions are supposed to bring order to chaos. But there’s a point where rules and procedures stop being helpful and start interfering with actual work. And it can be downright exasperating.

Maybe you’ve wanted to move your desk, and you’ve had to fill out paperwork to get approval. Maybe you’re trying to get a billing error corrected and had to make nineteen calls to customer service. Or maybe you’ve had to follow ridiculous policies. Like my cousin Ryan, who’s one of the most dedicated bureaucracy busters I know.

[00:03:55] Ryan Grant:
We had a family member who used to say, “Be willing to step on people's shoes but don't remove the polish.” It's stepping on people's toes to move the human race forward. As long as it brings positive change and you’re, and you remain professional.

[00:04:09] Adam Grant (VO):
But even Ryan has his limits. After he won the battle to avoid reformatting his CV, he was getting credentialed at another hospital. And he ran into another wall.

[00:04:19] Ryan Grant:
It was rejected because it was signed in black ink and not blue ink. So we had to redo that one.

[00:04:24] Adam Grant:
Are you kidding?

[00:04:25] Ryan Grant:
Nope. Blue ink only. Like the olden days. They hadn't updated their processes.

[00:04:30] Adam Grant:
Did you fight that one?

[00:04:42] Ryan Grant:
I fought that one and then it just went around. I was like, [BLEEP] it. I'm just going to sign it in blue ink. This is stupid. I just… This, this one's so ridiculous, it's not worth fighting.

[00:04:43] Adam Grant (VO):
This is the harmful kind of bureaucracy – what’s known as coercive bureaucracy. You’re forced to follow the rules, even if they make no sense. You run into red tape that stops you from fixing things that are broken and improving on the way they’ve always been done.

Coercive bureaucracy is a disease. It slows down decision-making and stymies innovation. And it leaves people demotivated and deflated. I loved a line in a recent episode of “What We Do in the Shadows.” They called coercive bureaucracy “the gum that clogs the gears of every human endeavor… and has kept energy vampires everywhere well-fed.”

We hate coercive bureaucracy. But chances are we’re all contributing to it, whether we realize it or not… because of our bias towards a certain kind of math. We like to do addition more than subtraction.

[00:05:38] Leidy Klotz:
When we encounter something that we want to make better, our first thought is, “What can we add?” And then the problem comes when we add and move on without even considering whether subtracting could have been an option.

[00:05:50] Adam Grant (VO):
Leidy Klotz is an engineering and architecture professor at the University of Virginia, and the author of “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less.” He’s also a former pro soccer player.

[00:06:00] Leidy Klotz:

[00:06:01] Adam Grant:
Was there any bureaucracy in that world?

[00:06:03] Leidy Klotz:
That's interesting. I think that may be a bureaucracy-free world. I will say that I was, uh, making like 2,000 a month playing soccer. Right? So it's, I, I don't know if there is more bureaucracy for Lionel Messi. Where he's got all these layers before he can just, like, get on the field and play.

[00:06:21] Adam Grant (VO):
Leidy first noticed the bias towards addition when he was doing another popular pastime: playing Legos with his son.

[00:06:28] Leidy Klotz:
And, uh, we're basically building a bridge. So you've got two support columns and the span across the top and the bridge wasn't level.

So one of the support columns was shorter than the other. And I went to fix this problem using my engineering background.

[00:06:41] Adam Grant (VO):
Take a second here to think about this. How would you make the two columns even? For Leidy, the answer was obvious…

[00:06:50] Leidy Klotz:
I went to grab a block to add to the shorter column. And by the time I had turned back around, he had removed a block from the longer column. Um, and so this is a moment where, like, kind of all the thinking about less crystallized for me. Like, here's this situation that I want to make better. In this case, it was the bridge. And why was it that my first thought was to think what can I add to make this situation better?

[00:07:14] Adam Grant (VO):
He wanted to see if others had this same impulse. So he and some collaborators designed a series of experiments. In one, they asked people to improve different Lego structures.

[00:07:24] Leidy Klotz:
Basically you've got this platform protecting a Lego stormtrooper figure. And the challenge was you have to put a masonry block on top of the platform without it collapsing onto the stormtrooper. One way to solve it was to add eight blocks. The other way was to subtract one block and just drop the platform down a little bit.

[00:07:45] Adam Grant (VO):
Adding was costly: for every block participants added, they would get paid less. But most people still added– it didn’t occur to them to subtract.

[00:07:54] Leidy Klotz:
And so that was evidence that, like, people were adding even when it was the wrong decision.

[00:08:00] Adam Grant (VO):
This didn’t just happen with Legos. In experiments using a range of tasks–from writing to musical loops to forming grid patterns–people added even when subtracting was more efficient. So why do we have this bias? Why do we default to addition?

[00:08:17] Leidy Klotz:
I think you could look at, like, the biological reasons first, probably. And it's like, okay, acquiring food or acquiring things has been an advantageous behavior over a long time. Um, one that was more surprising to me was this desire to show competence, right, that we want to effectively interact with the world.

[00:08:37] Adam Grant (VO):
Addition might be an easier way to show competence than subtraction. The acts of making and enforcing rules allow people to feel and look powerful.

[00:08:46] Leidy Klotz:
And it's a lot easier to show competence by adding something, right? When you subtract something, it's like, well, Leidy took a hundred words out of his 500-word column. Maybe he was just being lazy and writing a shorter column.

[00:09:01] Adam Grant:
It reminds me a little bit of what Jim Collins has called the undisciplined pursuit of more. We see people in organizations fail because they achieve something and then all of a sudden they have resources and opportunities and doors open, and then they start just adding stuff to their list of goals and tasks, and they end up accomplishing less.

[00:09:21] Leidy Klotz:
And a lot of these subtracting opportunities are relatively new. When you're first starting, well, of course it, it's better to have two employees than one, and it makes sense to think about reporting lines and structures and all this stuff, but eventually you, the bigger you get, the more opportunities there are to take away. And it might be a little less natural to think about or follow through with them.

[00:09:43] Adam Grant (VO):
The bias toward addition leads people to create too many policies. Some become outdated; others were never really necessary. But no one eliminates them. Eventually, we find ourselves in a coercive bureaucracy.

[00:09:56] Leidy Klotz:
So the, this healthcare system that I went to talk to about subtraction, they, they mapped the patient journey, like all the steps the patient goes to before they see a doctor. And there were like 14 steps. And their solution to that had been not to get rid of the steps, but to add, basically, a chaperone to walk with this, the patient on all 14 of those steps still. So they added another thing and a whole ‘nother person.

[00:10:18] Adam Grant (VO):
To start busting bureaucracy, we need to check our impulse to add, and look for procedures to subtract. It might also help to mark the moments when we succeed in subtracting.

[00:10:29] Leidy Klotz:
So my friends, Ben and Gabe, they're these researchers on the subtraction research. And the, they're like, “We're going to take this to heart.” And they put, like, one of those triangle-shaped Western bells outside of their office. And they call it their No-bell. Um, and they ring it whenever they say no to something…

… and supposedly everybody in the office can hear. And I think, I mean, that's a fun example, but I think that some of the groups that I've talked to that are kind of serious about doing this in their organizations are doing effectively the same thing. And so you're kind of showing competence by subtracting. Like you're showing, hey, no, this is something we want you to do. This is something that's going to be celebrated.

[00:11:08] Adam Grant (VO):
You can also proactively ask people for things to subtract, and build subtraction into your processes.

[00:11:14] Leidy Klotz:
And you know, one simple way to do that, that I've heard groups do is one-in, two-out.

[00:11:19] Adam Grant (VO):
As in -- you want to add something? Fine. But you have to suggest 2 things to subtract. This prompts regular rethinking of old rules and prevents red tape from building up.

[00:11:30] Leidy Klotz:
And it's just a discussion. So, y-you're not saying we should definitely get rid of these things, but it's kind of keeping the system in balance and it's also saying like, look. Leidy's not being a jerk by saying we should stop these two things. He's, he's supposed to do that. That's what he's required to do to propose a new initiative.

[00:11:50] Adam Grant (VO):
Sometimes people resist getting rid of things. But subtraction doesn’t have to be a permanent decision. It can be an experiment–a pilot.

[00:11:58] Leidy Klotz:
It's like, “Oh, well, let's just stop requesting eight letters for our faculty candidates and request three. And we'll see this year if it works and we can always bring it back next year if it doesn't.”

[00:12:11] Adam Grant (VO):
One of my favorite bureaucracy-busting exercises comes from innovation expert Lisa Bodell. It’s called “kill a stupid rule.” Everyone makes their own list of the worst policies and procedures, and then the team votes on which ones to ditch.

[00:12:24] Leidy Klotz:
Oh, that's so good. I mean, it, it gets a little bit at the mindsets. Um, sometimes it's like, there's these activities that we have, but there's also like, oh, this is what our organization is supposed to do, or this is how we're supposed to operate. And I think getting rid of those stupid rules is– is amazing.

[00:12:40] Adam Grant:
Now, w-where I always find this trick is sometimes, sometimes organizations take this too far. So I want to talk a little bit about the dark side of subtraction.

Uh… There's such a thing as harmful subtraction. Uh, I've seen organizations get rid of good policies, but more importantly, good people. So I guess the question is, how do you know when subtraction is good versus bad? And like, how do we get rid of the bad subtraction practices, which is like meta subtraction?

[00:13:09] Leidy Klotz:
So I think it's a little obvious when you say it but it bears saying is that like, really having a clear vision for what you're trying to do, right? What's our goal here? Uh. You know, what's our organizational mission? And that should be the thing that gives you clarity on what can be subtracted and, and what can't be subtracted.

[00:13:09] Adam Grant (VO):
By anchoring in our mission, we can more effectively prune our policies – so that we keep what’s helpful, and get rid of what’s just annoying. Too often, bureaucracies lose sight of the mission… and they end up losing their people. Research shows that around the world, red tape undermines engagement and leads people to think about quitting. My cousin Ryan was so frustrated by hospital bureaucracy that he eventually stopped practicing neurosurgery to become an entrepreneur. He now runs a startup, Vori Health, and he’s all about subtraction.

[00:14:02] Ryan Grant:
So, sort of view the startup world or any company or any corporation like a garden. You have to trim it back every so often. It gets overgrowth. This process was awesome. It's not awesome anymore.

[00:14:16] Adam Grant:
I've often wondered if organizational policies should come with an expiration date on them.

[00:14:21] Ryan Grant:
Yeah, or at least you must review this or maybe write it from scratch.

[00:14:26] Adam Grant:
How bureaucratic would you say Vori is on a zero to 10 scale?

[00:14:30] Ryan Grant:
I would say now that we're a few years old, maybe five.

[00:14:36] Adam Grant:
I'm really surprised to hear you say five as a bureaucracy hater. I was sure you were going to say zero or one.

[00:14:42] Ryan Grant:
Yeah, I would say when we first started, but we have to be a bit bureaucratic because of the, of where we are. Unfortunately, I'm in the healthcare sector, so we have a lot of licensing regulation we have to follow, credentialing regulation. Some of it makes sense, some of it you're like, “That should be updated, that makes no sense anymore.” So–

[00:15:02] Adam Grant:
Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Hold on, Ryan. I, I, I don't think I believe my ears right now. Are you saying that there's such a thing as useful bureaucracy?

[00:15:11] Ryan Grant:
I think so. There is a layer of bureaucracy that can be helpful. Even though it slows innovation, it prevents death. So it's, I think there's a balance. So I would say, yes, there is a degree of usefulness, but it needs to be used wisely.

[00:15:26] Adam Grant (VO):
Okay, so we can't get rid of all bureaucracy -- but can we at least improve it? After the break, you’ll learn from someone who's made changes within the biggest, baddest bureaucracy of them all: the U.S. government.


[00:15:46] Marina Nitze:
I think bureaucracies are neutral, and they're everywhere. We're all in them all the time. You're stuck in them in your workplace, your kid's school, your local zoning rules.

[00:15:55] Adam Grant (VO):
Marina Nitze is an expert in bureaucracy – more specifically, in hacking it. She’s a tech entrepreneur turned government and policy leader. She was the chief technology officer for the US Department of Veteran Affairs, and now works in foster care reform… so she’s seen some of the worst of bureaucracy.
During her time in the government, Marina learned that the precursor to the CIA once produced a field guide to sabotaging organizations.

It was designed to demotivate even the most passionate participants… to the point that they wanted to give up. And their suggested strategies sound a lot like the most irritating parts of a bureaucracy. I went through this list with Marina to get her reactions, starting with technique #1: Insist on doing everything through official channels.

[00:16:41] Marina Nitze:
Yes, right, how many times have we been in that where somebody is questioning your authority to make a decision and we have to go to an official meeting, or have a vote, or submit a proposal, whatever that may be?

[00:16:51] Adam Grant:
Refer to committees.

[00:16:52] Marina Nitze:
Yes, Uh, I think we can all feel that, especially the sub-subcommittee on the subcommittee to organize the subcommittee.

[00:17:00] Adam Grant:
Make speeches.

[00:17:01] Marina Nitze:
Yep. I think we all, especially like, I can think of the, the local town meetings, right? Where somebody gets up and, and orates for 15 minutes.

[00:17:08] Adam Grant:
It's always a man.

[00:17:09] Marina Nitze:
Yeah. Ha ha ha.

[00:17:11] Adam Grant:
Reopen decisions.

[00:17:13] Marina Nitze:
Yeah, and this can go on for forever, right? Especially if you have some sort of a decision-making framework that says, you know, if it's not codified within six months, nine months, or a year or something, you have to go back. You can get caught in an endless loop, which is why so many projects can take so many years longer than it seems like they should.

[00:17:28] Adam Grant:
Advocate for caution.

[00:17:30] Marina Nitze:
Yes, don't–by no means do you want to try a pilot or make a decision early on. You have to have more meetings about it, right?

[00:17:37] Adam Grant (VO):
Marina and her colleague Nick Sinai spent years navigating these bureaucratic headaches in the government and in all different types of organizations. They channeled their experiences into a book called “Hack Your Bureaucracy.”

[00:17:49] Marina Nitze:
We actually tried to find something that wasn't a bureaucracy as we were writing the book. This led us even to, like, a co-op grocery store in Berkeley, California, and it turns out that is also a bureaucracy. So the more that we learn about how to navigate them, the better we'll be off.

[00:18:03] Adam Grant:
I, I'm having a hard time, though, with this idea that bureaucracy could ever be neutral because I've hated it as long as I can remember, and I just want to see less and less of it in any organization I end up working with. Why are you so neutral on it? Like, where, where is your loathing? Where's your hatred?

[00:18:21] Marina Nitze:
So I have loathing and hatred for all the parts of bureaucracies that aren't ma–that aren't working, right? The, the nonsense rules, the extra a-approvals, the, uh, things that you can't get done for seemingly no good reason. But you can't get rid of a bureaucracy.

There is no case in history where someone has blown one up or has successfully gone around it without the bureaucracy then following them with 50 new rules that are stopping anybody else from following along.
So our argument is more if you learn how it works, you can make it work better, and then you don't have to hate it. You may not have to love it, but it's kind of like oxygen. You're going to be in it no matter what, so why not learn how it works to make it work for you?

[00:18:57] Adam Grant (VO):
Marina has long excelled at making bureaucracies work for her.

[00:19:00] Marina Nitze:
I did use the bureaucracy of academia in my favor. Uh, when I was a junior in high school, I read the rule book and realized that I had enough credits to graduate high school entirely. Uh, and I presented that and they said, “Oh, you're right.” And so they gave me my high school diploma, uh, a year early. And then when I went to college, I gave them all my other credits having read through the loopholes, and they let me in as a junior. So I skipped four years of school in one week.

[00:19:24] Adam Grant:

[00:19:25] Marina Nitze:

[00:19:26] Adam Grant (VO):
That’s an example of that rare, helpful bureaucracy–the enabling kind. Marina was able to find rules that created opportunities, instead of thwarting them.

But when she joined the government, she saw that many bureaucracies are more coercive than enabling. And in a behemoth as big as the U.S. government, subtracting wasn’t always effective.

[00:19:46] Marina Nitze:
Especially in the federal government, we noticed there were so many powerhouses of industry that would come in, and they would fail miserably and quickly because their response to the bureaucracy was to try to ignore it or go around it or say that, you know, it didn't have to apply to them.

And that doesn't work. The bureaucracy will withstand. And uh, it also can get stronger in the, in the face of somebody trying to blow it up and trying to go around it. It will put up, you know, 20 new rules. And so I would rather people learn how to effectively hack a bureaucracy so that they don't actually make the bureaucracy worse.

[00:20:17] Adam Grant (VO):
One of Marina’s most successful bureaucracy hacks happened during her time at the VA, in 2016.

[00:20:23] Marina Nitze:
The inspector general who’s sort of like the, uh, auditor of the federal government had found there was a warehouse with 800,000 pending applications from veterans trying to get VA health care.

[00:20:34] Adam Grant:

[00:20:34] Marina Nitze:
And they estimated that a hundred thousand of them had died waiting for us to even get to their application form, which is unforgivable.

[00:20:41] Adam Grant (VO):
The VA's solution at the time was brute force: Mandatory overtime, with more people typing in more information. Marina had a different idea.

[00:20:50] Marina Nitze:
What if we had an online form that we could use that these veterans could apply instead of waiting for the paper? And I was told, oh, no, no veterans don't use the internet. And I was like, “Okay, all 20 million American veterans don't use the internet?!” And they're like, “Yes, we have data. In fact, we have an online healthcare application already, and eight veterans have ever used it, and that must mean that veterans do not use the internet.”

[00:21:11] Adam Grant (VO):
This might sound like a classic fight against bureaucracy. You notice a problem, you suggest a change, and the answer is… no. Or hell no. Marina’s initial response was also relatable.

[00:21:25] Marina Nitze:
And I, uh, frankly approached this a little bit wrong in the, in the first place. I tried emotionally arguing about this topic and I got nowhere because from their perspective, they had data, right? And also they had a crisis to solve, and so fighting with Marina was not going to be very productive.

[00:21:40] Adam Grant (VO):
So her team came up with a different solution. They'd sit with actual veterans and record them trying to navigate the existing website.

[00:21:47] Marina Nitze:
And we met this one gentleman, Dominic.

[00:21:50] Dominic:
I know I've filled out this 1010 EZ so many times, it's, like, ridiculous.

[00:21:55] Marina Nitze:
And he tried and–and failed to apply for VA health care 12 times because the website didn't work and it didn't work in like eight different ways.

[00:22:02] VA:
What are your impressions of this page? What do you think it means?

[00:22:05] Dominic:
This is annoying that you can't use whatever current PDF browser that you have. Like, this is a huge problem. Because some people don't have the finances to upgrade their Adobe.

[00:22:15] Marina Nitze:
And we played this video internally. And it took off like a viral video in the government, of like, “Oh my god. This is what our veterans are experiencing when they're trying to get VA health care?” And that opened the window and I said look, let me do a pilot, just an innocent little pilot. We'll put a form on the internet. Uh, we will let people try and apply for health care through this form.
We gave the form to Dominic and did user testing.

[00:22:36] VA:
So now I want you to take a look at this website, um, and just talk to me about your first impressions.

[00:22:43] Dominic:
Uh, it's very, very much straightforward, which is great, because the other website is like, takes you around the corner and over the meadow and tries to lead you in a back door that's blocked with spikes and IEDs.

[00:22:59] Marina Nitze:
And he declared he would use it over anything the VA had to offer.

[00:23:02] Dominic:
Like, this is super straightforward. Click to enter your name and general information. The other site is not like that.

[00:23:09] Marina Nitze:
And so we launched that form, and since then, two million veterans have used that form to enroll in VA health care. And the other 80 benefits and services from the VA are also available online through our digital front door. Uh, even though, again, veterans don't use the internet, right?

[00:23:27] Adam Grant (VO):
Marina created a better kind of bureaucracy. She made a new form that empowered people. And formalizing it meant that veterans had an easier way to apply for the support they needed. So if you’re ready to hack your bureaucracy, where do you begin? A first step is to become an amateur organizational historian. Find out why this rule was created in the first place– what purpose was it intended to serve?

[00:23:52] Marina Nitze:
Is there a literal legal policy? Is it somebody's vote? You know, what is the thing that's standing in the way? And then what might you be able to do to sway that person or that process or that policy?

[00:24:04] Adam Grant (VO):
Marina did this with the VA healthcare form. They initially resisted her suggestion because they thought veterans didn’t use the internet – but that “why” was based on faulty information. Once Marina showed that the real problem was the shoddy VA website, others got on board with her idea. And that’s the thing – getting people on board requires some maneuvering.

[00:24:25] Marina Nitze:
Beware of problem lists. Like, do not show up with a list of–of problems. Or people will show up like, uh, like they're prepared for a high school debate class.

So, I think you have to understand how your bureaucracy works before you just show up and try to fix it with a petition, or a letter to the editor, or a stump speech.

I mean it's kind of a fun bureaucracy hack when you're looking at the root cause because very often there isn't one, like it's a water cooler rule that nobody ever wrote down, and nobody ever took the time to read, you know, the 28-page bylaws to check.

[00:24:57] Adam Grant (VO):
Asking what problem a rule was meant to solve might come in handy, say, if your resume is rejected because your dates are on the wrong side of the page.

[00:25:07] Marina Nitze:
That's amazing. Uh, what is the resubmit or appeal process for that?

[00:25:12] Adam Grant:
There wasn't one. And his solution was just to protest and refuse and say, if you want me to work here, you need to let this go.

[00:25:20] Marina Nitze:

[00:25:20] Adam Grant:
And eventually, they just bent the rule for him.

[00:25:23] Marina Nitze:
That is amazing. He, if he wants to fix this fundamentally, may want to have some sort of an appeal process or at least give everybody a template.

[00:25:32] Adam Grant (VO):
An appeals process is another great example of enabling bureaucracy – a procedure that actually helps empower people. It’s the opposite of the kinds of coercive rules that reject a signature because the ink is the wrong color.

[00:25:46] Marina Nitze:
Uh, that is a thing that we are fighting in foster care all the time, where there are official state forms that have to be filled out in black and signed in, in blue. So, uh, something that's worked well there is the tactic of going second, which is we point to other states that have a form that does not have the black ink, blue ink requirement.

Um, because often in those cases somebody believes it's a legal requirement. There's some administrative person who doesn't feel empowered to change it and certainly doesn't feel empowered to accept an incorrectly colored signature. So, he might be very well served to go find the root cause of that.

[00:26:20] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I, I guess this is classic social proof. People follow the lead of similar others. If you can find a similar other that provides precedent, it all of a sudden doesn't feel illegitimate anymore.

[00:26:30] Marina Nitze:
Yep, absolutely. There are so many water-cooler rules like that, or the Reader's Digest story of like why the mom was always cutting the end of the roast beef off, and it turns out because her great grandma's pan wasn't big enough. Uh, which is why, like that's a great example of one where it's, like, really worth looking into the why.

Uh, we, we expect too much of people who are, whose jobs are on the line if they don't follow the letter of the rule or the law and, uh, we have to free them up. We can't expect them to go against their job or risk their job to make everybody else's lives easier.

[00:27:01] Adam Grant (VO):
It’s easy to get mad at the messenger – but they may not be the root of the problem. They’re responding to their own set of risks and incentives… and chances are that bending a rule isn’t worth the wrath of their boss.
This brings us to a second fundamental principle for bureaucracy hacking: know your audience.

Research reveals that you’re more likely to get heard when you match your argument to the motives of key stakeholders. That means finding out what’s working for them about the existing rules and policies, and what they’re afraid of losing if they change them.

[00:27:33] Marina Nitze:
Don't try to make the bureaucracy care, because bureaucracies are fundamentally made up of humans who have risk and incentive frameworks, but the bureaucracy itself does not have feelings.

[00:27:42] Adam Grant (VO):
You want it to be a win for the people running the bureaucracy, not just the ones fighting against it.

[00:27:47] Marina Nitze:
You need to understand what the decision-making process is, how each person is going to vote, how they consume information, what their risk and incentives are. Think about it kind of like as a game, right? Where maybe one person wants press, one person wants to be seen as a leader, one person is really afraid of making changes. And if you can understand all of these pieces, you can line it up such that you have a much higher chance of succeeding.

[00:28:09] Adam Grant (VO):
Sometimes this means giving others a chance to weigh in on your ideas early.

[00:28:14] Marina Nitze:
Let's say you want to do a pilot. You want to set your pilot success metrics up front. Because if you wait until after your pilot is done, the naysayers or the people that are afraid of change are going to say like, “Oh, that wasn't that successful, whatever.” X, y, z. But if they get to set upfront the success metrics, it's a lot harder for them to argue with it later when you achieve or you exceed them.

[00:28:32] Adam Grant:
Ah, so you advance your change on their terms.

[00:28:38] Marina Nitze:
Yes, that's a great way to put it. That might be a new chapter in a future book.

[00:28:44] Adam Grant (VO):
The third step in bureaucracy hacking is to find allies.

[00:28:47] Marina Nitze:
So many people feel in an organization that people are hidden around to stop you. They're gonna slow roll your proposal. They're gonna keep money from you. They're gonna keep you from getting the promotion that you want. And I think it's a much healthier approach to say instead, uh, who's hidden around here that might help me? You can find other people around you that have maybe tried to solve the problem before or are similarly interested.

[00:29:10] Adam Grant (VO):
Marina once made use of this when she had to transfer a thousand articles to a new website. She didn't have enough time to do it – but after chatting with some security guards, she realized they did.

[00:29:21] Marina Nitze:
And so we had like a technology class. They helped me crush my deadline. We moved all the articles over. Uh, they all left for IT jobs. So the VA had a brief security guard shortage. Uh, but it really taught me the value of– like, who would have thought that the way I was going to get to launch the redesign was through the security guards, not me.

[00:29:42] Adam Grant (VO):
This also reminded Marina of the value of talking to people outside her usual bubble – which she started to do more intentionally, by making connections across departments.

[00:29:51] Marina Nitze:
We actually came together for something we called the Grilled Cheese Club. Where we maybe broke some fire codes, made grilled cheese in George Foreman grills in the office, and we'd just get together once a month and be like, “Hey, this is what we're planning. What roadblocks do you see?” What perspective do you have from HR, from legal, from janitorial, literally anybody, that might, you know, help us make this a more effective product or help us be more successful later. And, uh, to this day, like, I try to befriend people in all parts of the organization ‘cause you never know, uh, who will be there to help you.

[00:30:21] Adam Grant (VO):
If you understand why processes exist, and who the people are around you, you’ll be better positioned to bust bad bureaucracy. I used to think all bureaucracies should be destroyed. But after digging into the research, I have a more nuanced perspective. Yes, I want to subtract stupid rules. But I also want to replace bad policies with better practices. That means the goal isn’t to eliminate bureaucracy. It’s to improve bureaucracy.

[00:30:52] Marina Nitze:
It is, I think, the only way that you are able to get a number of– more people than can meet in a room, coordinating towards shared goals, uh, and then communicating back, and then potentially growing even internationally.

I mean, I, uh, think bureaucracies that are new to me are opportunities and they're kind of full, rich fields of places where we can set new goals, uncover new data, fix outdated policies and practices. And there's often low-hanging fruit that almost everyone will get excited about changing and get behind.

And if you can find that, uh, and kind of hold in your tendency to, to make the big bang change that you want, if you can find the smaller, gentler, non-controversial things, you can actually earn a ton of political capital that can help you, uh, make the bigger harder changes that you ultimately need.

[00:31:40] Adam Grant (VO):
If you’d like to give us feedback on this episode, please visit my website and download the comments form. It must be printed, filled out by hand, and signed in blue ink. And it can only be submitted on Tuesdays at 4:43 pm.

Next week on WorkLife…

[00:32:11] Belle Ragins:
It's about vulnerability in the relationship. It's about the mentor being able to say, “I am learning. I am not the source of all knowledge and all information.”

[00:32:22] Adam Grant (VO):
We bust myths about mentoring–and figure out how to maximize the benefits to both the mentor and mentee.

This episode was produced by Daphne Chen. Our team includes Courtney Guarino, Constanza Gallardo, Dan O'Donnell, Gretta Cohn, Grace Rubenstein, Daniella Balarezo, Ban Ban Cheng, Michelle Quint, Alejandra Salazar and Roxanne Hai-Lash. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Our show is mixed by Ben Chesneau. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Layton Brown.

Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Studios. For their research, gratitude to: Paul Adler and Bryan Borys on enabling versus coercive bureaucracy; Gabe Adams and colleagues on overlooking subtraction; Wesley Kaufmann and colleagues on organizational rules and employee turnover; Zhou Jiang and colleagues on turnover and red tape; Bob Cialdini on social proof; and Keven Joyal-Desmarais and colleagues on motivation and persuasion.
And thanks to the VA for the clips of Dominic testing the websites.

[00:33:30] Adam Grant:
Right before I logged in, uh, Alison was like, “Where are you going?” I was like, “Oh, I have a podcast recording with Ryan.” She's like, “Your cousin, Ryan?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Tell him I said hi. And also don't act like idiots.”

[00:33:44] Ryan Grant:
Perfect. Well, she knows us well.