Battling Bureaucracy — How to stay nimble, by doing less.

May 16, 2023
9 min read
Photo by john crozier on Unsplash
“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”
— Laurence J. Peter

Large organizations are afflicted with largeness.

Largeness has outsized benefits. Economies of scale, where buying in bulk saves bucks. Or market power,  where you are the 800lb gorilla in the room. It allows organizations to diversify, with eggs distributed among multiple baskets and smoothed out revenue flows. Brand recognition comes with largeness, the familiar—and safe—face in a crowded room. 

It’s not quite too big to fail, but it’s close.

Largeness brings access to capital—money and investors seek you out, not the other way around. Brand recognition has a halo effect, and talent is attracted to you. For many industries, largeness comes with network effects, a self-reinforcing flywheel as more people buy and use your stuff.

Large is great. But there’s a “but.” Another “B” word.


It’s fear of the dark side that makes big companies want to act small. Jim Gerace, Chief Communications Officer of Verizon, first penned its Credo, a document of Verizon’s culture. It contains a passage designed to keep largeness at bay. 

“We know that bigness is not our strength, best is our strength. Bureaucracy is an enemy. We fight every day to stay "small" and keep bureaucracy out.”

Large companies seek an antidote to largeness.

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and Alphabet, declared a “Simplicity Sprint,” asking employees to think about “how we can minimize distractions and really raise the bar on both product excellence and productivity.”

It’s a constant fight against inertia.

When Michael Miebach became the CEO of Mastercard, he declared “moving fast” as one of the three pillars of the Mastercard way.

But largeness and speed require work.

Are you suffering from largeness?

Largeness, aka big thinking, aka bureaucracy, has roots in optimism.  

The Big Gulp-size, Market Power, Brand Recognition, Economies of Scale flavored Kool-aid has been guzzled. Largeness means organizations try to do too much. What would be a quick decision in a small organization is pondered, analyzed, sent up the chain, and considered for input.

Multiple people with hands in multiple pies.

Projects get layered on top of projects. Work expands to occupy time and team. Groupthink expands to even bigger groups. Goals are proudly ambitious. Too much is put on the “to-do” list. As a result, the pace of projects shifts from agile to inexorable. 

Sufferers of largeness look on in envy at smaller, nimbler businesses and skunkworks teams who can move things along at a rapid pace.

Why do the gears of business grind so slowly? 

Largeness gets in the way of change.

Would you cook your next meal without cleaning the counter?

Would you leave pots boiling from lunch while you start to make dinner? Leave pans to soak while you’re washing vegetables in the same sink? You would not, I hope. You would clear the decks. Clean the kitchen. Give yourself some room.

But large organizations don’t do that. They take on too much. It’s difficult to do [the new thing] because we’re still working on the old thing.

Overthinking doesn’t help. That one-page decision-making framework turned into a 40-page user guide. Rules and procedures designed to deal with the main use case, as well as the rainy-day, once in a blue moon, it’ll never happen again use case.

Or the (true story) internal training guide describing a new product. Guide length: sixty-two pages. The opening description of the product on page three: “intuitive and easy-to-use.” 😢

I don’t think they know what intuitive means.

How do we get faster?

Two words. Neither of which you will like.

Do less.

Start-ups know this. They might want to change the world, but they don’t have world-changing resources. A focus on minimum viable product and outsourcing non-core activities are ways of doing less.

Athletes know this, where rest days and reducing training volume result in performance gains.

Engineers know this. It’s why they apply principles of lean manufacturing, minimizing waste, and continuous improvement.

But when it comes to big business, largeness sets in.

Lean becomes less lean. A previously good idea is enterprised, scaled, and “for large organizations.”

Agile becomes SAFe (scaled agile framework). Growth Hacking morphs into Enterprise Growth Hacking. 

How can you do your part?

If you’re mentally checking the bureaucracy box, thinking perhaps, your team, organization, or business doesn’t move fast enough, look in the mirror.

Here are nine ways you can change your own behavior, guard against the lesser demons of largeness, and hack your—and your team's—productivity.

Seek flow in your day.

Flow is a state of mind where you are completely absorbed, and time seems to fly. This leads to increased productivity, creativity, and enjoyment in your work. 

To achieve it, set aside time on your calendar. Cut out meetings. Focus on tasks that are challenging but not impossible, with clear goals and deadlines. Eliminate anything that will hijack your brain—open tabs, message alerts, a growling stomach—and other distractions.

Find flow.

Obsess over operational discipline.

Think about how you and your team work.

Now think about how you and your team can work faster. Take time to review workflows, eliminate bottlenecks, and reduce unnecessary steps. Is that meeting necessary? Do you need to review that item? Who can be removed from the process? It may seem tedious, but it will pay off in the long run with increased efficiency and better results.

Execute. Build a routine of Do something-Declare victory and Move on. Push decision-making and autonomy down. Encourage your team to take ownership of their work and trust their judgment. This will increase speed, build agility and boost engagement.

Build patterns.

Before you can build patterns, you have to be aware of them.

A pattern isn’t a template. They’re like a dressmaker’s pattern or a cake recipe. Something repeatable that you know leads to a good result. In work, they come in two flavors; patterns that influence behavior and patterns that lead to better output.

A “why it’s good” meeting is a pattern of behavior. You run them as and when needed to look at work. Not to negatively critique the work, but to look at what worked. This is so you can identify a work pattern and repeat it. In fassforward’s design team, we look at work from adjacent disciplines to understand why it’s good and how that can be applied to our own work.

An output pattern could be a standard for how you produce something that will be used in your day-to-day work. It could be a use case, a creative brief, a customer journey, or any number of artifacts. The first time the team builds one or upgrades one, you want to be heavily involved, as it sets the pattern. 

Once you have patterns, people know what good looks like and have a recipe to follow.

Build your communication muscle.

This is the storytelling, concrete language, and message discipline that every leader, big ‘L’ or little ‘l,’ must practice.

You might set out to be a data-driven organization, but you have to tell stories with data and cut through the noise.

Work to outcomes.

Set goals, yes, but create work around outcomes.

Make those outcomes clear and concrete, yet evergreen. That allows people the autonomy to set their own goals and figure out how to get there. It creates alignment without micro-management and frees creativity without excess oversight.



Outcomes are something to strive towards. They are clear, concrete, evergreen, and freely shared.

Goals may be F.A.S.T. or S.M.A.R.T, with  targets to hit, specific, measurable, and usually timebound.

Put a smile on every customer's face

Increase NPS score by 5 points

Give our employees a reason to want to run to work

Improve to a customer engagement score of 80% or higher

Build minimum lovable products, not minimum viable ones

Bring project Athena to market in Q3.

When they write the book on collaboration, they write about us

Increase the number of cross-functional projects by 50% within the next year

Anchor your team to outcomes. Work together to set and meet goals.

Join the translation team, not the audit committee.

Just like ogres and onions, bureaucracies have layers. People inhabit those layers. People who check-in, see the email before it goes out and weigh in on the PowerPoint slide.

Checking in itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s how it’s done that puts the snarl in largeness. Those people that add to the snarl are auditing. They look for fault as a way to weigh in. “The font is too small.” Or, “Change this word...” 

Why are you doing that? (If you do).

If it’s because you’re in the chain of command, and this has to go to your boss, check yourself. You are on the audit committee. If it’s because everyone else has weighed in, so you think you should, too, then stop.

Weigh in to teach people how to do it better, to improve work, and to create patterns. Weigh in because you are helping others do the work, or the work gets done better or faster. If that’s what you do, you are on the translation team.

The team to root for, obviously, is the translation team.

This is where you look at the email, document, or slide and think, “How do I translate that?” or “How do I get my team energized around this?” translation is about making it relevant, interesting, and driving action.

Set Simple rules.

Say no to complicated.

Simple rules are an antidote to a complex world. Donald N. Sull, a Management Professor at MIT, and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, an Engineering Professor at Stanford, introduced the idea in their book of the same name. 

Unironically, the idea is simple.

Simple rules are concise, easy-to-follow guidelines that help you make better decisions in complex and uncertain situations. They codify how to act when you come across a known pattern.

The "two pizza rule" is a simple rule popularized by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. If a team can't be fed with two pizzas, it's too big. This rule helps keep teams small, which can improve communication, decision-making, and innovation.

Eat the frog is a rule that dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. He didn’t call it that. His rule—do it now—was a politer version of the same thing. Do the difficult work, the work you would like to put off, early in your day while you have the time, creativity, and energy.

Simple rules are a way to translate strategy and shape culture. They make it easy for people to decide what to do.

Use AI to juice your working routines. 

You have heard a lot about AI.

You will hear more and more in the years to come. Like many of us, I am learning along with you. What I strongly suspect—but don’t know to be true—is this. Experts that learn how to use AI to enhance their work will produce better work and produce it quickly. You are using it in many ways already, from the auto-complete in your text messages, to the fraud detection protecting your bank account.

If you haven’t started figuring out how to bring ChatGPT into your life, start now. 

Are you ready to let go of largeness?

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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