How to Project Manage within a Bureaucracy

28 April, 2014

While preparing for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam, the only knowledge of organisations you require is knowing the difference between functional, matrix and projectised organisations. After that, your PMP course will concern itself entirely with project-related material. So, unwary project managers can find themselves facing into a bureaucracy and not knowing how to cope with it.

The bureaucracy is probably one of the oldest forms of organisation. Its goals are laudable: people get into a bureaucracy on merit, usually by passing stringent exams. Then, in exchange for absolute loyalty, the organisation provides a guaranteed income during your working life and a solid pension in retirement. It has been found that bureaucracies are the most efficient ways of collecting taxes. Indeed, despite all the criticisms levelled at civil servants, when was the last time one was accused of embezzlement?

However, bureaucracies have their drawbacks. Any project manager who wants to work in the public service, or a large multi-national, would profit from reading some of Max Weber’s work. Weber is credited with coining the term bureaucracy, deriving it from bureau or office. Weber’s main criticism of bureaucrats is the “knowledge is power” mentality that makes civil servants difficult to deal with. Civil servants work for politicians, who have no idea how their departments work on a day-to-day basis. Knowing more than their bosses provides civil servants with the perfect environment to run things their own way. Mental images of Sir Humphrey Appleby should be floating in your mind’s eye at this point.

Weber’s writing is reasonably heavy going, so an easier, but no less revealing, book is C. Northcote Parkinson’s famous “Parkinson’s Law”. This is a short book – fewer than 100 pages – and it encapsulates Parkinson’s studies of the British Royal Navy’s administration during and after the First World War. His most startling discovery was that the navy’s fleet of 62 battleships in 1914 required 2,000 admiralty officials and 3,249 dockyard officials and clerks. But after the war (in 1928) when, thanks to sinkings and decommissionings, the fleet was reduced to 20 battleships, the number of admiralty officials had jumped to 3,569 (+78.45%) and the number of dockyard officials and clerks to 4,558 (+40.28%)!

Parkinson’s Law – “Work expands to fill the time allocated for it” – derived from his exploration of why this happened. Essentially, a bureaucracy is like a cancer – it is designed to grow. The reward structure of the civil service encourages this. Your prestige in the organisation is measured by the number of staff you have and size of your budget. Is it any wonder that government departments suffer from bloat?

Another fascinating insight into bureaucracies is the way they always have queues and backlogs. The ironic thing is: the structure of the civil service ensures that increasing the number of staff available to do the work actually slows it down!

Consider a typical example of a busy office. Say you have three people dealing with customer orders and it is clear that there is too much work. The answer is to hire another worker and soon that person is up to speed and can handle 25% of the workload. Now, if someone falls sick, or takes holidays, the office’s capacity drops by 25%, instead of 33%, so an improvement is achieved in all circumstances.

Now compare this with a bureaucracy. The three office workers now do not handle customer orders. Instead, the first worker takes in the order; the second worker processes the order and the third worker dispatches the order. Remember the “knowledge is power” philosophy? This work breakdown structure ensures that only the office supervisor knows the big picture. Now, what happens when this office gets overwhelmed with work?

As in the private sector, we will hire a new employee (or reassign someone from another department). But, instead of training the newcomer in the whole job, the work is re-partitioned so that there are now four components to the work. Once the new member is up to speed, productivity, if anything, will be slightly reduced!

However, where the impact of this bureaucratic structure is really felt is when one member goes on holidays or falls sick. Then, instead of a 25% drop in productivity, the whole assembly line grinds to a halt. Indeed, if worker # 1 is unavailable, the rest of the office might as well go home as well, because their in-trays will soon fall empty and they will have nothing to do. On return, worker # 1 will face an enormous backlog that will take weeks to work through. This leaves us in the weird situation where civil servants are working extremely hard to be less productive.

For a project manager working in these conditions, the “knowledge is power” culture makes for difficult progress. The work breakdown structure becomes critical in these environments – everyone’s responsibility must be clearly defined and a command and control approach is likely to yield the best results. Unfortunately, a bureaucracy will not be able to make too many innovative leaps, or cope well with ambiguity or uncertainty. So agile project management approaches, like Scrum, probably will not work. The expression “risk averse”, recalled from your PMP® training, probably comes to mind.

Although Velopi is not a bureaucracy and our project management training courses will not cover bureaucratic organisations, our experienced project management trainers (PMPs all) will bring the PMP course materials to life with realistic examples and practical hints. For your convenience, we run our project management certification courses in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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