Overcoming the 5 major problems of bureaucracy

In this article, we discuss solutions for the five major problems of bureaucracy.

By Rise8


At Rise8, we pair with change agents in the world’s largest bureaucracy and show them how to work within these government organizations to ship war-winning software to extremely important users: warfighters.

Bureaucracies can be found in all kinds of organizations, not just government entities. In fact, bureaucracy and the problems that come with it can even be found in small businesses and teams when the group hits a certain size (hence Amazon’s 2 pizza rule).

In this article, we’ll discuss five major problems with bureaucracies:

  1. Red tape
  2. Conflict
  3. Duplication
  4. Imperialism
  5. Waste

We will:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Give examples of how it affects teams
  3. Give our insights into how to overcome it

We’ll say this again at the end, but it’s important to acknowledge from the outset that we don’t have all the solutions for every problem of bureaucracy (yet). For some of these things, the first thing we can all do is enter into a dialogue about the problem. As they say, the first step is admitting we have a problem.

Know your enemy

When you’re being blocked in your efforts to affect change, it can often feel like the enemy is a person or group of people. While that’s sometimes true, it’s important to first ask “am I being resisted by a person or by a culture?” Sometimes, the person resisting you is, themselves, a victim of bureaucratic culture.

So, before engaging a team member or boss in fisticuffs, take a moment to consider these 5 major problems and assess who/what is the real enemy.

1. Red Tape

Red tape refers to excessive and often unnecessary procedures that are involved in transactions or interactions with an organization. In the field of delivering software for the Department of Defense, we have found red tape to be one of the main things to block the agile development required to ship products where they need to be and do it fast. While an approval process may not be an unnecessary procedure, it’s definitely not conducive to the kind of speed we need to deliver in.

Examples of red tape

  • Processes: Review processes that take months and prevent teams from deploying vital software quickly
  • Acquisitions: Anyone familiar with The Federal Acquisition Regulation (aka: “the FAR”) will know that these thousands of pages of regulations are the reddest of red tape. Thanks to the FAR, commercial companies don’t want to work with the government because it’s too hard. Gatekeepers are often senior contracting officers with a “this is the way we’ve always done it” attitude.

Overcoming red tape

In a similar way to how we help build software through pairing, we also pair with acquisitions people to help implement new processes and overcome red tape.

We know how to work within the constraints of the FAR. We don’t break the rules; we help change agents optimize for them.

When it comes to long review processes preventing the deployment of software, an example of how we helped one customer overcome red tape is an app we were building that had a security review process of at least 3 months. This meant we had to wait longer than optimal to get the app in front of our users.

Successfully overcoming red tape requires knowing how to prioritize time and the right tools to use.

In this case, the right tool was Zoom. Instead of waiting to deploy to AFnet for testing, we set up usability tests on an unclassified demographic with mock data and observed their interactions remotely through Zoom. This got us really close to operational user testing weeks or months before we would have gotten through the red tape in order to do so.

We call this parallel environment testing or preemptive user testing. Having parallel instances of your app on both unclassified and classified networks allows a dev team to continually develop, deploy, and test while they wait for bureaucracy to happen in the background. When approval is eventually granted, everything built up to that point will already be de-risked, validated, and ready for operational use at the classified level.

2. Conflict

Sometimes the goals of various bureaucratic agencies just don’t match up, and they end up working at cross purposes or competing over the same idea. Conflict can also look like different units within an organization disagreeing about a policy, action, or decision.

Examples of conflict

  • A decision is made that affects the budget for a department that does not approve of it.
  • One agricultural service helps farmers learn how to raise crops more efficiently, while another one actually wants to pay them to leave their fields empty.
  • A DoD program saying “We want teams to go fast” while also saying, “you have to navigate multiple organizations to figure out who’s in charge and get no admin privileges”
  • An organization wanting an open-source coding culture while also saying, “we can’t share the code”

Overcoming conflict

In the Elevate phase of our engagement with customers, we help the organization align around outcomes. Ensuring that people are contributing to the overall goals without overlapping one another and creating incentives for collaboration when two organizations need to work together can help to mitigate the possibility of conflict.

3. Duplication

Duplication refers to situations where there are multiple copies or instances of something in an organization. It is where more than one individual or entity may be involved in doing the same work or making decisions about something without any clear coordination between them.

Duplication goes hand-in-hand with conflict and can lead to an increased workload for individuals and organizations as well as frustrating customers who have had their time wasted on different and sometimes conflicting issues.

Examples of duplication

  • There are five different agencies or suppliers that deal with the same issue, but no one is sure which has jurisdiction.
  • One group’s work has been completed and another starts on a similar project, without communication between the two groups.
  • A customer needs to fill out a registration form every time they visit your business and then must provide copies of their ID and proof of address to each department in order to be approved for access.

Overcoming duplication

Because duplication thrives particularly in organizations with silos, open communication across the business can help the left hand know what the right hand is doing.

Successfully overcoming duplication requires a good understanding of policies and procedures as well as knowing who has jurisdiction and knowing where to go for information when there is conflicting data.

An example of how we’ve helped with issues of duplication includes Kessel Run (KR) and Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). ABMS was going to build a design system for Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and KR already had a design system focused on air command and control. To avoid conflict (and waste, which we talk about later), we got everyone to focus and align on outcomes and show how KR’s UI met those goals with no wasted cost, conflict, or duplication. We helped parties see that while there were costs related to sharing a design system, it would pay off down the road.

Another example involving a customer was two separate teams building similar airspace apps. We got the teams together to align on where their roadmaps had overlap and deconflicted that work so it was complementary rather than duplicative.

4. Imperialism

Imperialism happens when one group or organization tries to impose a certain way of thinking, behaving, and believing on another group. This can be done through different means including pressure tactics but it’s most commonly seen in organizations that want to buy out another company or when one country wants to dominate another.

Imperialism is extremely common inside the military services and can result in valuable team members staying silent rather than using their voice. Recently on Linkedin, a soldier who left active duty in the Army due to issues like these put it very well when he said, “We’ve stopped telling the truth to senior leaders. Senior leaders, in turn, have stopped demanding it.”

Examples of imperialism

  • A large organization that buys out a smaller one and tries to impose its own way of doing things on the company.
  • An employer that requires their employees to use certain software without providing any clear benefits for the workers themselves.
  • A country that comes in and offers aid for the people but imposes its own political structure or way of life on them.

Overcoming imperialism

Successfully overcoming imperialism heavily relies on leadership supporting and buying into this idea meritocracy and having the humility and trust to relinquish that level of control downwards.

At Rise8, we’ve discovered a number of ways to overcome imperialism, even in the DoD. The first step is seeking to answer the question of what the opposite of imperialism should look like. We call this idea meritocracy. A mantra we have is that “it’s not who’s right, it’s what’s right”. Regular opportunities to request and give feedback and psychological safety are ingredients that give power to the people.

We’ve found in the DoD that more often than not the majority of the current generation’s software leaders are individuals who have never been part of software at the lowest level (development itself) and so they’re making decisions based on experiences they’ve never had. This makes it hard to empathize or understand “the why” behind idea meritocracy.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a rise in military entities like software factories where stripping away uniforms and rank levels, even for active duty members, levels the playing field for teams. While software factories are a step in the right direction, there are larger factors in DoD culture that also contribute to imperialism and we need to be talking about this regularly.

5. Waste

Waste is anything in the business that does not lead to the desired outcome. Businesses waste money and resources through inefficiencies, underperforming staff members, and poor customer service. Waste can occur for many reasons including time spent due to the inherent problems of the bureaucracy itself.

Examples of waste:

  • Time spent on red tape when there are quicker and more effective ways to get things done.
  • Different teams having overlapping responsibilities, causing duplication without any clear division of responsibility. This creates double the work.
  • In software development, waste happens when money is spent building products that have such poor UX that the users abandon it. In the DoD, it’s harder for users to abandon bad tools and users often don’t have a choice, but there is still waste as a result of poor design. The types of waste we see for users when they are forced to use poorly designed apps is waste of time and cognitive workload. The turnaround time to get a job completed has a downstream effect of how quickly context can be provided to a decision maker – which could be detrimental in a large-scale theater war if a user can’t handle an increased capacity or workload in a shorter amount of time.

Overcoming waste

Well rounded teams are founded on the marriage between user centered design and agile methodologies which heavily mitigates the wasteful activity of developing and deploying software that users don’t use. Without employing user centered design, processes fall apart and nothing works as intended during a wartime scenario.

Successfully overcoming waste requires understanding what the desired outcome is for your business or users and making sure that everything you do supports this. It requires a deep understanding of how things work in your organization so you can make decisions quickly to minimize waste, as well as knowing who has the final say on different issues in order to find someone with whom it’s worth collaborating.

While inviting users into the process can help avoid the waste of designing something poorly, there’s a misconception that a user spending time with the development team is waste in and of itself. We know that it can feel that taking time to do an interview takes away from the time users need to “do the job” so it’s always a challenge balancing time management and convincing a user that this will be more beneficial for them in the long run if/when we build software that replaces their legacy workflow. There is waste when multiple teams are talking to the same user about the same thing and they feel like they are repeating themselves.

At Rise8, we’re still learning. We don’t have all the solutions to every problem of bureaucracy. The most important first step is acknowledging that we have a problem. Our goal is to assess our learnings, test theories, and align on the gaps we want to solve for. Then, refine our perspectives based on what we gain today. We hope some of the solutions mentioned above are helpful in your quest to overcome bureaucracy.

And, as always, if you’re in an organization tasked with delivering war-winning software to users, we’re here to help.