Saturday, October 3, 2009

Stick with your ends

Everybody I know that works at a large company decries the bureaucracy that inhibits progress. And yet it continues. The system has a life of its own. It wants. It needs. It is jealous. And it protects its own interests by torturing and killing anyone who threatens its continuity.

Let's remember how it all started. Someone had an idea. A way to help people and earn money for it. At some point he needed help. So he got some of his buddies to join him. They worked together. They had some success. The rented office space. They got a few phones and some chairs. They printed business cards. They had some more success. They hired a few more people. At some point, someone asked for their policy on bringing dogs to work. Someone else wanted to know whether they had a company holiday on Arbor Day. So they realized they needed policies. They created an HR department and hired Lucinda the HR lady. They hired a law firm to review their HR policies. They indeed decided to hold a company holiday on Arbor Day and they instituted the annual company 'visit the local forest and bang drums' event.

And so it went. One day, the founders woke up and realized they had a culture. They had an organization. It had rules. There were forms to fill out. In quadruplicate. Their efficiency consultant told them quadruplicate was 327% more effective than triplicate. Oh, they had an efficiency consultant.

And when they beheld what they had wrought, they realized it sucked. People were doing things not because they were the right things to do. Not because they would advance the company, generate the greatest benefit for its customers or community. Employees - oh yeah, now they were called employees - did things because that's just the way it was done around there. The system was in control. Not reason. Not passion. Not the human soul and its constant yearning to improve itself and its environment. No, the system was hegemon.

But wait, we're just a couple of buddies with a great idea. We wanted to help people and make some money doing what we love. We are thinkers. We are entrepreneurial. We're against everything that the "system" stands for!

No. You are the system.

We build these systems because they provide a benefit. It actually isn't smart not to know the right way to do something. Society would not advance if we didn't figure things out and keep improving. And yeah, we do need Lucinda the HR lady.

But these are all means. They are tools for translating our passion into success on a bigger scale. If we just want to make 10 widgets per year by hand and sell them at local craft fairs, we don't need a system. But if we want to expand, we do. The danger lies in letting the means become ends to themselves. And this is the natural way for things to develop. We must fight this. The means cannot be allowed to exert their own sense of destiny to become ends. As long as the benefits they deliver outweigh their costs, they should be allowed to survive. But we must be constantly vigilant to insure we always keep their natural lust for power in check.

Otherwise we will wake up and realize that we serve the system rather than ensuring that the system serves us.

No comments: