10 Steps to Take Action and Eliminate Bureaucracy

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” – Leonardo da Vinci

By Leo Babauta

I’ve worked in a few offices where the paperwork, endless meetings, and other bureaucracy was ridiculous — so much so that the actual productive work being done was sometimes outweighed by the bureaucratic steps that needed to be taken each day.

When the focus is on action instead of bureaucracy, things get done.

I’ve worked for both private businesses and government agencies, and let me tell you, both require too much paperwork, too many steps to get things done, too much reporting, too many meetings, too much planning and too much training. Each of these things is usually management’s answer to a problem, but they add more problems, including a tendency to slow things down and get less done.

A better answer than adding extra steps and meetings to a workday is to focus on action. Create a culture of action and hire people who get things done. Eliminate as much bureaucracy as possible and get things moving.

Today we’ll look at some good ways to do that, based on my experience both as a worker and a manager. Believe me, I know the tendency to throw training and meetings and reporting and planning at a problem, but I also know how frustrating that can be for an employee who just wants to get the work done as effectively as possible. Why am I sitting in on another meeting when I could be getting work done? Why am I filling out more paperwork instead of actually doing the work?

Here are some ideas to get to the action and cut out the bureaucracy:

1. Know what you want to get done. Often bureaucracy happens when people focus on processes and forget about what the end result should be. Where are you trying to go? Find the shortest route to get there, rather than making things complicated. Visualize your desired result, and keep the focus on that.

2. Know your priorities. Keep in mind the most important work your company or organization does. It almost certainly isn’t paperwork or meetings (with a few exceptions, possibly). Of course, if you’re going to have a meeting with a potential client in order to sign him up, that’s probably a priority. But for many employees, the real work will be something else: writing code, writing articles, designing, making calls, crunching numbers, etc. Know the important work, and focus on that.

3. Eliminate paperwork whenever possible. How many forms does your company have? Much of that uses the same information. Can a simple computer program or online form be used instead, so people don’t have to fill out paperwork but can just fill in an online form where the basic information is stored and re-used so it doesn’t have to be re-entered? Often using a computer program (online or off) will also automate things so paperwork isn’t needed. Or just eliminate the paperwork altogether if it’s possible — sometimes it’s just better to take action without having to fill in things.

4. Cut out processes. Are there steps and approvals and work that people have to do that can be eliminated altogether? Keep an eye out for these processes and eliminate when possible. Every time someone is doing something routine, ask whether it’s really necessary, or if can be reduced or eliminated. Can several steps be cut out to make things quicker? Often the answer is a resounding “yes”.

5. Empower people. Often a manager becomes a bottleneck, requiring his approval before anything can get done. Worse yet is when approval is needed several times along the way, meaning it has to be bounced back and forth a bunch of times. Better: give people clear instructions about how to handle things and when approval is authorized, and allow them to handle it. Monitor things closely at first to ensure that they know how to follow the instructions, then give them more room to work independently and just report to you every now and then. Make sure the instruction include the circumstances when they need to alert you to any major problems.

6. Don’t put off decisions. Worse than a manager becoming a bottleneck is a bottleneck where decisions are delayed and things pile up. When a decision is required, try to make it quickly. Make sure you have all necessary info, know what criteria you’re using to make the decision, and then make the decision immediately. The longer you wait the worse the problems become. Indecision is the enemy of action.

7. Have the information you need ready. If you don’t have information, you can’t make decisions properly. This is often the reason people put off decisions, but they don’t always realize it. As a result, they sit on a decision for awhile. Instead, go and get the info you need so you can make the decision immediately. Better yet, have the information sent to you beforehand, so you have everything you need to make the decision when it’s time. Figure out what information is needed for your regular decisions and have it regularly on hand.

8. Keep “Action” at your forefront. Put up a sign on your desk that says “Action”. Make this your mentality throughout the day. When you are putting something off, remind yourself to take action. When you have a bunch of steps you have to do, remind yourself that eliminating steps leads to taking action sooner. When you’re in a regularly scheduled meeting (like, every day), ask yourself if this is preventing action.

9. Look for action-oriented people. When hiring or selecting a team, look for people who get things done. This can be seen in their track record. Give them a trial and see if they tend to focus on actions and decision, or processes and paperwork. Action-oriented people will get things done more effectively.

10. Reward action. Reward team members as well as yourself for action taken. Rewards could be as simple as praise or as big as a promotion or a bonus to the most action-oriented employees. These rewards tell your company or organization — or yourself — that action is a top priority.

“Action is eloquence.” – William Shakespeare