How to Innovate in a Bureaucracy

How do you innovate in a bureaucracy?

How do you innovate in a bureaucracy?

I was recently chatting with a fellow PM—a rare treat for an extrovert serving in what can sometimes be a lonely profession—about the merits of different project management techniques. If you talk to an agile practitioner, you may leave the conversation convinced that traditional, or waterfall, project management is insufferably stodgy and uptight. How can you get anything done, let alone innovate, if you have to move that slowly? Conversely, if you talk to a waterfall enthusiast, you’ll think agile is simply the latest management fad. Agile practitioners can’t even be bothered to sit down when they talk to each other—instead, they kind of wish for self-organization but do nothing to further that cause.

Of course, things are rarely so black and white in reality. As the other PM and I concluded, when you’re operating in any environment larger than a startup, the company will inevitably have some processes in place that ensure things don’t run amok. The question becomes: how do you successfully navigate such an environment to get results? How do you innovate in a bureaucracy?

Don’t call it a bureaucracy. Or, if you do, don’t assume bureaucracies are bad

While I’ve worked for small think tanks, non-profits, and volunteer organizations, I’ve spent most of my career with large companies and clients. The reason these large companies still exist is because they offer a great product or service or support a mission that lots of people can get behind. If these companies hadn’t learned to scale, they wouldn’t be able to continue providing that service. So, the idea that bigger doesn’t equal better is misleading. While bigger companies understandably have bigger processes, they also have access to resources that can let you accomplish some pretty amazing things. You just may need to be a little more creative about how to execute in these environments. Case in point: an aspiring PM I’m mentoring is struggling with the relative ambiguity of HR-defined career tracks outlining the path to promotion. The reason for the ambiguity is to protect the company, yes. Too clearly defined, and they’d have a crisis on their hands. But, if you think about it from another angle, the ambiguity also makes it possible for you to fit your own accomplishments within the confines of those little boxes. Is it perfect? No, but perfection is rare. Before you go about learning how to beat the system, lose the attitude.

Respect the rules

The next idea to abandon is the notion that you are trying to start a revolution. If you want to do that, I suggest finding something micro that you can start from scratch. Maybe it’s a startup-like unit within a big company or a charity project you do in your spare time. If you’re working for a big company, you’re not going to overthrow its practices. Like most things in life, you’ll want to focus on making incremental changes that can further your cause. This is especially important to remember early in your career, when you may want things to happen overnight. I’m not saying you should give up. On the contrary. Just remember that your big company or client has rules in place for a reason. They’re there to keep you from making a costly mistake. If you don’t understand the reason for a rule, ask the question. But, don’t spend your time trying to resist the rules for the sake of doing so. You’ll go crazy. Instead, figure out how to work within the confines of those rules or to push the boundaries of those rules to achieve the results you desire.

Push the envelope

If you find out that you’re not allowed to do something based on X policy or Y precedent, but you want to achieve Z result, engage the appropriate team—operations, legal, HR, your boss, whatever the case may be—and explain to them what you’re trying to achieve. Acknowledge any constraints, and respectfully outline what you’d like to do. Don’t think of your internal staff or your leadership chain as obstacles. Think of them as what they are—allies. They are there to: 1) save your ass and 2) advise you on how you can do your best work for the company and/or the client. Don’t just accept the flat no without convening a call to discuss the options. And, yes, this should be a call. You don’t want email traffic to make it seem like you’re trying to subvert the rules. People will be much more willing to explore options in a phone conversation.

Engage your network

Remember that random person you met in orientation who works in facilities? Or the finance POC that the Help Desk routed you to that knew their stuff cold? Relationships are fundamental to succeeding as a project manager, particularly in a large organization, where the way to get things done often involves effecting change at the grassroots level. One of the factors that distinguishes a good manager from an inspiring leader is the ability to cultivate—and maintain—strong relationships. For your part, be responsive to incoming requests and pay it forward to keep that good karma coming your way.