Bureaucracy vs Brilliance – Is poor culture the problem

Although we’re frustrated with Council’s bureaucracy all year long, the lead up to Christmas really begins to test our patience. Thankfully, a wonderfully crafted article by Jim Bright of the Sydney Morning Herald has let us know we’re not alone in the world. He has perfectly articulated what it’s like to work through Council, but also what it means to be an innovator. Something that we aspire to be at Mt Hobson Group!

Bureaucracy is boring, but a least it’s stable

The article starts by outlining how people don’t ‘do’ brilliance very well. According to Bright most of us would rather ‘be a shepherd on a cat farm’ than recruit someone who is brilliant. This is especially true for Council’s and Government organisations.  Brilliant people tend to innovate. They see processes that can work faster, cheaper and with better outcomes. And for organisations that thrive on stability, common understanding and long standing expectations change can be very scary. If bureaucratic organisations started hiring brilliant thinkers, their safe, stable and predictable workplaces would be thrown out of whack!


And to a degree, that fear is understandable. If your entire organisation functioned due to funding of millions of hard working people, there is a degree of stability you must provide. We don’t want our cities to fall into chaos after all! But there is a difference between small organisational change that improves the day-to-day running of an office, and organisation wide change like moving the front door or no longer allowing people to pay their bills with EFTPOS.

Brilliance doesn’t have to be huge organisational change

Improving the courier delivery process would be a small innovation that would significantly improve things. I have no idea what the current process is, but I can sure tell you it isn’t working. Applications and cheques are being delivered to Council’s front desk but being lost into Council limbo land. It truly mustn’t be so hard to get an application to the desk of the person it is directly addressed to! Alas, that’s bureaucracy for you!

We also had an Auckland Transport manager talk to us about the proposed speed limit reduction.  He started by saying that last year, upon review Auckland Transport could do much better listening and communicating.  That sounded promising until he then told us about how right they were about this new speed reduction initiative such that they wanted to bypass any public consultation and had been to the Government seeking a law change.   So to change a culture is not words, it is actions.  And so far they continue to be missing in action.

Generational conservatism


And we don’t want to diminish the work of a few brilliant people at Council, because they really do exist and they are really fantastic. We work with extremely competent team leaders, planners and policy makers at Council. But they are not the majority. And I think the reason is because on their first day, new planners must feel an expectation to conform to the cultural code of their new workplace. This can be further enforced when managers that are particularly conservative and train new personnel with the same conservative attitude. This results in a new generation of conservative planners. And so the cycle continues.

Cycle of bureaucracy

This is possibly one of the sadder moments for me. Planners who left university starry eyed thinking they will change the world, being reduced to paper shuffling, report writing bureaucrats that rely on their specialists and won’t take an objective stance on planning matters they are meant to be experts in!

Comparatively: sentiments such as “they act without permission” really ring true for me. We at Mt Hobson Group recognise that sometimes things are just easier if you give it a go. If we all went around begging for approval from Council before we did anything nothing would happen. Taking initiative is something that I encourage all MHG staff to do. Pre-empting issues before they happen really helps ensure all of our projects run smoothly.

Growth begs for stability and process

The article goes on to say companies that grow tend to attract bureaucracies. This is one of the major reasons MHG has always remained fairly small. As a company grows the need for processes and structure increases while employee freedom decreases. We also really enjoy how nimble our company is. We can manoeuvre around issues and conflicts in our projects easily.

As I write this however, I can’t help but laugh at myself. The last line of the article really hits the nail on the head: “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull”. This is probably the case with most things I write, including this article.   Christmas is fast approaching.  Have fun and see you all next year for more of the same no doubt.

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