Generally, organisations have a tendency to align, subconsciously or intentionally, functional business processes and bureaucracy together to maintain a sense of management control. Complex organisational hierarchies are often linked to bureaucracy, which is defined as the concentration of administrative power where rules and procedures are precisely defined and monitored. However, diligent employees will always find ways to game the system if they feel bureaucracy is hindering progress of programme and project delivery and success. After all, sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to seek permission.
In Agile, Minimum Viable Bureaucracy (MVB) refers to a way of having just enough process to make things work, but not so much as to make it cumbersome particularly when applied to portfolio, programme and project direction, management and delivery practices. It’s about finding the equilibrium between organisational governance, management control and autonomy – that is, the edge of bureaucracy. It’s about being pragmatic when applying governance so that the fastest route that brings the most value to the customer can be defined. By focusing on the things that matter, organisations apply a minimal focus on bureaucracy in pursuit of the effective management of risk threats to the portfolio, programme and project management.
Minimal viable bureaucracy and good governance occurs when authority to succeed is delegated to the lowest hierarchical level with a lightness of touch to management control. But this does not mean that an undisciplined and relaxed approach is adopted but rather accountability to succeed (and fail fast) remains with the delivery team. Good governance for programmes and projects, regardless if agile is applied, requires a defined structure, ways of working, processes and systems to operate succinctly. As a result, enabling programmes and projects the ability to scale up and down to adapt quickly to an organisation’s changing needs and environment.
With minimal viable bureaucracy, Adam Rose advises to 'focus on heuristics, enabling employees by minimising requirements to only those aspects that add value to programme and project management and delivery. In fact, the value of bureaucracy, or the lack thereof, more importantly can be evaluated by its benefits and costs. To do so, organisations use the following equation to minimise effort while maximising benefit'.
This thinking supports probably one of the most adaptable of the agile manifesto principles to any organisational and environmental condition. That is simplicity - the art of maximising the amount of work not done - is essential. It also the basis for Minimal Viable Product defined in The Lean Startup, 2011 by Eric Ries as the maximum amount of validated learning with the least amount of effort.
Below the Minimal Viable Bureaucracy equation has been disseminated for better understanding and adoption, particularly by senior management. Given proactive and visible senior management commitment is identified repeatedly in industry research as being absolutely essential; work out the process goals and metrics an organisation needs to achieve minimal viable bureaucracy success. Until senior management are ready for this, things will unfortunately remain the same.
N: Refers to the number of people who are required to take action and make a decision. One person accountable for decision making and the fewest people required to take action, the better.
F: Refers to how frequently people need to take action to keep the request current with the original intent. The less often this needs to happen, the better.
E: Refers to how much effort each person needs to fulfil the request. Faster is better.
B: Refers to the value the business will gain from this request. Simon Sinek of Ted Talk fame and author of Start with Why and the creator of the Golden Circle concept advocates that great organisations seem to create their foundation by first addressing Why they exist, then How they go about their mission and then finally, What they do.
D: Refers to the duration that this business value will last. Is this something worth doing that will endure?
But where to start?
This can be done by embracing an agile mindset, culture and behaviours. An agile mindset is about changing organisational behaviours to be more flexible, focused on providing value, innovation, and doing things fast rather than focused on bureaucracy and red tape. Like any organisational transformational change, it takes time and continual top down (senior management), bottom up (delivery teams) and sideways (functional support office) commitment to build up a healthy agile culture across an entire organisation. The core elements of an agile culture that enables minimal viable bureaucracy begins with:
- Building trust and preserving autonomy. It’s about empowerment, reciprocity and a fundamental belief that most people are capable of being trusted to do the right thing even when no one is looking. Organisations need to appreciate this new way of thinking. People need to be true to themselves first and then to their team members and to the broader organisation including senior management. At its core, an important part of imparting trust is to respect people. To give them delegated responsibility to make decisions about their own work. To achieve this, it's important to build portfolio, programme and project direction, management and delivery knowledge and develop people who can think for themselves. People who can think for themselves and are specialists in their field of expertise often need to be empowered to feel respected.
- Effective communication practices. In Agile, effective communication refers to the adoption and practice of face-to-face communication by default to minimise the need for emails and meetings particularly where people are co-located. Where meetings are held, the focus is on decision making and protecting people’s time. Apart from the frustrations that people endure, delayed or misaligned decisions lead to non-valued added waste and high costs, missed new product and business development opportunities and poor long-term strategic investments. People across the entire organisation must ensure information sharing, open communication and healthy feedback to encourage people to share ideas and opinions. Equally important is for people to be receptive to constructive feedback and ready to learn from mistakes.
- Lead by helping others. It’s about a servant leadership and the practices that enable individuals to perform to their potential without hindrance; it builds better teams and ultimately creates a more inclusive organisation. Traditional leadership generally involves the exercise of power by one person, usually part of senior management. The servant leader however shares power, focuses on the needs of others, helps people develop and to perform. Servant leadership delegates authority to the lowest level in the organisational hierarchy. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, resulting in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees. Vastly different from the more traditional command and control, hierarchical style of management, servant leadership empowers a programme/project team to think outside the box, take ownership, and be innovative, while still holding the business to a standard of excellence and ethics.
In summation, minimum viable bureaucracy can be achieved by any organisation willing to adopt a more flexible and less structured governance approach, particularly to enable portfolio, programme and project management and delivery success. In Agile, organisations embrace the fact that things constantly change and decisions need to be made more frequently at the right levels and not necessarily always by senior management. There is often a cultural acceptance that power is based on hierarchy and job title, and not on expert knowledge. Adoption of agile challenges this belief, replacing it with the concept that power should reside with those who know the most. So eliminate excessive bureaucracy by reducing the hierarchy of the organisational structure. An organisation with a number of layers between senior management and delivery teams can slow communications and the flow of information and increase the number of "hands" a decision must pass through before being made.
While Agile promotes the behaviours of collaboration and self-organisation, this does not mean that an undisciplined and relaxed approach is adopted but rather accountability to succeed and fail fast remains with the delegated person or team. Where portfolio, programme and project direction, management and delivery practices and, more importantly, progress is being hindered by excessive governance processes then an organisation should take the opportunity to explore minimal viable bureaucracy to maintain management control and autonomy. Delays in decision making from escalation to governance committees instead of empowered individuals puts at risk the principle of ‘deliver on time’.