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The Delicate Art of Bureaucracy

book cover image and link to amazon

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. As evidenced by my reading list, I find Mark Schwartz's insights into this field to be quite valuable, and his latest work is no exception.

Schwartz recounts his experience as CTO for a large government agency. His anecdotes about the crippling bureaucracy are enough to make even the most ardent defender of complex procedures shudder. The sheer size of some documents he navigated is astounding. This experience informs his discussion of three "ways" to manage bureaucracy:

The Monkey

Inspired by the classic Chinese tale of the Monkey King, Schwartz outlines a strategy of provoking the bureaucracy to analyze its reactions. This approach, favored by scientists studying complex ecosystems, involves introducing a change and carefully observing the response.

The Razor

Schwartz demonstrates how documents, meetings, and similar tools can "cut away" bureaucratic obstacles. He notably crafted a new, official-sounding document that effectively nullified his obligation to adhere to a 5,000-page procedural guide. Auditors readily accepted this approach, allowing for significant progress.

The Sumo

This method involves head-on persistence until the obstacle yields. Put less delicately:

bang your head against the wall until the wall moves

Unfortunately, I'm familiar with this approach when dealing with cumbersome legacy processes. Our progress in the Software Factory has heavily relied on the Sumo tactic.

Overall, I found this book insightful. It clarifies both the origins of bureaucracy and effective strategies to combat it.

bureaucracy before and after being tamed