Nothing can stop it!
If those three phrases seem oddly familiar, it’s because they were used to advertise The Blob. The Blob, for those who were never eaten by it, was a campy 1950s horror movie in which a quivering mass of protoplasm crashes to Earth in a meteor. Meteors have few amenities and are not known for their food service. In short, a meteor is not the most comfortable way to travel, so it is not a big surprise that when the Blob gets out it starts absorbing everyone in sight. Despite the best efforts of our heroes, as the movie progresses, the Blob also progresses from a tiny gray lump to a giant red Blob capable of engulfing small buildings in a single bound. Fortunately for the world, our heroes figure out that the Blob does not like the cold, and they are able to freeze it solid using fire extinguishers. At the end of the movie, the Blob is flown off to the Arctic, where it will remain so long as the ice never melts.
All in all, the Blob is a fun movie, although it is probably considerably less enjoyable to be living in the town being eaten by the Blob. Thus, it is odd that people voluntarily choose to create blobs that then eat them. I am not talking about giant red Blobs from outer space, of course, but rather the giant mass of red tape that devours so many businesses. Although bureaucracy is not the Latin word for “giant tangled ball of red tape,” there are times when it might as well be!
All right, it’s no big shocker that bureaucracies and red tape go together. But how does the red tape come about? And what can you do about it once your organization is being devoured by a giant red blob? Fire extinguishers, sadly, do not work in this situation. Fortunately, understanding how that blob gets started can help you figure out how to deal with it.
At a very basic level, red tape exists to make people feel safe. All the procedures and processes of the organization exist to prevent mistakes. Mistakes, after all, are very, very bad. They could lead to a lower grade and might go on your permanent record. More to the point, they might cost the company money or actually make you look bad in front of your boss.
But wait, this seems counterintuitive. Doesn’t a lot of red tape cause people to make more mistakes? Well, yes, it does, in a phenomenon aptly demonstrated by a company that I will refer to as ShrinkWrap. At ShrinkWrap, management was so afraid that people would make mistakes that they instituted elaborate paperwork requirements to make sure that every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed. The paperwork was so complex that it inevitably led to errors, which convinced management to add checklists, or meta-paperwork, to make sure the paperwork was done correctly. Think of it as kind of like a pearl: Something irritates the oyster, so it surrounds the irritant with nacre. This, of course, makes a larger irritant, so it adds more nacre, until eventually we have a pearl. Red tape works much the same way, except that in the end all we have is a giant red Blob.
The issue here is that the longer a business exists, the more time there is for something to go wrong. Sometimes these mistakes represent serious problems that need to be prevented. Sometimes, they are the normal cost of doing business or of trying out new ideas. Innovation, for example, is an activity filled with mistakes. It’s that old, but true, line about a thousand ways to not make a light bulb. Unfortunately, telling the difference between different kinds of mistakes can be challenging. Understanding which types of mistakes must be prevented and which ones only help feed the Blob is not always simple. The net result is that they all feed the Blob.
However, on the bright side, dealing with the Blob really only requires recognizing that it exists. Unlike the actual Blob, bureaucracies are famously slow-moving — red tape is sticky. The reason it is sticky is that it provides people with a sense of security. No one can be blamed for following procedure, even if following procedure means that nothing gets done. The trick, therefore, to getting things done or getting new ideas accepted is not to rush people; rushing people only makes them dig in their heels. Instead, ask how you can make it easy for them to do what you want. How can you allay their fears and make them feel safe as they grease the wheels?
It can help considerably to take the time to hear their concerns. What are they afraid of? What’s really bothering them about your ideas? Much of the time, it’s simply that the idea is new. Help people become familiar with your idea: when it’s no longer feeling quite so new, it’s easier to accept. Take the time to ask them questions about how the status quo is getting in their way. Let them tell you what’s wrong, and then ask them for suggestions on how to improve the situation. Your goal, simply put, is to ask the questions that will let them have your way. Do it right, and they’ll end up volunteering to cut through the red tape for you and then trying to convince you that your idea is good enough to run with.
In other words, you can’t defeat the Blob, but you can get the Blob to defeat itself. It’s less exciting than in the movie, but a whole lot more effective.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development and Organizational Psychology for Managers. He is also a contributing author to Volume 1 of Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play. For more information, or to sign up for Steve's monthly newsletter, visit 7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.