A Radical Cure for Bureausclerosis

What corporations can learn from a novel approach to dramatically scale back government red tape.

A Radical Cure for Bureausclerosis

What corporations can learn from a novel approach to dramatically scale back government red tape.

When working with large organizations, I often come across examples of the steady buildup of "bureaucratic plaque." Bold ideas get suffocated in the thickets of process. Market opportunities are missed as decision cycles grind to a crawl. Employees spend more time navigating layers of approvals than delighting customers.

The costs of bureausclerosis are significant, even if accounting systems don't capture them. Our Bureaucratic Mass Index survey provides a partial picture. The 16,000 respondents who took the survey report spending ~30% of their time on bureaucratic chores such as writing reports, documenting compliance, and interacting with staff functions. A significant portion of this work is deemed to be of little or no value. For example, barely a third of respondents judge budgeting, goal setting, and performance reviews to be “very valuable.” In large organizations, three quarters of respondents say burdensome rules "significantly" or "substantially" slow down decision making.

This bureaucratic buildup is driven by a web of reinforcing factors. Corporate staff groups justify their existence by generating ever-more elaborate policies, which rarely have a sunset clause. Captive customers can't refuse these internal monopolies, so power accumulates at the top and center. Every new crisis begets a new CxO, head office unit, and thicker policy book. These soon become permanent fixtures.

Traditional approaches to reversing this buildup have a mixed record (at best). One-off "simplification" efforts, often led by individual departments like Finance or IT, tend to nibble around the edges. What's more, the functional heads driving these initiatives are often inherently conflicted. The Vice President of Risk or Head of Compliance is unlikely to slash the bundle of rules their own team devised.

A New Approach to Regulatory Rollback

To generate deep and lasting impact, organizations need a fundamentally different model–one that harnesses the collective insight of those closest to the customer, takes a hard-nosed systemic view, and creates real accountability for meaningful action.

That's where a promising proposal from the world of government comes in. Michael Mandel and Diana Carew of the Progressive Policy Institute have called for an independent Regulatory Improvement Commission (RIC) to streamline the vast accumulation of federal rules in the U.S. Inspired by the successful Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process used by the U.S. military to consolidate unneeded bases at the end of the Cold War, the RIC would have the power to cut through bureaucratic inertia. The BRAC succeeded by convening an independent body that could make politically difficult choices, bundle them into a comprehensive package, and put the slate to Congress for a single up-or-down vote, with no amendments allowed. This structure bound the hands of congresspeople so they'd do what was right for the country and but not necessarily for their constituents, bypassing the special interests that would have stymied reform.

Mandel and Carew argue this same model could be used to tackle the buildup of regulatory sludge across government agencies. The RIC would gather input from citizens and businesses on the most onerous rules, identify the highest-impact reforms, and develop a holistic package to streamline federal red tape. As with the BRAC, Congress would have to give vote on the entire bundle.

How This Might Work in a Company

Now imagine adopting this concept into a large corporation. Picture a Bureaucracy Busting Commission (BBC) charged with taking an uncompromising look at bureaucratic burden, developing a comprehensive reform agenda, and submitting its recommendations for an up-or-down vote by the executive team. How might it play out in practice? Here's a hypothetical scenario:

The CEO charters the BBC and appoints members known for independent thinking, practical knowledge, and willingness to upend the status quo. To signal its boundary-spanning remit, "commissioners" are drawn from all corners of the organization. Membership is overweighted with people who have perspectives and expertise that aren’t typically represented in executive discussions (and are more likely to be on the receiving end of stifling rules and processes).

The BBC launches a six-month fact-finding mission to pinpoint the biggest barriers to speed and responsiveness, blending hard data with raw grassroots intel, and harnessing the power of AI to accelerate and improve sense-making. This could encompass efforts like…

  • A "Red Tape Rodeo" that crowdsources examples of the most head-bangingly pointless rules. Employees submit everything from 10-tab Excel templates to bans on holiday decorations in the office. Includes prizes for flagging the most egregious examples of bureaucratic lunacy.
  • A "Speed Bump Dashboard" that captures all the niggling paperwork and approvals that slow work to a crawl. Every time an employee hears "let me sync with Procurement first" or "we need signoff from 3 VPs", they log the delay. These "Time Taxes" are aggregated to quantify the organizational Slowness Quotient.
  • A "Process MRI" that takes a real customer request like a product enhancement and tracks it through the system to identify every point where it gets blocked, delayed, or watered down by the bureaucracy. The elapsed time and number of touches is visualized in a Gantt chart of woe. A "Touch-to-Task Ratio" captures the number of approvals per actual deliverable.
  • A "Methodology Maze" that catalogues the hundreds of processes, frameworks and taxonomies in use across the company. It estimates the training hours to gain proficiency in each, and graphs perceived usefulness over time.
  • A "Meeting Meter" that analyzes calendar metadata to calculate the aggregate person-hours spent in recurring sessions, estimating the salary cost of each.

Armed with these insights, the BBC sifts through the data to identify the most pervasive and problematic bureaucratic blockages that cut across the organization. They then spend the next three to six months working hand-in-hand with subject matter experts to trace the history and underlying logic of the most vexing rules, approval processes, mandatory procedures, and compliance requirements. The goal is three-fold: First, to zero-in on the glaring excesses that can be safely eliminated without putting the business at risk. Second, to clearly identify the non-negotiable constraints that cannot be changed due to legal, regulatory, or other immovable factors. And third, to creatively reimagine the remaining controls in a way that achieves the original intent, but with an alternative approach that is radically streamlined and friendly to agility and innovation.

The BBC then develops a comprehensive package of bureaucracy-busting reforms. Picture, for instance, suggestions like:

  1. Radically Simplify Policies and Increase Autonomy:
  • A "One Policy Page" rule prohibiting any internal policy from exceeding a single page, with a maximum of 7 bullet points. Anything longer automatically sunsets in 6 months. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
  • Replacing primary sign-offs and approvals with "Process Passports" - employees are pre-authorized to execute certain decision flows without additional permission. The BBC identifies the 20 highest-frequency workflows where control can be safely pushed to the edge.
  • Eliminating any rule that requires employees to get permission for judgment calls that don't expose the company to material risk. If it can't result in ethics breaches, regulatory violations or brand damage, it doesn't get an approval tollbooth.

2. Streamline Core Processes:

  • Replacing granular line-item budgets with flexible "Opportunity Funds" that let teams quickly reallocate dollars to the highest-impact areas. Category-level limits are adjusted based on real-time needs, not yearly entitlements.
  • Radically streamlining the hiring process, replacing the gauntlet of multiple sequential interviews and endless panel debates with a "2-Thumbs-Up" approach. Two trusted colleagues give the green light, and the recruiter handles the rest. The goal is to slash time-to-hire by 75%.
  • Liberating teams to issue their own purchase orders, without approval from centralized procurement. The catch? All expenses are transparently published for everyone to see. Peer accountability and the power of transparency keep spending in check, without the red tape.

3. Drastically Reduce Low-Value Work & Compliance:

  • Instituting a "5 Slide Rule" for all non-Quarterly Business Review decks. By constraining presentations to 5 well-structured slides, the BBC forces radical simplification and shifts the focus to real discussion vs. regurgitation. All existing decks are put on a 5-slide diet, no exceptions.
  • Instituting a "Pick One To Prune" challenge - for every new process, taxonomy or review committee added, the owner must eliminate one of equal heft. An "Organization Closet Cleanout" sheds the deadwood in bulk.
  • All managers must allocate one day per month to serving customers directly in the field. No substitutes, no excuses. A "Frontline Feedback" system has them log the dumbest obstacles they encounter in delivering value. This input shapes each leader's personal targets.

The Moment of Truth

The ultimate test of leadership's commitment to real reform comes when the BBC blueprint is put to a vote by the organization’s leadership team. During an executive session, live streamed to the entire company, the full slate of bureaucracy-busting proposals is presented for a simple up-or-down decision. No backroom deals, no last-minute carve-outs. This all-or-nothing approach is deliberately designed to be a forcing function. It puts leaders' feet to the fire, making it impossible to shrink from the tough trade-offs required to unshackle the organization. Backing the blueprint means publicly committing to a new way of working. Rejecting it means openly defending the status quo. There's no room for half-measures or hedging.

I can imagine some executives feeling apprehensive at this point. "We're not prepared for such a drastic shift," or "It's too risky." These concerns are understandable. But consider the alternative risk: the risk of not changing fast enough. The risk of allowing your organization to slowly calcify, while more nimble competitors seize the future. The risk of watching your best talent walk out the door, frustrated by the barriers to making a real impact.

Yes, bold initiatives like a Bureaucracy Busting Commission require courage. But in my experience, it's a courage that pays off tenfold. Leaders who embrace this approach often find that by letting go of the illusion of control, they gain something far more powerful: an organization that is agile, creative, and filled with passion. In other words, an organization with a fundamental competitive advantage.