Business, governments and individuals can easily become bogged down by procedures and processes that harm efficiency and kill innovation. The obvious solution is to start from scratch. Here’s how to do it.
Years ago, I did a contract with the European Commission in Brussels. The European Commission is an incredible bureaucracy that combines the worst of each of its member states’ bureaucracies. When I got started, one of the people who work there told me, “Jeffrey, one thing you need to understand about the Commission is that procedures here never die. Once in place, they last for ever. And whenever changes need to be made, we do not replace the old procedures. Rather we build new procedures to work around the old procedures. And these just keep piling up. That’s why it so inefficient.”
The sad thing is, this is true in other bureaucracies, established companies and people’s lives. Even nimble innovative start-ups grow up to become established companies with lots of employees, established procedures and, perhaps most importantly, substantial financial as well as emotional investment in those procedures. As a result, the people who run companies become increasingly reluctant to change procedures, especially established procedures. Like the European Commission, it becomes necessary to build new procedures that allow employees to work around existing procedures.
Tax law is another good example of this problem. Most developed countries have horribly convoluted tax laws that require highly trained accountants to file all but the simplest tax forms. This is largely because new tax law tends to get built upon existing tax laws. Whenever an exception is written in, the group that benefits from the exception does not want it removed. So, new legislation needs to be put in place to work around that.
Likewise, many companies have procedures that reduce efficiency and frustrate the people who have to follow them. Convoluted approval processes are a good example of this.
The painfully obvious solution to this problem is to dump everything and start from scratch. Imagine, for instance, if the USA were to shred the 72,000 pages of its federal tax code and rewrite it afresh for simplicity and with the aim of building an innovative, simple tax system with reasonable rates, no exceptions and simple rules. Arguments about increasing or decreasing the tax rates would become irrelevant, the new code could be written to deal with current economic considerations in mind and it should be made dead simple to deal with. The only downside, is it would probably lead to a high unemployment rate among tax specialists. But they are clever people and would doubtless find work elsewhere.
How about your business. What would happen if you trashed every procedure in your company, fired everyone, sold off your property (physical and intellectual) and started afresh? Not possible, you say? No, probably not. And it certainly would be a terrible thing to do to your devoted (or otherwise) employees. But it can make an excellent thought-exercise that will very likely show some incredible opportunities to innovate and change your company for the better.
Take a few people from different parts of your company. Invite a couple of outsiders and find a quiet retreat to perform this exercise. Ideally with the help of a facilitator (you could do worse than me). Together, imagine that you are going to start your business from scratch. How would you do it this time. Remember, do not compare to your existing business (not yet, anyway). Imagine starting from sratch a business that delivers the same value as yours.
Very likely, especially if your business has been around for a few years, the new business you design will be substantially different to the existing business. Now comes the hard part. Determine how you can integrate this new business concept into your existing business. To understand how important this is, ask yourself what would happen if a start-up company where to launch the business you have just conceived, what would be the consequences to your current business. If the answer is “devastating”, then you need to make some serious changes in your business. Because if you do not, someone will launch that start up one day soon. And by then, it may be too late for your company.
You can also restart yourself or your family from scratch. Before I go any further, I will emphasize that I do not want you to abandon your partner (unless he or she is abusive or terrible) and I absolutely and positively forbid you from abandoning your children. So, if you think this is an invitation to dump your loving partner and kids in order to find a sex-pot half your age in order to live a life of debauchery, you are wrong. Your family is part of you.
The best way to restart from scratch on a personal level is to move overseas to a country you do not know well, if at all. This requires you learn about and adapt to a new culture, find new friends, learn your way around a new business,put your children into a new school and so on. You also have to make a lot of choices similar to starting your life afresh. Where do you want to live? In what kind of house? If you have young kids, will you put them in the local school or the international school?
You can also change your behaviour. Your new colleagues and friends to not have existing expectations about how you act, how you respond to things, how you think. You cannot radically change yourself. If you have no sense of humor now, an international move will not change that. But, if you are shy, you can tell yourself that once you have moved, you will make a concerted effort to interact more with people and to be more assertive. Since people in your new environment do not expect you to be shy, it will be easier to behave less shyly around them.
Of course, an international move is not always possible. If you cannot move to a new culture, use your imagination. Imagine you will move to a country far away where no one knows you. If you were to do this. What would you wish to change about yourself? What habits would you like to drop? What characteristics would you like to change?
Now, ask yourself how you can do these things where you are now.
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.