Hero vs. Bureaucrat: Process Pong

The original pong.

Why can’t organizations settle on a process?

Bureaucrat worked extremely well for large organizations from time immemorial up to the end of the 20th century. Although the complexity lion makes it very difficult to build good plans, in a slower moving world we can take the planning time required and successfully deliver solutions with bureaucratic process.

However, something significant has changed and Bureaucrat, for the first time in recorded human history, is seriously struggling. What changed?

The invention of the transistor and the microchip.

These have resulted in an unprecedented and explosive dissemination and  growth of knowledge and technology. The modern high-tech world is changing everything, and it is happening too fast for Bureaucrat. A great plan last month may be only a good plan this month. And next month? It may be a bad plan.

Each day that passes between when a plan is drawn up and when it is executed the probability increases that significant portions of the plan have become obsolete. In no field is this more dramatic than high-tech itself, but high-tech is now devouring every field.

IT researcher Capers Jones says software projects should expect requirements to change between 1 to 3% per month. Take a moment to think about what 3% change a month means for a project as short as twelve months. Change really is a 21st century Tiger!

The more we plan without executing, the more likely portions of the plan may need to change by the time we get to implementing them. Long-term detailed plans in many organizations are becoming liabilities.

Large organization are faced with the realization they can no longer change fast enough. The Bureaucrat process is beginning to crack.

So what do they do?

Usually, they look for their smartest people, put them together in a room, remove most of their rules and policies, and hope the new team solves the problem faster. “What we really need is to ‘get-er-done,’” they say. They may even give this place a special name like the Accelerated Development Lab .

In other words, they go back toward Hero.

The following cycle soon forms:

One year they announce “The Year of Accelerated Development,”
The next year “The Year of Quality.”
The following, “The Year of Time to Market.”
Then, “The Year of Six Sigma.”

Hero toward Bureaucrat toward Hero toward Bureaucrat, ad nauseum.


We call this process Pong.

Have Heroic approaches proven risky and unpredictable? Add back in more careful planning and rigor, and announce “The year of quality.” Is quality slowing you down? Focus the next year on getting products out the door faster by bonusing “revolutionary delivery” and “time to market.” “Revolutionary delivery” introducing too many problem? Train everyone on Six Sigma.

Each time the pong ball bounces the organization’s leadership convinces themselves they are making rational changes. Usually they reward themselves with bonuses each time they hit the new and improved targets.

Why can’t organizations settle on a process? Because none of the standard solutions which have served us so well for over two thousand years meet the needs of operating in the 21st century.

We need a better way.

As small organizations grow they discover a terrifying new reality. Five uncoordinated heroes doing whatever it takes to get things done can be exhilarating. Five hundred heroes doing the same thing is a nightmare. The need for structure becomes painfully apparent. Organizations ask themselves: How can we reliably reproduce results?…
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Organizations both large and small are keenly aware of the challenges created by wickedly complex problems and the accelerated rate of technological change. Our largest and most successful corporations are continually experimenting with new process frameworks to foster innovation and restructure operations. Most of our large software technology clients execute…

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