Bureaucrat: How Startups Scale

Business people at meeting table work with documents and financial data together

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?
  • How can we scale?
  • How can we reduce risks?
  • How can we pass Government and Regulatory audits?
  • How can we know what everybody should be doing?

All growing organizations converge on a singular common solution to these questions—create and follow a plan.
Plans don’t exist for efficiency or effectiveness. They exist to reign in chaos. They exist to coordinate the growing staff and choreograph their work

Plans become the central tool for understanding what is to be done, when, and by whom. Plans exist to coordinating the activity of larger and larger groups of people. The process which naturally emerges when plans are executed on a large scale is Bureaucrat.

Bureaucrat is anti-hero, actively seeking out and destroying heroic tendencies. “Follow the plan” and “do as your told” become the new operating parameters. Autonomy is squashed.

Bureaucrat actively roots out the undisciplined and risky Hero practices to create a more predictable process. The transition begins with someone writing down a set of standards, rules, and policies for creating and following plans and asking all of the staff to follow them.

Over time rules beget rules and policies beget policies. Every problem is solved with a new rule or policy, and entire departments are dedicated to the task of creating, tracking, and enforcing them. Years may be spent building plans.

Bureaucrat builds a hierarchical control structure, creates detailed plans in advance, defines standards to execute the plans, assigns people to work the plans, requires permission to modify the plans, and carefully audits and report progress of the plans.

Individualistic heroes are no longer celebrated. Instead a more placid and traditional workforce is hired. Respectfulness, agreeableness, and loyalty become the new organizational values.

The Bureaucrat process may not be as glamorous as Hero, but it is dramatically more comforting to most leaders. For thousands of years it has been the process organizations adopt once they grow beyond a few hundred people.

Bureaucrat exists because Hero doesn’t scale.

In addition, although heroes are loath to admit it, they frequently fail. Heroes are wrong, a lot, and for every significant Hero success story there are many more failures.

We read about Ford, FedEx, and Facebook yet forget the thousands of heroic startup failures that occur every day.

Venture capitalists may accept an extremely high failure rate if somewhere in their portfolio there is just one Facebook. Most business leaders, however, are forced to deliver their results more reliably—they are forced by success toward Bureaucrat.

Bureaucrat exists because it allows organizations to create quality products and services at scale. Bureaucrat exists because it works.

Bureaucrat Process Model

Why do we work this way? We got big
How do we get better decisions? More detailed plans
Who makes the decisions? Management

What reduces risk? Rules, policies, & controls

TL;DR The Bureaucrat process successfully coordinates large groups of people by replacing intuitive heroes with detailed up front planning, hierarchical control structures, standards, rules, and controls.

Virtually every organization initially leverages the same process to get off the ground. The process is simple: "Get-er-Done" Find people with passion, motivation, years of experience, and strong intuitive insights and give them the autonomy and the resources to succeed. We call this process Hero. Hero frequently is the only…
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…

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