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May-17-2010 16:54printcomments

Satisfying the System

"So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work" - Peter Drucker

George Birmingham
George Birmingham Courtesy:

(CHARLESTON, S.C.) - Patrick Ryan in a column for Smithsonian shares an interesting story about novelist and essayist George A. Birmingham. Birmingham was in his nonliterary life a clergyman in Ireland where he was pestered by bishops and other authorities to fill in recurring questionnaires.

He took particular umbrage against the annual demand from the education office to report the dimensions of his village schoolroom. In the first and second years, he duly filled in the required figures. The third year he replied that the schoolroom was still the same size. The education office badgered him with reminders until Birmingham finally filled in the figures.

This time he doubled the dimensions of his schoolroom. Nobody queried it. So he went on doubling the measurements until “in the course of five or six years that schoolroom became a great deal larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral.” But nobody at the education office was at all concerned.

So, the next year, Birmingham suddenly reduced the dimensions of his colossal classroom “to the size of an American tourist trunk. It would have been impossible to get three children in that schoolroom.” And nobody took the slightest notice, for nobody needed the information. But the system did, and the system had to be satisfied.

Leaders often find themselves in situations like Birmingham in which satisfying the system is part of bureaucratic responsibility. One of the definitions of bureaucracy by the Random House dictionary is “Administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine.” Red tape and routine are the evil twins as seen by most leaders.

How many times have you been frustrated by having to satisfy the system in the organization in which you work? At each turn there is red tape and routine that consumes more of your time than the actual projects you are working on. What is a leader to do? Perhaps these suggestions will give some guidance.

Build a system based upon respect and productivity. Leaders who foster an environment of creativity and efficiency remove the obstacles that hinder progress. This is done not by imposing unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that prevents team members from excelling, but by removing them.

In as much as a leader will remove burdensome obstacles that hinder success, he will lead by example when it comes to developing a system in which accountability and transparency is modeled. At best, systems within your organization should not restrict growth but foster it. Systems must be built on the basis of trust and accountability, anything less breeds frustration and low morale.

Develop your systems from the ground up. Often in the execution of systems within the typical organization, they are developed and executed from a top-down mentality. This top-down mentality, however well-intentioned, is antiquated and ineffective.

When the flow of information, ideas, and procedures are passed down from those far removed from the operation of the organization, it can stagnate growth and potential by a leader out of touch with his organization.

When systems in your organization are developed and executed from the ground upward by those closest to every level of the operation, your chances for success are enhanced by those with the greatest level of understanding. A smart leader will listen and learn from those making it happen for his organization.

While satisfying the system is an important aspect of any organizational structure, having the right systems in place will make it all worthwhile. It must be clear what you are doing and why. Matters of bureaucracy ought to be limited, practical, and helpful. How smooth your organizational system works is a testament to the leader at the helm.

In the end, systems are what you make them and how you execute them. Most importantly, they should be viable in your organization, embraced by all, and a reward for those who follow them.

Doug Dickerson is the former editor of the Berkeley Independent newspaper in South Carolina. Doug’s writing has been recognized by the South Carolina Press Association, having won awards for enterprise reporting, series of articles, and for humor column writing.

Doug’s passion for communicating leadership principles and personal development is crystallized through his Management Moment column and leadership columns he writes. Read more of Doug’s columns on his blog at

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