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10+ ways to overcome bureaucratic obstacles

Being thwarted by a bureaucratic roadblock can be a huge aggravation. Your task may be simple, but some red tape, regulation, or gatekeeper stands squarely in your path. Calvin Sun offers some advice to help you remove the barriers and get back on track.

Being thwarted by a bureaucratic roadblock can be a huge aggravation. Your task may be simple, but some red tape, regulation, or gatekeeper stands squarely in your path. Calvin Sun offers some advice to help you remove the barriers and get back on track.


Everyone has run into it: bureaucracy that gets in you way and prevents you from achieving your goals. Whether you're trying to find the right technical support person, get a critical software patch, or return an Internet purchase, you will often encounter problems. Here are some tips for dealing with those bureaucratic hurdles.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Pick your battles

Remember the story of the boy who cried "Wolf!"? Eventually, when the wolf did attack, no one came to help the boy. In the same way, make sure that when you take on the bureaucracy, it's really worth it. Must you have a change in the way things are done now? Does it truly make your life or work unbearable? The tips below can help you, but keep in mind that in using them, you are spending political capital. If you can live with the current situation, it might be best to save your battles for truly important things.

2: Determine what you really want

When faced with obstacles or frustration, it's common to focus so much on them that we forget what we really want. Then, when the person in charge asks us, we hesitate and stutter because we haven't thought things through. Think about what you'd want if the bureaucratic obstacles were to be removed. Be as specific as you can, in terms of dates and quantities.

3: Think through your acceptable alternatives

You might not get what you want. That's how life works. So you need to think about what alternatives you could live with. In particular, think about the different "levers" you can pull. Can you change the location where something happens? What about sequence? If the person you want to see is unavailable, could someone else in that department help? If you can't get all of what you want, can you live with some now and some later? If the other side doesn't suggest alternatives, you can suggest them yourself.

4: Don't take things out on the front line person

Getting angry at the service desk or help desk person rarely will accomplish anything. Chances are, they lack any authority to make decisions. That's why they're telling you that the policy is the way it is. Getting angry solves nothing and might only delay a real solution. If you have to be annoyed, be clear that you're not upset at that person but rather at the policy.

5: Find the decision maker

If you want something, you need to find someone who has the authority to make the decision. As noted above, only rarely will that person be on the front line. More commonly, that front line person merely carries out the already established policy and will be reluctant to make exceptions. You will need to find that person's boss, or the boss's boss, who will have the authority to make the decision that's favorable to you.

6: Remember that there's strength in numbers

You have a greater chance of getting what you want if you have allies -- other people who have the same concerns. If all those other people voice the same issues, the other side knows that you're not just some isolated troublemaker.

7: Be clear on your escalation process

If you have trouble with another organization, say within your own company, be clear on how you will escalate an issue. Will you go to your own boss first? Will you approach the other department's boss yourself? In any case, be clear with your boss on this process. If and when you do escalate, think through as much as you can about the issues, why you're escalating, and what you want done.

8: Document the situation

Documenting the situation will help the other side know what's going on. It also shows that you're staying in touch with the situation. Be as specific as you can on names of people, dates, times, and actions that were promised.

9: Respond positively to the "roadblock comments"

Those "We can't do that" or "I don't have the authority" comments drive you crazy, don't they? Here's a way to handle them: Turn them around to a positive question and then ask the other person that question. For instance, a response to "We can't do that" would be "What can you do?" A response to "I don't have the authority" would be "Who does have the authority?" A former co-worker of mine varied the latter question by asking, "Who has the ability to fire you?" While that question follows the principle I outlined, I don't recommend it for general use.

10:  Build up your political capital

You often must call in favors when you need to get things done. Therefore, take time to build up good will and hence political capital with others. Be helpful when you can (while of course keeping your own job as your top priority). Build relationships with others (what the Chinese call guanxi). Those relationships can help you if these other tips don't.

11: Be gracious when you get your way

No matter how frustrating the situation, be gracious if and when you get your way. A "thank you" takes little time and effort, but is a nice touch and can make things easier for you the next time.

12: Remember the serenity prayer

When all else fails, remember the serenity prayer: Ask for courage to change what you can, serenity to accept what you can't, and the wisdom to know the difference.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

4 comments
wfranklin20005
wfranklin20005

Implement as a "Test Case", not a real decision. Works every time, because no one has to take responsibility for the work.

dbecker
dbecker

In these days of crisis or crises, be aware that no one is really listening: The pervasive chaos of dysfunction with restrained resources in a distressed environment and with so many corporations and government agencies participating in massive layoffs, unless it is absolutely essential to risk yourself to save the environment [assuming it is worth saving and you can help save it], it is probably better to lay low, keep your head down, stay out of sight and keep quiet. Instead of the serenity prayer, just tell yourself, "Even this shall pass" and steel yourself as everything gets worse because of all those illegal, immoral, unethical, unwise and downright bad practices of past years come home to roost. Feel blessed to just continue to have food, clothing and shelter -- if it works out that way. Often silence is golden, if you can but exercise due self-control to maintain it and refrain from the Boomer and Generation Whine "Have your say and go your way".

ben
ben

I can reduce these points (all good) down to two rules: 1. Be clear and focused on your objectives; 2. Don't a jerk Within an organization or company, you hit opposition because of different priorities and micro-objectives. Even in the largest organization, we all should have some common goals. When we get angry we often forget what we are trying to get done. Find the mutual overlap, be open to alternatives, and "we can't do that" may turn into "we could do this...". Never make threats. Sure, not everyone abides by rule #2. Get over it, fast. I would never ask "who has the authority to fire you" because I can easily find the answer myself. When you hit that person that just doesn't get it, don't waste your time; politely thank them for their time, and go the the next level; call their boss or better still, skip their boss - find the person in the org chart who has a common interest/goal. For example, if you are a customer service rep trying to get something for your customer, and you can't get an engineering manager to respond becasue he's got his own priorities, find the manager who has responsibility for both sales and engineering. State your problem in terms that matter to their job: If you go to an CEO and say "joe is a jerk and won't give me the patches I need" that won't help, but if you start with "This customer is worth $10M per year and I think we can keep them happy if..." you are talking in terms of his job description.

MWatch
MWatch

Then you can continue to be one of the "Downright Bad Practices" without getting in the way of improvement.

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