Hacking Bureaucracy: Insights and Strategies for Getting Things Done

Hacking Bureaucracy: Insights and Strategies for Getting Things Done

Hacking Bureaucracy: Insights and Strategies for Getting Things Done is a best-selling book that offers practical advice for navigating and hacking the bureaucratic systems that exist in both big businesses and small organizations.

In this episode, Jason (Jason S Bradshaw) interviews Marina Nitza, one of the co-authors of the book.

Marina shares her experiences working in the federal government and how she discovered that it is possible to make changes and get things done within bureaucratic systems. She discusses various tactics for hacking the bureaucracy, including looking between the silos, being your own customer, and using the bureaucracy against itself.

Marina also emphasizes the importance of owning the process end-to-end, measuring its effectiveness, and creating avenues for feedback. Additionally, she highlights the need for a well-functioning bureaucracy that recognizes decision-making processes and incentives. Finally, Marina explains the role of a crisis engineer and how crises can be leveraged to drive positive change within an organization.

You can get a copy of her book at https://amzn.to/3TGrPzX


[00:00:00] Jason: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the show today. And I’m so excited about the topic that we’re going to be covering. Because if you know one thing about me, it’s that I absolutely hate bureaucracy. Why did we ever think we needed to create all this red tape to get anything done in the world? Well, today’s guest is the co author of a book called Hack Your Bureaucracy.

Get things done no matter what your role on it is. Now, if that hasn’t got you ready to dive into this show, nothing will, but it’s a wonderful book. It’s a best selling book, and we’re so lucky to have one of the co authors with us today. None other than Marina Nitza. Marina, welcome to the show.

[00:00:43] Marina: Thanks so much for having me.

Excited to be here.

[00:00:45] Jason: Now, uh, thank you for writing this book. I think bureaucracy needs to go in the garbage , but we can never get rid of it. And so giving us the tools to, to hack it, to be able to get stuff done is remarkable. , what led you to write the book?

[00:01:02] Marina: So I used to work in the federal government here in the United States.

And as did my coauthor, Nick, he was actually my first boss, uh, in the government. And I came into, That, which is right, one of the largest worst bureaucracies in the world. imagining that it was impossible to make change, that everything would take a million years. And I was really surprised to look around and discover that I was wrong.

And I was surrounded by people who were making pretty monumental changes at a relatively fast clip. And I wanted to understand more about how that worked. And they were very open about their strategies, but they were very specific tactics that I had not really been familiar with. And so then I tried using them myself when I went on to become the chief technology officer of our Department of Veterans Affairs, which is our largest federal agency after the Defense Department.

And they kept working. And then I kept learning from other people that were getting stuff done, and it kept working. And so Nick and I had a list that we would literally share with our new hires of tactics that could work. Uh, and that’s what ultimately came to this book. And then in the course of writing the book, we tried it in a variety of additional environments.

So it’s worked in, you know, the highest echelons of the American government. It’s also worked at condo associations. It’s also worked at schools. It’s also worked in hospitals and small workplaces. So it’s really these tactics. They don’t all work all the time, but one of them should work in any given situation.

[00:02:23] Jason: That’s what I love about the book is that it’s practical application in any industry. I too have had a stint in government and I think the external view is that governments are slow, they’re bureaucratic and change. It’s a word you talk about, not something that you do, but it is absolutely possible, uh, as you, as you attest to, to, to make changes at pace within government, you, you, you just have to know how to, to hack the bureaucracy to use your terms.

So, um, I’m wondering what’s your favorite bureaucracy hack, hacking tactic?

[00:02:59] Marina: Yeah, so 56 in the book, but, um, I would say my favorite, which I continue to use all day, every day in my current life. Is looking between the silos. So I think we’re all probably familiar with, you know, a bureaucracy of any size. It starts getting siloed teams, siloed decision makers, siloed departments, and those siloed teams, it almost feels like they have sentries posted on the outside that are there to defend against anybody coming in and looking around and trying to make change.

Uh, and often I’ve seen people fail pretty explosively because they go right at the heart of the problem, right at the team that’s in charge. And again, that team is well defended and they know how to stop your changes. But the handoffs between the teams. are where there is often rich opportunity space that is completely undefended and, and not understood at all.

And so what I really encourage is whatever space you’re in, commercial, public sector, nonprofit, um, take a process that you’re frustrated with. And follow it in incredible detail from start to finish. If it’s an application form, if it’s a sale, if it’s a complaint process, right? And, and don’t do this abstractly.

You want to really follow a real person or a claim or an application through. And in the course of doing that, you’re going to see the different handoffs between the silos. And that’s where you might have a bunch of aha moments. Again, I feel like I do just about every day. And I People consider this to be almost my, like, secret professional weapon in my day now where I’m a crisis engineer, but I’m telling you freely, this is the same thing that I do everywhere, which is follow the process and then look at the handoffs, because you may find incredible opportunities to make changes or transformations or delete steps or add steps, um, with almost no resistance.

And I’ll tell one quick story here. So I was helping, uh, one of the states in the United States streamline the way they were licensing foster parents. And to do this, it took hundreds of days to finish this process. And during those hundreds of days, there were kids, babies that were sleeping on the floor of the office.

waiting for their grandparent or their aunt or their uncle to get through this paperwork process. So very, very high stakes and, you know, people were very reticent to make change because change could mean, you know, safety issues or lawsuits. It’s very, very scary. So I followed this, a real application all the way through start to finish.

It went to the mail room. I went to the mail room, it went to a fax machine. I went to the other side of the fax machine. And at one point it took me to this woman’s desk and her job was to request That grandparent’s driving record from the state. And she complained about this step to me the whole time.

Oh my god, Marina. This, the driving department, they live in like the twen the 19th century. It’s like they have a horse and buggy. They’re making me fill out carbon copy forms, like the paper that you press really hard on and the multiple layers. I have to mail it in the mail. I have to use a stamp. Like what is, this is awful.

I, I hate this. And I did what that woman was not empowered to do, but which I encourage everybody listening to do, which is I went to the driving records department and I said, show me how you’re fulfilling this request. And the woman there was like, Oh, no problem. I pull up my electronic system. I click here and here, and I send it back within about an hour.

And I was like, well, wait a minute, where does the carbon copy paper fit in? And she was like, Oh my God, were you at child welfare? Those people live in the 19th century. They keep sending me this carbon copy form. When they could be emailing it me like the rest of everybody else. So I immediately introduced these two women and within one hour, we had shaved 32 days off the process of becoming a foster parent because we eliminated this carbon copy step in the mail, et cetera.

And, and you may be shocked to find how many things like that are happening all the time because nobody’s job is to own the end to end process. Everybody’s job is to own the parts inside their silo. So really encourage you to my favorite one all the time, just cause it’s such a rich source of change and opportunity is.

Looking between the silos,

[00:06:52] Jason: it’s, uh, it’s phenomenal to think that you can shave 32 days off the process simply by walking the steps out and asking the obvious question around. Why are you doing what you’re doing in the step or where in this example, you shared that frustration where they were both calling each other as if they were from the 1920s, which is hilarious, but really amplifies that The power of just taking the time.

I think that’s the other thing, right? You mentioned not everyone owns the end to end process. Um, in your example, the individual wasn’t empowered to go and ask the other side, what are they doing with it? Um, yet Taking that step back and, and seeing what happens at each step makes, uh, makes all the difference.

I, I love that, uh, there are so many examples in the book that are along those lines where, especially coming from the customer space, especially be your own customer. How does that help you, uh, unlock bureaucracy to get things done, do you think?

[00:08:02] Marina: Yeah. So trying and being your own customer, uh, or like the show undercover boss where someone is going out and trying to consume your product and consume your service, and obviously depending on your industry, this can be harder or easier.

You know, if you’re a doctor, you can’t really show up in your own emergency room pretending to have appendicitis or something, but there’s lots of different ways that you can try. It can really open your eyes to what your customer’s experience is in ways that you can improve it. You can reduce time, you can remove friction.

And I think a combination of being your own customer and then of talking to your customers. Um, and I am not as much a fan of like super structured focus groups and surveys as I am of simply going out and talking to people. Um, and under getting their feedback, watching them actually go through a process, fill out a form, complete a sale, you know, submit a comment, whatever they’re trying to do, uh, and observing and then finding ways that it may be sped up.

And when you combine that with looking between the silos and understanding all the process that goes on later, you may be able to eliminate a bunch of steps entirely or change what they look like and make that customer experience that much better, that much more loyal, um, that much cheaper, whatever the incentives are that you have.

Um, with this understanding that just way too many people don’t have, it can be free. You can go, you know, when I was chief technology officer of the VA, I would literally sit on a bench at hospitals and talk to people. Um, you know, it takes time of course, but it doesn’t require, uh, a lot of skills or a lot of planning or a lot of expense to find a, a really a treasure trove of insights.

[00:09:35] Jason: Uh, well, other than your time. It’s potentially free, especially if the customers are at your website and, uh, the, the skill of a conversation isn’t a difficult one. Yeah. And you can just ask a question and be that curious two year old ask why, and then go from there. So I absolutely love that. Now, uh, in the, one of the things that hit me about your book, when I first picked it up was, uh, when I say picked it up, the digital copy, but was, uh, the.

I’m going to say the content, it goes over two or three pages, maybe even on to four pages because there’s, you’ve, you’ve logically grouped everything and there is just so many different ways to hack the bureaucracy. So, uh, I really don’t care which industry you’re in. I can guarantee that this book can help you.

Um, it’s a phenomenal work, but I’m just wondering out of all of the. The different ideas that you share. What’s the most difficult to implement?

[00:10:40] Marina: Yeah. So the most difficult one, uh, for me and what I’ve observed in other people is you can’t try to make the bureaucracy care. Um, and I see a lot of people fail on this because ultimately bureaucracies are entirely made of humans.

But bureaucracies are not human, and they can’t respond to emotional arguments or pleas, and by this I really mean, you know, let’s say that you’re trying to get approval for something, for a change, or for an order to go through, or a budget, or whatever it may be, there is a formal process in your bureaucracy, and it might be painful, and it might be long, and it may be nonsensical at times, but there is a process to fill it out, and that process probably does not include, emotions, Or even, and this is sort of a stark way to look at bureaucracy, but it’s really been my experience, it often doesn’t take into account the end impact at all.

So, you know, I used to work at, at our, uh, veterans department, and then I’ve done a lot of work in foster care as well. And you see people make a lot of emotional pleas that, hey, if I can’t get this tool, or I can’t get this funding, this many children will be homeless. This many veterans will not have access to health care.

These are very important, critical arguments, but they don’t fill out the boxes on the approval form. And so when you are facing something, when you’re arguing with it or legal or budget. That you’re trying to make your case, uh, I discourage folks from making the emotional heartfelt kind of high school debate argument as much as ask the questions about what they need to make the approval or the decision, get the form, get the approval, get the policy language, and then spend your energy and your emotions filling that out.

Exactly. If you need to answer, like, ridiculous, truly ridiculous questions about it security in order to get a spreadsheet so that a bunch of kids in foster care are not homeless. Fill out the spreadsheet with a bunch of questions. Like, don’t try to talk your way past it or around it because there is, there is no way through a bureaucracy with emotional arguments.

The way through the bureaucracy is the bureaucracy.

[00:12:34] Jason: Yeah. And I think in the moment, it’s easy for us to get caught up with the emotional side of things, especially when you’re working in a high stake environments where individuals lives are being impacted. But if we can go a bit further, what I’m hearing is.

Do the bureaucracy work, the bureaucracy and then after you’ve got whatever it might be, the system, the approval for whatever, um, then look at how you can have conversations to improve the efficiency of the bureaucracy as opposed to trying to make it care.

[00:13:11] Marina: Absolutely that. Um, and that’s where the talking to users, trying to be your own customer that might unveil the tools.

Or the policy changes that you need to solve the problem. But then again, uh, the emotional, the way to get the approval is the approval form. And we call this tactic, it’s sort of a meta tactic in the book, which is using the bureaucracy against itself. Um, bureaucracies are fundamentally made up of policies and rules and procedures and guides.

And way too often we see people with the best of intentions trying to skirt all of it. I’m going to go around it, I’m going to go under it. I’m going to, you know, ignore this rule this one time that works sometimes exactly once and then the bureaucracy will spring up 10 new rules and forms and guidelines to keep it from ever happening again.

And so what really works better is write a new policy codifies what you want to do, update people’s job descriptions so that their job is to do the thing that you want them to do, change the, the metrics for promotion bone and like, and bonuses and, and, um, step upgrades. So that the people are literally incentivized to do the new behavior that you want them to do and when you do that it feels slower.

It can be frustrating, but then it takes the next person, you know, 30 years and 10 times as much work to undo your change. Whereas if you just go around the bureaucracy and you try to use some duct tape spaghetti again, it might work once, but nobody will be able to follow in your path.

[00:14:34] Jason: If you can’t, uh, if you can’t beat them, join them in other words.

Uh, so one thing that I didn’t mention, uh, at the, at the head of the top of the show was, shall we say your day job? Uh, and, and you mentioned it very briefly, uh, earlier in the episode, but today you’re a crisis engineer. Now what is a crisis engineer?

[00:15:01] Marina: Yeah. So crisis engineering is when we come into an organization that is experiencing a crisis.

It could be. Uh, all the computer systems are down. It could be, uh, your chief financial officer just quit and took all the passwords with them. It could be you’re, you’re on the front page of the newspaper for a new, new crisis. We want to get you out of the crisis and get you stronger emerging from it. So whatever the cause was like, let’s fix the problem, but let’s not bandaid it or duct tape it.

Let’s create some, uh, use, you know, one of the tactics in the book is don’t waste a crisis. And this was really just kind of perma crisis engineering is, ah, there’s a crisis, there is a moment of there’s a window where we will have access to funds or resources or changing the policy in a way that we will not in potentially even as soon as tomorrow.

How do we maximize that window so that we make changes that will prevent the next crisis from ever happening?

[00:15:54] Jason: I love that use the use the crisis to drive a wedge in that bureaucracy to change the bureaucracy. So. That hopefully you avoid the crisis ever happening again, but also that you build us build back a better, stronger organization on that.

The crisis isn’t, isn’t wasted. I love that. I’ve done a little. I’ve had the privilege of working a lot of companies during crisis, which sounds counterintuitive, but you definitely learn a lot about a whole pile of things, including yourself during a crisis. So I think that would be great. Such an interesting role that you have as a crisis engineer working with companies that have some of their most difficult times on makes perfect sense that you tie that back into the bureaucracy and how the bureaucracy led to the crisis happening on how it can help the company change the bureaucracy.

So I’m wondering whether in your experience, the bureaucracy is limited to big business and large. Government organizations or does bureaucracy creep into some of the, some of the smaller businesses out there as well?

[00:17:02] Marina: Yeah, we’ve actually gotten this question a lot as we’ve done book tour, and in the course of writing the book, Nick and I tried to find organizations that were not bureaucracies.

Uh, and this even led us to interviewing, like, a grocery store and a pizza parlor and different places. And, uh, we couldn’t find anything that wasn’t a bureaucracy. And actually, right now, with my godson and reading a series of dragon young adult fiction called Wings of Fire, And the dragons in young adult fiction have bureaucracy too.

So I’ve been sending screenshots of how their, their paperwork processes in this dragon, dragon land. Um, and so, but you can be a well functioning bureaucracy and that’s really, you know, our perspective. Bureaucracy is kind of like oxygen and gravity. Uh, it’s there and you can dislike oxygen all you want, but we still need it to breathe.

But you can be a really well functioning bureaucracy if you recognize that you are a bureaucracy. So you have to recognize that you have Decision making processes that people have risk and incentive frameworks and that fundamentally your organization is incentivizing certain behaviors and disincentivizing others.

And if you have, for example, looking between the silos at a well functioning bureaucracy is something that happens all the time, and it shouldn’t surface enormous treasure chests. of insights because they’re doing it so often that what it would rather be finding are like small minor things that you can catch and tweak up front.

A well functioning bureaucracy has people that own end to end processes and understand them and even measure them. And it’s one that’s very self aware about how it makes decisions. Um, even, you know, very small firms, startups with two or three people, you have bureaucracies, you have decision making processes.

They just might be the three of us get together over a beer on Friday and talk it out. That’s a process and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that process, but that can’t be the process when you’re 20 or 25 people, because it won’t scale. And so kind of just assuming things will work themselves out, which I see a lot of people do as they grow their companies, I think does not work nearly as much as.

Kind of acknowledging the elephant in the room and then designing the bureaucracy that you want for your company and your culture.

[00:19:07] Jason: So if you’re designing a bureaucracy and I doubt most of us think of that term when we’re designing at our processes and systems and scaling our business. But one of the, one of the hints that you gave us just a moment ago was have people own the process end to end, measure the process.

For its effectiveness and hold them accountable to that effectiveness, which I guess in one way means that at least you’re not going to have the situation where someone’s filling out a form in triplicate and sending it via the post, although the mail service would love the business. What’s something else that I can do though?

You know, I’m scaling my business. I’m scaling my team. I’m setting up a new team with inside an organization. I’ve got this opportunity to do things differently. I acknowledge that there’s got to be a way of working a bureaucracy, if you will. Um, I can have people accountable and own processes end to end, but what’s a couple of other things that I should be on the lookout when I’m building this fresh new entity or scaling it.

[00:20:12] Marina: Yep. I think you need to make sure that there are real avenues to receive feedback and that people see feedback being received and acknowledged. If not, you can’t always act on it, right? But, uh, I’m not talking about a suggestion box or an online form where people submit things and they kind of go to die.

And I’m not, some companies too, they have like a An innovation box where you said you, you know, sign up for a prize and you try to add an efficiency. I think that that makes it seem tertiary as opposed to a core part of your business that you are, you want to be a well functioning organization. Um, another, this may seem slightly counterintuitive, but I think you need to.

Uh, actively model being a safe place to fail. One of the taxes we talk about is defining your success metrics up front. So something that I see happen constantly in, uh, ineffective bureaucracy is somebody has a pilot. They have an idea for something that they want to do to make a change. They believe fervently in this change will make things better.

They do the pilot. And then the naysayers hung out in the shadows and they come out after the pilot and they say, Oh, your pilot actually failed because it didn’t take into account this, this thing, or like, you only had 10, 000, an n of 10, 000. And really to be statistically significant, you need an end of a hundred thousand.

And so we suggest defining success metrics upfront, which is to say, I’m going to do a pilot. And if I get 10, 000 people, you know, to recommend the service at the end of the pilot, it’s going to move forward. And that, so everybody gets a chance to weigh in on that up front. And also, here are, here’s our baseline metrics.

If we don’t even get a hundred users, we’re going to close up shop in November. And seeing people model that with behavior and then act on it means that you can create a culture where people try changes, they measure them, and then they don’t live forever, which is not something that you necessarily want every pilot to do.

[00:22:00] Jason: Wow. Yeah, that makes it make so much sense. Uh, and looking at it through this lens makes it so much easier. I think that’s the other challenge that people could fall into is they build something and then they try to reverse engineer to achieve a functioning organization as opposed to coming from it from the beginning.

Marina, it’s been absolutely excellent chatting to you today and getting to understand this hacking, uh, the bureaucracy, the, the fantastic book. Now in the show notes, we’re going to leave details on how people can follow your work and of course get a copy of the book, but I think also on your website, you have a free resource for our listeners.

[00:22:41] Marina: Yeah, there’s a, uh, if you go to hackyourbureaucracy. com, we have a bunch of extra strategies and tactics from the book, including a download of the appendix, which is the list of all the tactics if you need kind of a cheat sheet for hacking your next bureaucratic challenge.

[00:22:57] Jason: Fantastic. Well, of course, we’ll make sure that we link to that in the show notes as well.

But before I let you go today, what’s one piece of advice that one thing our audience members can do as soon as they finish watching or listening today. To really help them navigate their bureaucracy more effectively and to get things done faster.

[00:23:15] Marina: Yeah, this was actually advice I was given early on when I joined the government and I didn’t take, and I should have.

Which is, you’ve got to go and have lunch or coffee or, you know, some other sort of social engagement with a bunch of people in your organization that have nothing to do with your current team or department or mission. Um, we call this cultivating the caress in the book. Um, because if you’ve read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

He coined the term carass, which is to mean, uh, people hidden around the planet, uh, who are designed to accomplish a goal together. And so we love to think about, like, in your organization, rather than thinking that there are people hidden around to slow roll you, to block you from getting resources, to tattle on you.

What if there are people hidden around to help you that you just don’t realize? And in my case, some of the most valuable carass members I’ve ever had are in extremely unexpected places, like, The security guards at VA are how I ultimately got, uh, multi, multi millions of dollars of IT budget. Uh, or getting help from the executive secretary pool, who you may not realize often are the people that have the most power in any organization.

Um, and we just, you know, uh, it could be people in legal, in compliance, in, uh, engineering, whatever, something that’s, that’s well outside your comfort zone. And that can just help you understand more about other areas of your organization. help you think about problems that you’re having in different ways.

And then they might be able to help you troubleshoot. They may have resources or tools or experience that apply in ways you may not realize. And so going out, grabbing a cup of coffee with a few colleagues that you don’t know that are well outside your kind of zone is, is the great way to start hacking your bureaucracy.

[00:24:56] Jason: Fantastic way to end the show. And a great reminder to create. You create connection with people just outside of your immediate sphere of influence and day to day work. Marina, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks so much for giving your time and sharing your thoughts with us today.

[00:25:12] Marina: Thanks so much for having me.

[00:25:14] Jason: And to you, the audience, thank you so much. If you’ve enjoyed this show, please give us five stars. Importantly, share it with a colleague or a friend. And most importantly, do one thing from today’s episode to help you get things done faster and beat bureaucracy.

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