My Secrets for Infiltrating the Bureaucracy

March 01, 2009

Posted in Higher Ed.

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In large companies, there’s a top-down mentality that allows leadership to issue edicts and expect them to be followed. Or, you know, you’re fired.

In higher education, though, there’s a notion of academic freedom that allows academic entities – centers, institutes, colleges, even departments – a measure of independence.

So for those of us who live on the edge of this independence – staff who must work within the constraints of the higher ed bureaucracy. Navigating this maze is tough enough – but getting resources, funding, or even a general consensus can be nearly impossible. Here are my tips for getting things done within the machine.

Communicate Early, Communicate Often

If you’re trying to create change, it’s all about communication.

  1. Identify the people who will be affected.
  2. Reach out to these people and let them know of your intentions.
  3. Accept feedback and opinions without reservation. Implement what makes sense.
  4. Document and communicate your rationale for decisions.

You can’t win all the time, but you can certainly help people brace for impact. Think about what’s likely to cause the most waves and let people know.

The Road Show

One of the best ways to communicate is by creating a nicely packaged presentation of what you’re doing and making a pitch for whatever you need – even if it’s just consensus. A half an hour with five slides can save weeks or months down the road.

Know When to Break the Rules

My favorite way to get things done is to just…get them done. There are policies and politics in any organization, but sometimes the easiest route to your destination is to skip it all and be direct. Work isn’t a chess game, and trying to manipulate a situation can backfire in a fierce way.

Sometimes it’s best to ask forgiveness rather than permission, but when? My answer: when you have the best interests and the rules would be costly. Be forthright and honest. Talk to the right person. Be decisive about your goal. And be aware of the damage you can cause by breaking the rule – are you putting someone at risk? What’s the underlying cost?

Make Friends in All Places

Sometimes you need help getting something done, and there’s usually a specific person who can help you do this. Maybe it’s someone high up in the organization who can get you resources. Other times, it’s simply the right person in the right place who knows how to bypass the red tape. Either way, make friends and build your reputation as someone people want to help.

What are your tips for cutting through the jungle of higher ed bureaucracy?