How to achieve minimum viable bureaucracy

Tape dispenser with tape extending from roll to edge of screen

In Agile, Minimum Viable Bureaucracy (MVB) refers to a way of having just enough process to make things work, but not so much as to make it cumbersome particularly when applied to portfolio, programme and project direction, management and delivery practices. It’s about finding the equilibrium between management control and autonomy – that is, the edge of bureaucracy.

Typically organizations have a tendency to align, subconsciously or intentionally, functional business processes and bureaucracy together to maintain a sense of management control. However, diligent employees will always find ways to game the system if they feel bureaucracy is hindering progress of programme and project delivery and success. After all, sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to seek permission.

In Agile, appropriate governance is about defining the fastest route that brings the most value to the customer. By focusing on the things that matter, we apply a minimal focus on bureaucracy in pursuit of the effective management of risk threats to the portfolio, programme and project management. Minimal viable bureaucracy and good governance occurs when authority to succeed is delegated to the lowest level with a lightness of touch to management control. But this does not mean that an undisciplined and relaxed approach is adopted but rather accountability to succeed and fail fast remains with the delivery team, particularly one that is cross functional.

How to enable minimal viable bureaucracy across an entire organization

This can be done by embracing an agile mindset, culture and behaviours. An agile mindset is about changing organizational behaviours to be more flexible, focused on providing value, innovation, and doing things fast rather than focused on bureaucracy and red tape. Like any organizational transformational change, it takes time and top down (senior management), bottom up (delivery teams) and sideways (functional support office) commitment to build up a healthy agile culture across an entire organization. The core elements of an agile culture that enables minimal viable bureaucracy begins with:

  1. Building trust and preserving autonomy. It’s about empowerment, reciprocity and a fundamental belief that most people are capable of being trusted to do the right thing. Organizations need to appreciate this new way of thinking. People need to be true to themselves first and then to their team members and to the broader organization and senior management. At its core, an important part of imparting trust, is to respect people. To give them responsibility to make decisions about their work. To achieve this, it's important to build portfolio, programme and project direction, management and delivery knowledge and develop people who can think for themselves. People who can think for themselves and are experts in their area often need to be empowered to feel respected.
  2. Effective communication practices. In Agile, this refers to the adoption and practice of face-to-face communication by default to minimize the need for emails and meetings where people are co-located. Where meetings are held, the focus is on decision making rather than endless discussion and misuse of time. Apart from the frustrations that people endure, delayed or misaligned decisions lead to non-valued added waste and high costs, missed new product and business development opportunities and poor long-term strategic investments. People across the entire organization must ensure open communication and healthy feedback during all meetings and also encourage team members individually to share their ideas and opinions. Likewise, people must be receptive to constructive feedback and ready to learn from mistakes.
  3. Lead instead of merely managing. It’s about a servant leadership and the practices that enables individuals to perform to their potential without hindrance, it builds better teams and ultimately creates a more inclusive organization. Traditional leadership generally involves the exercise of power by one person, usually part of senior management. The servant leader however shares power, focuses on the needs of others, helps people develop and to perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership delegates authority to the lowest level in the organizational hierarchy. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, resulting in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees. Vastly different from the more traditional command and control, hierarchical style of management, servant leadership empowers a programme/project team to think outside the box, take ownership, and be innovative, while still holding the business to a standard of excellence and ethics.

In summation, minimum viable bureaucracy can be achieved by any organization willing to adopt a more flexible and less structured governance approach, particularly to enable portfolio, programme and project management and delivery success. In Agile, organizations embrace the fact that things constantly change and decisions need to be made more frequently at the right levels and not necessarily always be senior management. While Agile promotes the behaviours of collaboration and self-organization, this does not mean that an undisciplined and relaxed approach is adopted but rather accountability to succeed and fail fast remains with the delegated person or team. Where portfolio, programme and project direction, management and delivery practices and, more importantly, progress is being hindered by excessive governance processes then an organization should take the opportunity to explore minimal viable bureaucracy to maintain management control and autonomy.

Current rating: 4 (2 ratings)


26 Jun 2018 Chris Kitching
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Thanks. All good points.

We've heard about the servant ( I prefer facilitative) leader for what seems like most of my working life. It never quite seems to happen though. Trying to lead by example is a start, but I'm sure many organisations are still stuck in the tradtional command and control approach to projects. Good governance isn't endless formulaic meetings that leaders don't have time to prepare for, but want to tick the box.
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