Simon Says

The Lego Movie  Lord BusinessThe Lego Movie is on DVD and on demand now, and I highly recommend you watch it.  It’s not just for kids.  In fact, it may not even be primarily for kids. The antagonist is someone, something, that we face every day and risk becoming ourselves: a mature organism who has confused goal with process.

The goal of Lego is fun.  More specifically, it’s the fun of building something out of interconnecting bricks. This is a skill that isn’t normally innate or instinctive, so in order to help people develop that skill, Lego started selling sets with instructions on how to build them. The instructions were developed by very good builders, and are painstakingly specific, and you do get a certain amount of satisfaction from following the instructions and finishing with a beautiful structure.

But that’s not the goal of playing with Lego.  And really, anyone with enough money can buy a Lego set and build the same thing. So yes, that level of success can be repeated, but you are neither adding to the universe of all the possibilities of Lego, nor achieving the higher goal.

For some reason, humans seem to be incessantly drawn toward creating bureaucracies, self-perpetuating rules farms that manage to convince everyone in them that the whole point is to follow the instructions.  This is the world of the start of the Lego Movie, where “everything is awesome.”  This is the world of our workplaces, where we are “the best of the best.” If someone suggests a new approach to solving a problem, overcoming an obstacle, or increasing efficiency, it’s often met with resistance based on nothing more than “That’s not how we do things.”

In which case your entire reason for existence is to play a never-ending game of Simon Says, and just follow rules with no larger goal. That sounds a lot like jail, except you’ve chosen to be there.

Sometimes you’ll get a deeper answer, like “That’s a great idea, but it goes against our process.  And we can’t change our process because it was created for a reason.” Very rarely will you get anyone interested in examining the reasons behind the process, and whether or not those are still valid.

However, that’s a crucial action if the organization (or person, or antagonist in The Lego Movie) wants to survive its/his new environment.  There are very few organizations from the pre-computer era who are still going strong today in their original form.  They’ve had to realize that word processors aren’t typewriters, that email is neither letter mail nor phone calls, that electronic data can be stolen by someone on the other side of the planet.

Organizations without profit motives or who aren’t answerable to shareholders haven’t evolved as quickly. Or at all. Government bureaucracies are all about process, and the processes themselves – the budget process, the unwillingness to delegate or share authority, the reactive nature of the work – ensure that the mission statements of many government organizations are now “keep existing as is,” rather than whatever they were created to do.

It might be an interesting exercise for the leadership of those organizations to take a good hard look in the mirror, and ask “If this agency were created today, what would it look like?” Bet it would be very different. It takes a brave person, or a brave movie antagonist, to allow change.

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