Unnecessary paperwork and rigid conformity to rules – otherwise known as red tape – I hate it. I avoid it, where possible. It prevents action, slows down decision-making, and wastes an extraordinary amount of time.

Apparently, I am not alone. Most people want to do a good job. But they feel frustrated when unnecessary paperwork takes them away from what they see as the most important part of their work. Child Safety Workers, for example, often tell me that they spend at least 80% of their time doing paperwork, instead of working directly with families.

Yes, there are reasons for paperwork and regulation, of course. They are there to facilitate consistency among large workforces and to minimise risk. However, part of me wonders if the main reason red tape is there is to stop senior management or politicians from looking foolish.

Please don’t get me wrong – there is a time for paperwork and regulation. Australians need only recall how the lack of regulation contributed to the deaths of installers connected to the national home insulation program. It is only unnecessary paperwork and regulation I am against. However, I appreciate that part of the problem is that there are different views as to what paperwork and regulation is necessary.

A crane operator told me recently that he has to submit a lengthy application each time he moves a crane over a bridge. Fair enough, you think? Unfortunately, he says, there are different bridges along a route, each requiring a different approval, which, when granted, is only for a short period of time. So, when he needs to return the crane to the depot, he goes through the process all over again. He says that rather than growing his business, he spends a good deal of his time completing this paperwork.

Cutting red tape is a popular government policy, of course. But while we are waiting for government to get its act together, what actions can we take?

  1. Ignore or bend the rules: Some principals I know tell me that if they read everything that central office tells them to read, they would never leave their office. Furthermore, if they tried to do everything central office tells them to do, the staff would all have nervous breakdowns.

    The challenge is working out which rules to follow closely, which to be flexible in, and which to ignore. Those in leadership roles need to be clear with their staff about priorities, policies in which everyone needs to be consistent, and those in which there can be some flexibility.

  2. Ask ‘Why are we doing this?: There may well have been good reasons as to why a particular system or paperwork was put in place. However, over time, that system or practice may well have become redundant. Is it really necessary to have a three-page customer complaints form or can this be simplified into a single page?

    Or is there a more efficient way to access and pass on customer feedback? The last thing many upset customers want to do is to spend time filling in paperwork that may well be ignored. But they may be open to you offering to pass on their comments to management

  3. Speed-up internal decision-making: I know of one large government department where someone who needs to spend fifty dollars or more, is required to submit a written request that needs to go through several pairs of hands. Someone at a senior management level finally makes a decision which is then relayed back through those same pairs of hands.

    No wonder that staff get frustrated over how long decision-making can take. Not to mention the wasted time for all of the individuals involved.

    Instead, is it possible to delegate appropriate authority for certain decisions to those who are closest to the issue concerned? Yes, there can be boundaries, of course – the limits of the authority being delegated and policies that need to be followed. People also need to be clear as to when any matters need to be escalated to a higher level.

  4. Keep the focus on those parts in your control: There is a time to look at what you and your team can do to by-pass or minimise unnecessary paperwork and improve the efficiency of systems in your workplace. Poorly run meetings that waste everyone’s time are one such example.

There are also times to speak up, to advocate for change by putting the argument in terms that are motivating for senior management. But we also need to accept that there are some matters beyond our control, which we need to endure or make the best of.

However, as we direct our energies into those areas that are in our control, the more in-control and empowered we will feel. We all deserve to be free of unnecessary paperwork and inflexible systems, so we can work at our very best.