In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Marina Nitze, former chief technology officer for the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), about her new book, Hack Your Bureaucracy: Get Things Done No Matter What Your Role on Any Team (Hachette Go, September 2022), cowritten by Nick Sinai, a senior adviser at Insight Partners. The first step to effectively navigating bureaucracy is accepting that it exists in almost every system, Nitze says—even at a grocery co-op. Rather than try to avoid the unavoidable, Nitze has spent her career tackling bureaucratic slowdowns head-on. Now, she’s sharing the strategies that worked at the White House and beyond. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Can you explain your tips for hacking bureaucracy, starting with, ‘1. Be the queen on the chessboard’?
My coauthor, Nick Sinai, and I wrote Hack Your Bureaucracy, which has over 50 tactics for getting things done in any bureaucracy, no matter what your role on any team. When you’re playing chess, the queen can go forward, backward, and diagonal, unlike the other pieces. This is where I encourage you, wherever you are in a bureaucracy—even if you’re outside it—to try to follow the path from end to end across the experience that you’re trying to fix. I have a funny story about this in child welfare.
I was watching a state welfare officer process foster-parent applications. The woman was filling out a carbon copy triplicate form—the ones where you press really hard with your pen and go through to the differently colored pages—to request the applicant’s driving record. I asked, “Why are you filling out this old form?” And she said, “It’s because the people at the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] live in the 19th century. They’re still using this old paper process.”
Because I’m the queen on the chessboard, I did something that that woman couldn’t do. I went over to the DMV, and I asked how they process those kinds of forms. To my surprise, the woman working at the DMV pulled up an electronic request system and showed me how they process requests that way. I said to her, “Wait a minute. Where does the carbon copy paper fit in?” And she said, “Oh, you must have been at child welfare. They live in the 19th century.”
By figuring out that these two parts of the process weren’t connecting, we were able to remove a cumbersome part of the process, with absolutely no opposition, almost overnight. That’s why I encourage you to be the queen on the chessboard.
By figuring out that these two parts of the process weren’t connecting, we were able to remove a cumbersome part of the process, with absolutely no opposition, almost overnight. That’s why I encourage you to be the queen on the chessboard and go everywhere that you may need to go to understand how a process really works.
2. ‘Find your Trojan horse’
The Trojan horse is about looking for the area of the process you’re trying to change that has the least opposition and defensive antibodies. For example, in child welfare, people tend to focus a lot on the chronological start of a process, such as the child-abuse hotline, but that’s the most dangerous part of the process to change—it’s where there are a lot of vested interests, so it’s really scary to make change. It’s better to look at another part of the process, like foster-parent applications, where there’s a lot of room for improving efficiencies without facing oppositional forces.
If you can find that Trojan horse area of the process—where you can get people to buy into change, however small—you can start earning the political capital and trust that you need, plus the understanding of how the organization works.
If you can find that Trojan horse area of the process—where you can get people to buy into change, however small—you can start earning the political capital and trust that you need, plus the understanding of how the organization works and its risk and incentive frameworks. Then you can tackle the next most challenging part of the puzzle.
3. ‘Ask people to tell you about a mystery’
I love this tactic when I’m shadowing people doing their work. I ask them if they can tell me a mystery, and you’d be surprised—usually, people have one. It may be that they don’t know where a certain form goes. It may be that they don’t know why we ask a certain question.
If you ask people to tell you a mystery while you’re shadowing their job, and then find the answer to that mystery, and you go back and tell them, not only have you probably made a friend for life, but often it’ll uncover an inefficiency or an area for improvement that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
4. ‘Create (but don’t share) the stakeholder map’
A stakeholder map can be your number-one tool in bureaucracy hacking, but the most effective stakeholder map has enough detail on it that you probably want to keep it to yourself and not share it. We think of bureaucracies as places where people spend tens of years, which may be true, but even in big government bureaucracies where people tend to have life appointments, they move around. They have different friends. They’ll move from departments or from agencies.
What you want to do is forget the hierarchy on the formal org chart and look at how people actually interact. Who has power over the budget? Who has power over the boss’s calendar? Who used to work together? And then who is willing to work with you? That’s a totally different question.
Some of my greatest allies when I was the chief technology officer of the US Veterans Affairs were the security guards. They were interested, and they had a bit of time on their hands. One time we had a big crunch to meet a deadline, so we trained security guards in how to code HTML, and they spent hours every day helping us move content from one website to another so we could save a few million dollars by turning the old website off.
Those security guards have all since left and gotten careers in IT. You never know where power may lie. When you lay out what people’s risks are, what their incentives are, what they’re interested in, and what their resources are, you realize you have a lot more of a team than you may have first realized.
5. ‘Don’t use the word “just”’
Don’t use the word “just.” I actually have a text expander shortcut on my computer, so if I type the word “just,” it will delete it automatically for me. There’s no “just” in a bureaucracy. Nothing is as simple as it may seem. When you go through your bureaucracy and try to figure out the way to solve a problem, be really careful of saying to somebody, “We just need to do this or that to solve it.” Before you say that, you should dig into the details to make sure you understand what’s going on.
6. ‘Don’t only aim for cultural change’
Everyone aims for culture change in bureaucracies. The way you get culture change is through delivering and being that change that you want to see. I’ve never seen someone change a culture through PowerPoint slides, meetings, and mottoes. What changes the culture is acting differently and making incentives so that other people want to act the way that you’re acting. If you want to change culture, delivery is the strategy.
7. ‘Go second’
Bureaucracies are designed not to change on a dime. We can complain about that, or we can acknowledge it and move accordingly.
Bureaucracies are designed not to change on a dime. We can complain about that, or we can acknowledge it and move accordingly. One thing that bureaucracies tend not to like to do is to go first. What you want to do is make it feel like they’re going second. Maybe that means there’s a comparable company or nonprofit that has done this first.
When I was in the government, it certainly helped when the Department of Defense had already done something, and we, as the VA, got to go second. The more you can set it up this way—you’re not going first, you’re going second—the safer it will feel for people to do that thing. It almost creates some positive peer pressure.
8. ‘Run the Sinatra test’
The Sinatra test is the idea that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. When Nick and I were writing this book, we really wanted to share stories about places where not everybody works, like the White House and the federal government. This test is to say that if it worked in the White House, or at the VA, or in the Department of Defense, it also will work in your, perhaps, smaller company, or your local nonprofit, or your homeowners’ association.
9. ‘Don’t be a tourist’
There’s a great story in the book about Nick getting kicked out of the White House Science Fair. It accompanies our tactic to not be a tourist. It’s really tempting sometimes—especially when there’s a lot of attention around an event or an initiative—to want to be a part of it, but you have to have skin in the game. You have to show up, do the work, and sign up to do the hard stuff if you want to be part of the recognition of it.
10. ‘Go where you are rare’
If you want to be an effective bureaucracy hacker, it helps to go where you’re rare. If you’re a technologist, go into a team that has very few technologists. If you’re a lawyer, maybe you can embed with a tech team that doesn’t have a legal point of view. That’s where you’re going to have an outsize impact based on your skill set, whatever your skill set is.
11. ‘Flow people out’
One tactic that people don’t think about very often is the idea of flowing people out of your organization, just as you want to flow people in and recruit them. Nick talks a lot about some amazing examples he has where people are flowed out of federal government agencies: they work in the commercial sector for a bit, and then they go back in.
This can be a really great way to build your overall team and your capacity. It may feel like you’re losing people for a while—and you may risk losing some people for good—but ultimately, people will see they have more career options. It’s a great way for people to grow a skill set that you may need internally, in a way that’s more efficient than trying to train these skills off of three-ring binders.
12. ‘Don’t try to make the bureaucracy care’
One mistake I see people make constantly when they’re trying to change a bureaucracy is that they try to make the bureaucracy care with emotions. Bureaucracies don’t have feelings, they have frameworks. You have to find out what forms you need to fill out and what rules you need to follow to make your change happen and do it.
Bureaucracies don’t have feelings, they have frameworks. You have to find out what forms you need to fill out and what rules you need to follow to make your change happen and do it.
One example that comes up a lot if you’re trying to get a technology tool approved is the CIA triad, which is “confidentiality, integrity, and availability.” Nowhere on that triangle is it asking, “How many veterans will die if you don’t get this form on the internet?” or, “How many foster kids will be homeless if you don’t get this spreadsheet tool in use?” You can complain about that and try to appeal to people’s emotions, but what really works is to fill out the form as it’s being requested and try not to bring emotions into the mix.
13. ‘Question watercooler rules’
A watercooler rule is when somebody tells you something like, “It has to be printed on blue paper,” or, “You have to fill out this form,” or, “You have to get Mary’s sign-off.” Sometimes these are true, but sometimes it’s just the way that things have always been done, and no one has questioned it before.
We encourage you to use tactics like the “five whys,” which is from the Toyota Production System, to get to the root of, “Where does it say the rule in writing?” In many cases, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to realize that it doesn’t say this rule anywhere at all, which gives you a lot more flexibility. There are times when the rule is written down, but the original source document is more flexible than people have come to interpret it over time.