The catch-22 of change and bureaucracy

Yes!The phrase Catch-22″ comes from Joseph Heller’s amusing and disturbing book  about World War II. The book introduces that phrase in reference to how someone (a man named Orr, in this case) can get out of combat duty.

“Is Orr crazy?”

“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.

“Can you ground him?”

“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”

“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”

“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”

“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”

“That’s all. Let him ask me.”

“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.

“No. Then I can’t ground him.”

“You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

You should read the book.

A pastor friend from another state called me today frustrated about bureaucracy in the church. He referenced my article on “Why the UMC is dying a (somewhat) slow death.” He had agreed to join a committee, went to lots of meetings, made some big decisions… Then it all got undone. Why the wasted time?

The quote that was most devastating: “I’ve said some crazy things, but that might be why I don’t have any influence. [thoughtful pause…] That’s the game: you have to choose between having influence and speaking up. You’re only allowed influence if you don’t pose a risk of shaking things up too much.”

Is he right? This may apply to bureaucracies far outside the church.

Do most of the bureaucrats get where they are by not posing too many threats to the system?

And can you change the system from a top-down level without becoming one of the bureaucrats?

That’s some catch-22. Be moved deeply by its absolute simplicity.

And so again, beware the suggestion that you can make major change within the bureaucracy.

Ask these questions first:

  • How many others have to approve it before it happens?
  • Where are you in the pecking order?
  • Have they reached absolute crisis level?

Unless your answers to those three questions are respectively, “very few,” “the very top,” or “definitely,” beware.

5 thoughts on “The catch-22 of change and bureaucracy

  1. Before other comments, let me emphasize MOST in “most of the bureaucrats get where they are…”

    I’m not suggesting everyone in the bureaucracy is unwilling to change. I’m suggesting that the easiest way to become a bureaucrat is to not threaten the system much. If the majority are there because they didn’t threaten the system, the few who got there by another route will have a tough row to hoe.

  2. In business, many companies have to reach the point of crisis before anything can be done to address the bureaucratic insanity, and then only with an informed and motivated executive. There are numerous examples of this, and many more examples of how companies failed at this task.

    Bill McKinney

  3. One of the more insightful books I’ve read about this is called (I think–its been around quite a while) “From Barbarians to Bureaucrats” and speaks of the life-cycle of organizations. John Wesley was most definitely a “barbarian”–he broke down all sorts of barriers and broke rule after rule, even as he established his own. I personally don’t think the UMC can be revitalized any more than my worn-out 89 year old mother could be meaninglyfully revitalized after a massive stroke. She could be kept alive–but would never again have life. There had to be death for the rebirth–in the case of my mother that rebirth was in the form of children, grandchildren and great-grands–to come forth and step up. But we right death–sometimes rightly and sometimes very unwisely.

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