Red Tape: Four Ways That It Can Set You Free

“My Lord, If I attempted to answer the mass of futile correspondence which surrounds me, I should be debarred from the serious business of campaigning.”

 -The Duke of Wellington to the Secretary of State of War, 1809

Courtesy of Creative Commons 

Everyone hates too much red tape. Even the famed Duke of Wellington notes the frustration it causes to those on the front line. No surprise. Red tape refers to the fabled red cloth tape ‘twist ties’ used by civil servants to physically bind the documents that contained the voluminous and prescriptive policies and procedures guiding the workings of the British Empire back when Queen Victoria reigned, and before.

To be ‘strangled by red tape’ became the ultimate epithet where well-meaning people, in any organization, saw their efforts at leading rapid and meaningful change either slowed to the pace of near geologic time, or choked out completely. Jonathan Swift famously and satirically rails against this practice when he described the Lilliputians unfairly and unknowingly tying down poor Gulliver during his travels.

Consequently, in modern day business and government, enormous amounts of time and effort are invested in various programs and initiatives to avoid or cut red tape, and in making processes work faster, better and cheaper for staff and clients. Great successes have been achieved in some quarters. For example, in 2014, Australia reported $4 billion in savings to businesses. In other jurisdictions like British Columbia there are now laws, and a Ministry, specifically focused on red tape reduction that are, somewhat ironically, led from a capital city named after the ‘Queen of Red Tape’: Victoria. Overlooked in this war on overly bureaucratic processes is the fact that, in some cases, a little bureaucracy can be good for you.


Here are four ways that red tape can, paradoxically, help set you free:

Avoiding Conflict

Any manager will tell you that an inordinate amount of their time, sadly, is consumed in quelling arguments of one type or another. Where staff and clients are not sure what ‘the drill’ is, it is often left up to the next highest authority, the manager, to engage in relatively trivial problem solving activities. This takes time, hurts feelings and can lead to bigger problems if not managed properly - like lawsuits.

Most people just want to know what they have to do to get things done right, the first time. To help eliminate wasted time and stress, it helps if you have clear policies, procedures and processes, and then communicate them widely so that everyone knows who has to do what, and by when.

Preserving Life and Limb

The closer you get to the risk of physical danger, the more important it is to have some red tape in place. Well-defined processes backed by high quality training and equipment, all delivered within the context of world-class standards, can be lifesavers. The best processes are simple, easy to understand and contain memory-prompting devices so that practitioners can do the right thing even when the adrenaline is flowing. For example, the first aid world has the ‘ABCs’, which is a mnemonic for the correct process to follow when first treating a casualty: check 1) airway, then 2) breathing and then 3) circulation.

Your business may not operate within a life and death context, however, and I bet that you have two or three critical business processes that you need to get right ‘or else.’ If so, it’s not a great stretch to apply these principles to those critically important processes too.

Defeating Confusion

New employees, or longer-term employees moving to new jobs, all need some kind of handrail to guide them when they start. Good practices for orienting people to new jobs usually include training, mentoring and coaching, as well as providing useful reading and other media. Clearly, this can help new people settle in quickly and safely, and become more productive faster. Having these things in place also shows others that you really care about them, while giving them some confidence that they are part of an organization that has its act together.

Promoting Learning and Continuous Improvement

Learning and continuous improvement are important processes for increasing organizational effectiveness. Most people learn best by doing or, in other words, experientially. W. Edwards Deming famously described his now iconic continual improvement process as follows: 

1. Plan what you must do;

2. Do it;

3. Study the results;

4. Act to improve.

There are many other learning models out there that also blend the practical with the reflective. The point is that if you do not have a learning process yet, or have not articulated it formally in a way that everyone understands and uses in a similar fashion, you may be losing an opportunity for your organization to learn and continuously improve in consistent and optimum way.  

A little red tape can, therefore, go a long way to making your organization more effective. Don’t overdo it though because, as we all know, too much of a good thing usually isn’t; especially if it’s too much ‘helpful bureaucracy’.

Richard Eaton is the co-founder of Berlineaton, a management consulting company based in Victoria and serving the world. For more information about Richard and Berlineaton, please visit