Paulina Snijders talks about Untangling and Unburdening: ‘We want to see a shift from control to trust’
With its Untangling and Unburdening program, Tilburg University is waging war against unnecessary rules and procedures. Changing the behavior that is causing the bureaucracy will still prove difficult and take time, believes Paulina Snijders, but it must be possible. “If we’re successful in making significant progress this year, things can begin to accelerate. It will initiate a flywheel effect.”
Paulina Snijders gained experience in combating bureaucracy at her previous employer, Amsterdam UMC. Colleagues at the university medical center had the option of pressing a so-called ‘Kafka button’ on the intranet to report unnecessary red tape. Tilburg University now has something similar, an ‘untangle flag’. At the university where she now holds the position of Vice-President of the Executive Board, Snijders is continuing her battle against unnecessary rules and procedures. She believes it is an important factor in people’s enjoyment of work and smooth collaboration. “We want colleagues to be able to devote their time to work that adds real value. That isn’t happening now as much as it should. We’ve had a tendency to get bogged down in procedures and schemes. We may have the best intentions, but there’s a lack of capacity to get things done; we struggle to get things off the ground and face logjams far too often. We just can’t continue like this.”
Tilburg University is awash with working procedures that impede progress, believes Snijders. “We need to ask ourselves why we do things the way we do them and whether there’s an easier way.” People often think that bureaucracy is caused by central systems, but she believes that the decentralized organization is also a key cause of the unnecessary bureaucracy. “That creates plenty of room to make your own policy rules – with the very best intentions – for each individual school or department.”
If Snijders has her way, a significant proportion of these rules will rapidly disappear. The university has already started the process. For example, the standard approval of all expense claims has been abolished. “We simply trust people and reimburse claims up to €500, without intervention by a director, unlike in the past. Even up to €100, there’s only an administrative check.” This did cause some resistance from colleagues who keep records of expenditure via approvals, explains Snijders. “They started keeping shadow record systems in order to keep control of things or be able to account for themselves.”
We want colleagues to be able to devote their time to work that adds real value. We’ve had a tendency to get bogged down in procedures and schemes
Untangling and Unburdening
The reduction of all the rules and regulations has been given a boost by the ‘untangling and unburdening’ strategic program. It started with an assessment of the obstacles experienced in terms of regulations and processes. Feedback about this was collected from students and colleagues in 2022, resulting in a list of more than 250 issues or bottlenecks. Following an analysis, feedback was given on these to the divisions and schools who then began various untangling and unburdening actions. The assessment revealed some surprising insights, explains Snijders. For example, she had not realized that the fuss around business travel was such a bone of contention. “That area was very tightly regulated, causing a great deal of frustration.” She also noticed that people often believe that rules exist when there actually aren’t any. “One example of that is the policy on working from home. Some colleagues were under the impression that we had a rule that you have to work 50-50 at home and on campus. Yet we don’t actually have a fixed percentage, but just aim to achieve a certain balance in mutual consultation.”
You want to reach a stage where people have the confidence to take more initiative. In that case, it’s important that colleagues who do have that confidence are not immediately held to account for it. We need to put an end to that. We want to see a shift from control to trust.
Snijders explains that a deliberate choice was made to use the active terms untangling and unburdening. The untanglers are not coming to tell you that things are no longer allowed, but to help to make the work more enjoyable by unburdening you. A special Untangle Team has now been set up, with ‘untanglers’ that include colleagues from all schools and divisions. They take a look at what is working well and what is less effective on the work floor. They then discuss how it can be done differently. Snijders: “It’s their job to identify issues, raise them and make people aware. To enable colleagues themselves to realize how things can be done differently. The untanglers also help their colleagues to bring the right people together to get things moving.”
Snijders is aware of the fact that combating bureaucracy is a tricky issue. This is because the desire for rules is embedded in the culture. Many rules are based on a need to account for yourself or cover your back. Snijders feels that the culture at Tilburg University is ‘extremely risk averse’, for example compared to the world of university medical centers that she knows well. The main focus of the behavior is on avoiding making mistakes. “You want to reach a stage where people have the confidence to take more initiative. In that case, it’s important that colleagues who do have that confidence are not immediately held to account for it. We need to put an end to that. We want to see a shift from control to trust.” Snijders believes that this will require people to lead by example, especially managers. They could make it clear that accountability is not necessary in certain situations. Or encourage colleagues to take initiative. Snijders realizes that cultural changes take time to bed in. But she feels that things could be moving faster. “I must say I’m disappointed by the pace of the progress being made.” But she still remains confident that things will ultimately change. “If we’re successful in making significant progress this year, things can begin to accelerate. It will initiate a flywheel effect.”
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