Paperwork Stifles Innovation

Paperwork Stifles Innovation

Anyone who has ever provided services to a large multi-national organisation will know that before a project even starts, there is usually another task to complete; filling out the very significant paperwork that naturally seems to emerge, the amount directly correlating with the size of the organisation. A recent experience (which required nearly a full week of reviewing forms for a project that then didn’t eventuate) got me thinking about how paperwork - the physical assets of bureaucracy - have such an impact on innovation. 

Though it feels like a new invention, you might be surprised (or disappointed) to learn that the seeds of paperwork emerge alongside the origin of reading and writing. From 8,000 to 4,300 BCE, the first primitive pictographic tokens appeared, produced to track ownership of things. The emergence of these initial primitive tokens overlaps with the settling of the first cities of the Middle East, like ancient Uruk. This proto-paperwork represents the first attempts to represent and track goods and services. There is a good argument that the organisation of labour, goods and taxes were the first key problem that writing was invented to solve. 

Paperwork continued to develop and be enriched over the next five thousand years. As stones gave way to papyrus and hides, both the Ancient empires off the Mediterranean and the early European kingdoms thrived on paperwork. In the 1500s, King Phillip II of Spain became known as ‘El Rey Papelero’ (the paperwork king) for his painful and rather overzealous commitment to trying to read, understand and approve every scrap of paper that crossed his path. Coming out of the French tradition of government following the revolution, the word ‘bureaucracy’ appeared in 1764. ‘Bureaucracy’ literally translates to the ‘rule of the desk.’ It pays respect to the very object upon which paperwork is produced and stored.

So all of this winds back to my attempts to work with a large multi-national organisation. A behemoth on multiple continents with tens of thousands of individuals. My attempts to provide innovative thinking all hinged on my ability to wade through a truely terrifying amount of paperwork. 

We always portray culture as an emphereal thing. Rituals that live in the invisible ether of human exchange. I like to think of culture as behaviour that is based on very physical things. Something that emerges out of the things we create to represent it, develop it and perpetuate it. This is especially true with paperwork. 

Paperwork grows out of a need to externalise the information we all keep in our heads. However, across its history, it seems inevitable that paperwork will always grow beyond its original purpose. It becomes a force in and of itself. Organisations are full of teams of people tasked with managing paperwork. Paperwork becomes the physical representation of an organisational fear of change, of making decisions of taking risks. As if enough paperwork can render complex issues clear and challenges safe.  

Even as paperwork makes its transition to the digital world, billion dollar systems continue to be built around the creation of paperwork. In the ‘Myth of the Paperless Office,’ Harper and Sellen were among the first to note that electronic means of managing paper does not decrease the amount of paperwork being created, it increases it. With digital tools and modern printers, making paper and instantiating it into the world becomes even easier.

But all of this paperwork doesn’t improve the way an organisation functions. If anything, it typically obscures it. Organisations hide behind the creation and management of their paperwork. A study by the Boston Consulting Group in 2011 found that managers of complex organisations spent 40% of their time writing reports. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for innovation. 

The masses of paperwork also reduce innovation by boxing and codifying behaviour into ever tighter overlapping layers of constraint. Projects are defined by tight briefings, bounded by complex legal agreements that leave people fearful of doing the wrong thing, defined by prescribed deliverables and constantly overseen by endless reports. This avalanche of paperwork runs counter to creative thinking, which is divergent and freeform by nature. Innovation depends on being able to think tangentially to what might be pre-defined.

If you find your team or organisation is struggling to make change that matters based on the amount of paperwork that you have to create or manage, then you can probably do one of two things. On one hand, you could find ways to cut through and eliminate layers of paperwork that tie up the movement of people, ideas and activity. 

On the other hand, you can accept that the mass of paperwork creates a bureaucratic tangle that exists to perpetuate itself. It renders it impossible to make change that matters. If you find yourself in this position and you can’t eliminate, reduce or cut through the paperwork, then you will have to accept your team or organisation will most likely struggle to innovate. 


Haigh, Gideon (2012) The Office: A Hardworking History. Miegunyah Press: Melbourne.

Watson, P (2005) Ideas. Harper Collins: New York.


Sellen, Abigail J. and Harper, Richard H. R. (2001) The Myth of the Paperless Office, MIT Press.

Folder Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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