I was recently part of a group briefed to come up with some statements for a newly formed group of like-minded individuals and companies who needed to better define why they exist, who they are, what they stand for and where they are going. We were briefed to avoid words like ‘Mission’, ‘Values’ and ‘Vision’ as the group wishes to distance itself from standardised and/or bureaucratic norms. I suggested they might be ‘Adhocratic’ before needing to explain what I meant. The group loved it and have adopted it as part of those over-arching descriptors. However, the initial lack of understanding left me wondering whether it is a term which needs wider understanding……
Being the opposite of bureaucratic, adhocratic is, in theory at least, unstructured, decentralised and responsive.
The term was first used as long ago as 1968 when Warren G Bennis, a US leadership theorist, proposed that the successful business of the future would rely on nimble and flexible project teams within a structure he called ‘adhocracy’.
Adhocracy then made fleeting appearances in theories ranging from “a new freeform world of kinetic organisations” (Future Shock, Alvin Toffler, 1970) to being one of four organisational structures defined by Henry Mintzberg in The Structure of Organisations (1979).
In my view the best description is “any form of organisation that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems and get results” stated in Robert Waterman’s 1990 book ‘Adhocracy.’
The fact so few have heard of, let alone employed Adhocracy suggests that Bennis read the future wrongly when he was, in part, spot on. However where Bennis suggested that adhocracy was the future for all successful companies, Mintzberg and Waterman saw that it is not a structure suited to many.
Local authorities for example are often slated for being bureaucratic when the truth is, they could not function effectively in any other way. It is when they become over bureaucratic, as they frequently do, that frustration arises.
Where adhocracy has, and continues to, come into its own is in the creative industries, in the new technologies and as creative departments within larger bureaucracies. However, even in those areas it appears ideally suited to, it can soon be the undoing of the organisation concerned if at the very least some form of guiding structure is not in place.
This ‘guiding structure’ creates two forms of adhocracy (sub-divisions):
- The Operating Adhocracy which innovates and solves problems on behalf of clients (think advertising or software).
- The Administrative Adhocracy which operates through a managed, project team structure in order to serve itself. NASA would probably not describe itself as adhocratic but in fact comes very close to being an Administrative Adhocracy.
It is often mistakenly thought that to be truly adhocratic the organisation will be so ‘freeform’ that it does not require direction or strategy. This is not the case however successful adhocratic strategy would be far lighter touch and flexible. Think Pareto’s Law as your rule of thumb and apply it to flexibility in strategy; a healthy bureaucracy would be 80% rigid and 20% flexible. Less than 20% and bureaucracy starts creeping into the over bureaucratic referred to above.
A strategy for an adhocracy would be the reverse; 20% rigid and 80% flexible becoming over adhocratic the more it creeps below the 20% ‘guiding’ rigidity.
Adhocracy is not for everyone; neither is bureaucracy and in reality most organisations will be positioned somewhere on a sliding scale between the two. And, as I often state, if strategy is to serve any/all of these organisations to their highest potential it must be highly personalised and avoid ‘templated-thinking’ at all costs.
It is not that adhocracies don’t exist, there are many of them operating extremely successfully in all parts of the world. It is that the term ‘adhocratic’ is poorly understood and therefore rarely applied.
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2011-2016