Some Issues Associated with Adhocracy

There has been little exploration of the issues associated with Adhocracy, the newest of the five configurations. Simple Structure is so old that its advantages and disadvantages are by now taken for granted. The issues associated with Machine Bureaucracy have been discussed at great length in the literature, especially those concerning alienation and conflict. There has also been quite a bit of discussion of the issues associated with Profes- sional Bureaucracy, and, more recently, of the Divisionalized Form as well. But all these configurations have been around for some time. In contrast, Adhocracy is new. And every new structure, because it solves problems the old ones could not, attracts a dedicated following—one enamored with its advantages and blind to its problems. With this kind of support, time is required to bring its issues into focus—time to live with the structure and learn about its weaknesses as well as its strengths, especially in the case of a configuration as complex as Adhocracy.

Nevertheless, some of the issues associated with Adhocracy are ap- parent, and three in particular merit attention here: its ambiguities and the reactions of people who must live with them, its inefficiencies, and its propensity to make inappropriate transitions to other configurations.

1. Human reactions to ambiguity

Many people, especially creative ones, dislike both structural rigidity and concentration of power. That leaves them only one configuration. Ad- hocracy is the one that is both organic and decentralized. Thus they find it a great place to work. In essence, Adhocracy is the only configuration for those who believe in more democracy with less bureaucracy.

But not every structure can be an Adhocracy. The organization’s con- ditions must call for it. Forcing Adhocracy on, say, a simple, stable en- vironment is as unnatural—and therefore as unpleasant for the partici- pants—as forcing Machine Bureaucracy on a complex, dynamic one. Furthermore, not everyone shares the same vision of organizational uto- pia. As we saw in Chapter 9, there are those who prefer the life of Machine Bureaucracy, a life of stability and well-defined relationships. They, in fact, dislike the relationships of Adhocracy, viewing it as a nice place to visit but no place to spend a career. Even dedicated members of the Adhocracies periodically exhibit the same low tolerance for its fluidity, confusion, and ambiguity. “In these situations, all managers some of the time, and many managers all the time, yearn for more definition and structure” (Burns and Stalker, 1966:122-23).

Earlier we discussed two of the common responses Reeser (1969) received when he asked managers in three aerospace companies, “What are some of the human problems of project organization?” Of the other eight responses Reeser reports, six, in fact, relate to structural ambiguities: anxiety related to the eventual phaseout of the projects; confusion of mem- bers as to who their boss is, whom to impress to get promoted; low sense of member loyalty owing to frequent transfers between project organiza- tions; a lack of clarity in job definitions, authority relationships, and lines of communication; random and unplanned personal development because of the short time under any one manager; and intense competition for resources, recognition, and rewards.

Reeser’s last point raises another major problem of ambiguity, the politicization of the structure. Coupling its ambiguities with its interde- pendencies, Adhocracy emerges as the most politicized of the five config- urations. No structure can be more Darwinian than the Adhocracy—more supportive of the fit, as long as they remain fit, and more destructive of the weak. Structures this fluid tend to be highly competitive and at times ruthless—breeding grounds for all kinds of political forces. The French have a graphic expression for this: un panier de crabes—a basket of crabs, all clawing at each other to get up, or out. Take, for example, matrix structure: as noted earlier, what it does is establish an adversary system, thereby institutionalizing organizational conflict.

There are conflicts that breed politics in the other configurations, too, as we have noted in each of the last four chapters. But these conflicts are always contained within well-defined ground rules. In the Simple Struc- ture, the politics that do take place are directed at the chief executive. But his close, personal control precludes much of the political activity in the first place; those who do not like the structure simply get out. And in all the bureaucratic configurations, conflicts and politics are focused on well- defined issues—the power of line versus staff or professional versus non- professional, the resistance of workers to the control mentality, the biasing of information sent up to the central headquarters, the ambiguities of pigeonholing, and so on. In the Professional Bureaucracy, for example, highly trained experts with considerable power are naturally predisposed to do battle with each other, most often over territorial imperatives. But at least these battles are guided by professional norms and affiliations. And their incidence is sharply reduced by the fact that the professionals work largely on their own, often with their own clients. Not so in the Adhocracy, where specialists from different professions must work together on multi- disciplinary teams, and where, owing to the organic nature of the struc- ture, the political games that result are played with few rules. Adhocracy requires the specialist to subordinate his individual goals and the stan- dards of his profession to the needs of the group, in spite of the fact that he, like his colleague in the Professional Bureaucracy, remains—potentially at least—a strong individualist.

In bureaucracies—especially of the machine type—management must spend a good deal of time trying to bottle up the conflict. But in the Adhocracy, that must not be done—even if it could be. Such efforts only stifle creativity. Conflict and aggressiveness are necessary elements in the Adhocracy; management’s job is to channel them toward productive ends.

2. Problems of efficiency

No structure is better suited to solving complex, ill-structured problems than that of Adhocracy. None can match it for sophisticated innovation. Or, unfortunately, for the costs of that innovation. Adhocracy is simply not an efficient structure. Although it is ideally suited for the one-of-a-kind project, the Adhocracy is not competent at doing ordinary things. It is designed for the extraordinary. The bureaucracies are all mass producers; they gain efficiency through standardization. The Adhocracy is a custom producer, unable to standardize and so to be efficient.

The root of its inefficiency is the Adhocracy’s high cost of commu- nication. People talk a lot in these structures; that is how they combine their knowledge to develop new ideas. But that takes time, a great deal. Faced with the need to make a decision in the Machine Bureaucracy, some- one up above gives an order and that is that. Not so in the Adhocracy. Everyone gets into the act. First are all the managers who must be con-suited—functional managers, project managers, liaison managers. Then there are all the specialists who believe their point of view should be represented in the decision. A meeting is called, probably to schedule another meeting, eventually to decide who should participate in the deci- sion. Then those people settle down to the decision process. The problem is defined and redefined, ideas for its solution are generated and debated, alliances build and fall around different solutions, and eventually everyone settles down to hard bargaining about the favored one. Finally, a decision emerges—that in itself is an accomplishment—although it is typically late and will probably be modified later. All this is the cost of having to find a creative solution to a complex, ill-structured problem.

It should be noted, however, that the heavy costs incurred in reach- ing a decision are partially recuperated in its execution. Widespread par- ticipation in decision making ensures widespread support for the decisions made. So the execution stage can be smoother in the Adhocracy than in the Machine Bureaucracy, where resistance by the operators, not party to the decision, is often encountered.

A further source of inefficiency in the Adhocracy is the unbalanced workloads, as mentioned earlier. It is almost impossible to keep the per- sonnel of a project structure—high-priced personnel, it should be noted— busy on a steady basis. In January, the specialists are playing bridge for want of work; in March, they are working overtime with no hope of com- pleting the new project on time.

3. The dangers of inappropriate transition

Of course, one solution to the problems of ambiguity and inefficiency is to change the structure. Employees no longer able to tolerate the ambiguity and customers fed up with the inefficiency try to drive the structure to a more stable, bureaucratic form.

That is relatively easily done in the Operating Adhocracy, as noted earlier. The organization simply selects the standard programs it does best and goes into the business of doing them. It becomes a Professional Bu- reaucracy. Or else it uses its creative talent one last time to find a single market niche, and then turns itself into a Machine Bureaucracy to mass- produce in that niche.

But the transition from Operating Adhocracy into bureaucracy, how- ever easily effected, is not always appropriate. The organization came into being to solve problems imaginatively, not to apply standards indis- criminately. In many spheres, society has more mass producers than it needs; what it lacks are true problem solvers. It has little need for the laboratory that comes up with a modification of an old design when a new one is called for, the consulting firm ready with a standard technique when the client has a unique problem, the medical or university researcher who sees every new challenge in terms of an old theory. The standard output of bureaucracy will not do when the conditions call for the creativity of Adhocracy.

This seems to describe some of the problems of the television net- works. Despite their need to be creative, the networks face one irresistible pressure to bureaucratize: the requirement that they produce on a routine basis, hour after hour, night after night, with never a break. One would think they would tend toward Professional Bureaucracy structures, but Jay’s comments on his experiences as a producer for the BBC and other, comparable accounts in the literature suggest strong elements of Machine Bureaucracy. And the results are what one would expect of such struc- tures: stereotyped programming, stale jokes supported by canned laugh- ter, characters in serials that are interchangeable between channels, repeti- tion of the old movies. Interestingly, the two bright spots on TV are the news and the specials, for reasons already suggested in our discussion of Adhocracy. The news department, like the newspaper, faces a truly dy- namic environment. The networks can control and therefore stabilize the series, but never the news. Every day is different, and so, therefore, is every program. And the specials really are ad hoc—in this case, by the choice of the networks—and so lend themselves to the creative approach of Adhocracy. But elsewhere the pressures of the routine neutralize creativity, and the result is standardization.

Other organizations face these same dual pressures—to produce rou- tinely yet also be creative. Universities and teaching hospitals must, for example, serve their regular clients yet also produce creative research. Universities sometimes set up research centers to differentiate the research function from teaching activities. These centers enable the professors with the greatest potential for research—often poor teachers—to do it without interruption. In the absence of such differentiation, the organization risks falling into a schizophrenic state, continually wavering between two kinds of structure, never clearly isolating either, to the detriment of both.

The Administrative Adhocracy runs into more serious difficulties when it succumbs to the pressures to bureaucratize. It exists to innovate for itself, in its own industry. The conditions of dynamism and complexity, requiring sophisticated innovation, typically cut across the entire industry. So unlike the Operating Adhocracy, the Administrative Adhocracy cannot often select new clients yet remain in the same industry. And so its conver- sion to Machine Bureaucracy—the natural transition for the Administrative Adhocracy tired of perpetual change—by destroying the organization’s ability to innovate, can eventually destroy the organization itself.

To reiterate a central theme of our discussion throughout this book: in general, there is no one best structure; in particular, there may be, as long as the design parameters are internally consistent and together with the situational factors form a coherent configuration. We have delineated five such configurations in this last section of the book; their dimensions are summarized in Table 12-1.

Source: Mintzberg Henry (1992), Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Pearson; 1st edition.

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