Show me a businesses and I will show you an organism.
Alvin Toffler’s Adhocracy is a theory of organisational architecture geared towards flexibility and cutting across typical bureaucratic lines. It’s aimed at political organisations but lets see if we can bend it into shape for business and digital.
Adhocracies basic tenets are:
- highly organic and non-permanent structure
- little formalisation of behaviour
- low standardization of procedures
- staff are deployed where needed, as needed
- projects may not have executive mandate
- roles are not clearly defined or assigned (open allocation)
- selective decentralisation
- power shifts to where it’s required
Sounds like anarchy!
Why do we need this?
The setup of most businesses is a hangover from 50 years ago.
A typical laundry list of todays organisational problems goes like this: siloed departments, political infighting, budgetary conflicts, ever changing technology, hissy fits over reporting lines, mind-blowing inefficiencies, poor resource allocation and conflicting priorities.
Adhocracy is attempting to respond to these issues by simply making them redundant.
Adhocracy however, is still a system with rules and boundaries. While the rules may be flexible or informal there is still an order that makes the system work. These boundaries create conditions that govern behaviour and channel outcomes in one direction or another.
What does it look like?
…like a creature with a backbone that can attach and rearrange it’s limbs as needed. This backbone is formed of a strategic apex, a small business and administration core whose main responsibility is to maintain mission focus and interoperability.
Think about it like your favourite sports team: the coach, team manager and admin staff are relatively permanent fixtures while players are hired, fired or traded to other teams each season.
The difference is that, in business, the institutional knowledge held by the individual players counts for a lot more.
Minimum Viable Adhocracy
Suppose I asked you to throw out all the rules organise a digital business around the idea of an Adhocracy. What would it look like? What rules would we still need?
A few suggestions might be:
1. Accountability and rank
A modern business wants accountability for many practical and legal reasons. Decisions with significant impact need to rest on the shoulders of someone with appropriate responsibility and ownership. This means that someone’s decision can overrules others. This creates an ordinal hierarchy (though not necessarily structural hierarchy) which can be thought of as rank.
2. Objective, mission or vision
In this organisation, many of the usual carrots and sticks that control workflow have now been removed. Clear and ever present objectives instead serve as a map of what to work on next. They are the gravity of the organisation.
It’s true that sometimes you need to begin work without knowing your objectives (a boat is easier to steer after it starts moving) so in these cases objective could be replaced by strategic intent or vision.
3. Integrated skillsets/teams
Often, the ideal team for a job is made of skillsets that run across traditional departments, so it makes little sense to care about grouping people by skill-focused departments.
Grouping people by project is perhaps better, yet most people work on multiple projects at once, is there a better way? Do we need to group people into teams at all? How do we balance BAU work with project task forces?
4. Distributed Leadership
If we remove departmental and team structures then good leadership becomes even more important.
Projects that need a diverse range of expertise to succeed suggest that one person, who specialises in one area, is unlikely to provide expert leadership through the whole project. Eventually they will be outside their area of expertise.
“In battle the one who leads is the one who can see the best”
Perhaps it’s ok for the project lead to be whoever is the most relevant person at any point in time? This makes further sense when you realise that most team members are progressing their careers through different ladders. A senior programmer may never have the expertise that a junior designer has and vice versa. It makes sense for a junior to lead when they have the most expertise.
This gives rise to the quality of status as a fluid and temporary identifier of the role staff are playing on a project.
6. Agile business posture
Complexity is increasing. Business today is an ever increasing number of technologies, processes, skillsets operating in shorter time frames. Ideally businesses want answers but complexity is a fog making some outcomes impractical to predict ahead of time.
The next best thing is to develop a posture that allows an organisation to respond or choose to act as problems and opportunities arise.
Posture is a organisational understanding, shared skills and the will to create, arrange and rearrange it’s capabilities and itself as required. It is the design process applied to business.
How could this all go terribly wrong?
What kind of things could cause a system like this to be rejected or become dysfunctional?
- People who do not work well outside of structure
- People who prefer the stability of a defined role and do not do well with constant readaptation
- People who prefer a non-proactive structure
- Team members with valuable ideas who prefer to work with formal leadership
- Conflicting priorities — This often stems from different department heads pulling a shared resource pool in different directions. — What would happen in a less formal and decentralised environment?
- Popularity contests hijack the process
- A concept that’s likely dependent on high levels of tech, aptitude, motivation, training and automation
- Perhaps not suited to large companies
Where has this been tried?
- Steam famously operates as in an extremely adhocratic way. You can read their new employee manual here.
- A number of other tech companies such as Github, 37Signals and Treehouse
Adhocracy is, for the most part, still academic and (in keeping with the concept) loosely defined. It’s been shown to work extremely well in the right circumstances.
The bigger question is perhaps what do you do when an organisation needs to behave like both an adhocracy and a bureaucracy? Is there a happy middle ground?
Article originally published 02 March 2015 on dermotholmes.com