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Reading :: Adhocracy

Posted by: on Oct 2, 2012 | No Comments

By Robert H. Waterman, Jr.

Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock coined the term “ad-hocracy” to describe “the fast-moving, information-rich, kinetic organization of the future, filled with transient cells and extremely mobile individuals” (Toffler 1970, p.144). Such adhocracies (let’s drop the hyphen), Toffler said, would be composed of experts from different fields who came together to swarm a project objective, rotated leadership during different phases, then dispersed at the end of the project.

Toffler’s observation, and especially his term, really took off in the literature. For instance, Mintzberg’s The Structuring of Organizations theorized adhocracies within a larger framework of organizational structures and characteristics. Robert Quinn and associates wrote both articles and books (such as Cameron and Quinn’s Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework) describing adhocracies as one quadrant of a larger framework of organizational cultures. Others similarly took up the term.

Twenty years after Future Shock, Waterman published this thin volume, simply named Adhocracy. It’s not an academic study, it’s a business book, and its definition of adhocracy is right on the front cover: “Any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results.” Similarly, on p.16, he defines it “broadly” as “any organizational form that challenges the bureaucracy in order to embrace the new.” That is, in Waterman’s view, an adhocracy functions within the setting of an established bureaucracy. In fact, he says, “I’ve focused on the most common, sturdy, and visible ad hoc form: the project team, or task force” (p.17).

Startlingly, Waterman says that although Toffler introduced the idea of the adhocracy in Future Shock (and he also cites Warren Bennis’ 1960s work as a precursor), “nobody ever really fleshed out the idea, applied it to the business world, sought out success stories, or outlined their common themes” (p.19). This is the task that Waterman takes up—and the results, I think, tell us a lot about Waterman’s time and place.

Drawing on interviews and stories from managers, Waterman states that adhocracies need “clear and visible executive support” to thrive (p.28). Since adhocratic work is unstructured and untied to the bureaucratic position (particularly compensation), he says, it requires a managerial perspective and frequent management interaction (p.31). Teams, he says, must represent all parts of the bureaucracy, both horizontally (across the departments in the org chart) and vertically (down the levels of hierarchy in the org chart) (p.36)—and one way to ensure this representation is to use the “diagonal slice” method, slicing diagonally across the org chart to select the appropriate diversity of team members (p.37). To summarize, in Waterman’s view, adhocracy is a construct of the existing bureaucracy rather than a different kind of organization.

Indeed, Waterman cautions against measures that threaten the existing bureaucracy, since these measures will also destroy the viability of adhocracies. Writing in 1990, he says, “In the rush to downsize and de-layer, most companies don’t have the human resources to make adhocracy work as well as it should. If you agree that rapid change is here to stay and that team efforts work only when staffed with good people, then it’s hard not to conclude that there is such a thing as being too lean and too mean” (p.45). Later, Waterman argues that “adhocracy can flourish only in an atmosphere that discourages bureaucratic excess and uses the bureaucracy to structure team efforts” (pp.97-98). Compare these statements with Toffler’s description of the adhocracy—”the fast-moving, information-rich, kinetic organization of the future, filled with transient cells and extremely mobile individuals” (Toffler 1970, p.144)—and you’ll realize how much this vision diverges from Toffler’s. For Waterman, the adhocracy is a temporary tactic deployed within, and reliant on, an existing bureaucracy.

As we know, Waterman’s call to resist downsizing was ignored; by 2000, companies were outsourcing all but their core functions. Yet, I would argue, adhocracies did flourish outside of and between organizations—in great part because they were no longer forcibly layered over bureaucratic organizations. But that’s an argument I’ll develop elsewhere.

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