Species of Organizations

14 April 2016

There are species of organizations just as there are species of animals. Don’t mix them up. A bear is not a beaver; one winters in caves, the other in wooden structures they build for themselves. Hospitals are not factories; advertising agencies are not fast food companies.

This may seem obvious, but while we recognize the different species of animals, we often mix up the different species of organizations. How often have management consultants come into one kind of organization and treated it like another—say tried to deal with a hospital the way they have just dealt with an automobile factory. (It might work in the cafeteria, but how about geriatrics?) Of course, we do use these kinds of words—hospitals, advertising agencies—but they designate industries, not the nature of their organizations.

Our vocabulary for understanding organizations is really quite primitive. We use the word organization the way biologists use the word mammal, except that we can’t get past it. Imagine if this was the case in biology.

Two biologists meet to discuss where mammals should spend the winter. “Obviously in a cave”, says the one who studies bears. “Are you kidding?” says the other who studies beavers, “Their predators will come in and kill them. They need to build protective lodges.” They talk past each other, just as does the manager of a hospital who might try to explain to a consultant that it is not a factory.

Years ago I set out to address this problem, in a book called The Structuring of Organizations (later issued in shorter form called Structure in Fives). It has proved to be my most successful book, for many years widely used in schools around the world. But not successful enough: the way we discuss organizations remains primitive. So let me offer my framework of four basic species of organizations.

The Machine Organization  Many organizations function like well-oiled machines. They are about efficiency, namely getting the greatest quantitative bang for the quantitative buck. Accordingly, everything is programmed, to the finest detail—for example how many seconds before a McDonald’s cook turns over a hamburger patty. This makes it easy to train the workers, but not to keep these workers: their jobs can be boring and the controls stifling. The machine organization is great at what it does well—we want that wake-up call in the hotel at 8:00, not 8:01—but not outside its own context. (Would you like to lift the pillow in your hotel room and have a Jack-in-the-box jump up and say “Surprise!” You are not there to be amused. But if you are in a movie theatre, beware of films made by machine-like film companies.)

The Professional Organization This second species is programmed too, but in an entirely different way. It is about proficiency more than efficiency. In hospitals, accounting firms, and many engineering offices, the critical work is highly skilled—it takes years of training—yet most of the time it can be surprisingly routine. (Imagine being wheeled into an operating room as a nurse says: “You have nothing to worry about: this is a highly creative surgeon!”) In the professional organization, sometimes people seem to work in teams, but in fact they are usually working largely on their own. Everyone in that operating room is carrying out his or her own procedures according to the predetermined protocols. More to the point, each of the musicians in an orchestra is playing to the notes written for his or her own instrument by Beethoven, more than responding to the conductor (as suggested in the photo above).

The Entrepreneurial Organization  Yet we venerate the orchestra conductor as if this is the epitome of leadership. Again, we are mixing up species. In the entrepreneurial organization, central leadership dominates, while in orchestras there is more going on than this, as suggested above (and as will be discussed in the next two TWOGs).  The best examples of this species are often found in entrepreneurial firms created by visionaries—as in the case of a Steve Jobs at Apple. Sometimes older organizations in crisis take on this form as they centralize power around their leadership to deal with the problem. And let’s not forget totalitarian political regimes, like Putin’s Russia. When the boss of an entrepreneurial organization says “Jump!” the response is “How high sir?” (When the executive director of a hospital says “Jump”, the doctors ask “Why?” In an orchestra, some of the musicians might have a tantrum.)

The Project Organization  This fourth species is different again. Here the work is also highly skilled, but the experts have to work in teams, to combine their efforts for the sake of innovation. Think about film companies, advertising agencies, research laboratories: this is found in many kinds of high tech industries. Here the experts work on projects, to create novel outputs—a film, an ad campaign, a new product. (Over the years I have called this species the Innovative Organization, and Adhocracy.) To understand the project organization, and if you are one of its managers not screw it up entirely, you have to appreciate that it gets its effectiveness by being inefficient. Without some slack, innovation dies.

Each of these species requires its own kind of structure, its own style of management, very different power relationships, and so on. I have no space to go into all of this here—an accessible reference, mentioned at the end, does that. Let me just add that these species don’t just HAVE different cultures; they ARE different cultures. Walk into different ones and you can almost smell the differences.

Yet if you read the popular literature on organizations with these species in mind, you will find that the vast majority of it is about machine organizations, without ever admitting or even realizing it. The bulk of this is about how to become more machine-like: get better systems, do more formal planning, measure everything in sight, tighten up, become more “efficient”. And the rest is about how to compensate for the worst effects of this species—how to make the workers happier, or at least less miserable. Harry Braverman has referred to the human relations (now human resource) people who try to do this as “the maintenance crew for the human machinery.”1

Of course, I have been discussing these species as if all organizations are one or the other. Of course not, although some organizations do come remarkably close—in the order presented, a McDonald's, a Mayo Clinic, Putin’s Russia, a creative film set. Yet even so, a machine-like mass producer can have its adhocratic product development team while a hospital has its machine-like cafeteria (not to mention the need for a creative team when something does go wrong in that operating room). And then there are the hybrids—for example, a pharmaceutical company with adhocracy in its research, professional in its development, and machine in its production.

Does that mean we cannot use this framework? Quite the contrary; we need such a vocabulary even more, so that we can talk more sensibly about what is going on—within our organizations as well as across them.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. The original book, The Structuring of Organizations (1979), is difficult to get and the shorter version, Structure in Fives (1983) is priced outrageously. Happily though, the best and most recent rendition is readily available and reasonably priced, as Part II (200 pages long) of my book Mintzberg on Management. The situation in other languages is different; all three have been translated into many languages, and may be more readily available. I hope to do a new edition of the book at some point. 

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Next week, the result of treating a symphony orchestra like a machine, and the week after, challenging the metaphor of the manager as orchestra conductor. 

1 H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The degradation of work in the Twentieth Century (Monthly Review Press, 1974:87).