The post-bureaucratic organisation

Steve Freeman tweeted this interesting review by Kailash Awati of a case study by Dr Damian Hodgson, drawing in turn, and in part, on work from the 1990s by Charles Heckscher on the Post-Bureaucratic Organisation.

The Heckscher paper is long and carefully-nuanced: he’s not, for example, making the case that bureaucracy is inherently bad, though he does observe that over time, and without an impetus to change, this mode of organisation becomes less and less adaptive. There are times and circumstances where bureaucracy might have value, but it’s clear, I think, that Post-Bureaucracy is a much more humane, habitable and sustainable place to be.

The key distinctions Heckscher makes are summarised by Hodgson:

Characteristics of Bureaucratic and Post-Bureaucratic Organisations
Bureaucracy Post-Bureaucracy
Consensus through Acquiescence to Authority Consensus through Institutionalized Dialogue
Influence based on Formal Position Influence through Persuasion/Personal Qualities
Internal Trust Immaterial High Need for Internal Trust
Emphasis on Rules and Regulations Emphasis on Organizational Mission
Information Monopolised at Top of Hierarchy Strategic Information shared in Organization
Focus on Rules for Conduct Focus on Principles Guiding Action
Fixed (and Clear) Decision Making Processes Fluid/Flexible Decision Making Processes
Communal Spirit/Friendship Groupings Network of Specialized Functional Relationships
Hierarchical Appraisal Open and Visible Peer Review Processes
Definite and Impermeable Boundaries Open and Permeable Boundaries
Objective Rules to ensure Equity of Treatment Broad Public Standards of Performance
Expectation of Constancy Expectation of Change

These all feel remarkably familiar, and congruent with the aims and values of lean and Agile thinking.

I’m doing a lot of thinking at the moment on organisations and how they change. I like the distinction drawn by Ronald Heifitz between Technical Change and Adaptive Change. Technical change – the equivalent of following a diet book or joining a gym in the vain hope of losing weight or getting fit – is about changing what we do. Adaptive change is about changing who we are: being the sort of person who eats healthily or enjoys being fit. So much agile adoption, especially in large and bureaucratic organisations, is about the former.

On a related note, I’m being challenged and stimulated by Ricardo Semler’s Maveric just now, and finding a distinct relationship to a much older book on organisations, Robert Townsend’s Up the Organisation (sadly out of print, but well worth grabbing a second-hand copy). Townsend was writing without the dubious benefit of the last four decade’s explosion in organisational theorising and organisational change: allowing for different times and circumstances, everything he says makes sense. Semler and Townsend are – maybe – different points on the journey to the post-bureaucratic organisation, Townsend on the path (from the perspective of a challenge to received 1960s business wisdom), Semler an extreme example of an achieved organisation, in which sustainability and quality of (organisational) life is the goal, and profitability only a means.

So some questions:

  • Do Agile and Lean need a post-bureaucratic organisation to succeed?
  • If the environment in which they’re introduced is not such, do they tend to create one or evolve towards one?
  • Is such evolution inevitable?

What do you think?

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