In Praise of Adhocracy

Like many smart ideas, Warren Bennis’ ’adhocracy’ – a word he devised to describe the antithesis of a rigid, centralised bureaucratic structure – has had to wait an extraordinary long time to become fully appreciated.  Bennis coined the word in 1968 in The Temporary Society (which he wrote with Philip Slater) to celebrate unstructured, agile and improvisational organisational models.  His thinking was subsequently taken up by a host of eminent business thinkers including Toffler, Mintzberg and Robert Waterman (Tom Peter’s collaborator on In Search of Excellence) who’s book, Adhocracy was published over twenty years ago.

The circumstances in which we now live have arguably made Bennis’ thinking more relevant than ever. New patterns of consumer behaviour and changing expectations, new technology, combined with a bewilderingly complex social, cultural, economic, political and environmental landscape, make the idea of an ‘adhocracy’ appear particularly attractive. Centralized, hierarchical systems made sense in a world in which information and knowledge were relatively scarce commodities and could be tightly controlled, but the decentralization of knowledge, brought about by the inexorable rise of the internet, combined with a collapse of trust in traditional sources of authority and expertise, legitimizes the creation of flatter, decentralized operational models.  Rapidly changing customer expectations are also forcing institutions to operate and respond in real time, placing a premium on agility, flexibility and an ability to improvise. Longer term planning and cautious, careful deliberation are increasingly becoming luxuries that few organizations can afford.  The adhocracy has finally found its moment.

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