What Type of Organization Do You Belong to?

In Juan Carlos Eichholz’s book, Adaptive Capacity, he defines four types of organizations: communal, innovative, bureaucratic, and action-driven. These categories are, in turn, based on two different factors: how hierarchical vs. participatory the organization is, and how internally vs. externally focused it is. The four categories are defined as follows:

  • Communal—Tend to exist in relatively stable environments where a larger proportion of the work is adaptive, or externally oriented
  • Innovative—Environment tends to be unstable and work is adaptive
  • Bureaucratic—A stable environment where work tends to be technical
  • Action-Driven—An unstable environment where work tends to be technical

Eichholz explains that the difference between adaptive and technical work is that “when faced with technical work, people have to do what they already know, as opposed to adaptive work, when they have to challenge their assumptions, values, loyalties, attitudes, competencies or habits by learning something they do not already know.”

For example, communal organizations tend to be organizations like non-profits, political parties, and schools. They are highly participatory because members need to experiment and communicate with each other in order to learn how to respond to various challenges, but they are internally oriented because the focus of the adaptive work tends to be centered on the organization itself and not on the external environment. At the opposite corner of the spectrum are action-driven organizations, which are highly hierarchical with clear chains of command and tend to be outwardly focused on a dynamic environment. Examples of these types of organizations include military, retail businesses, and real estate developers. Innovative organizations exist in unstable environments and must engage in near-constant adaptive work, and include examples such as technology start-ups, entertainment companies, and television networks. Finally, bureaucratic organizations include government, religious institutions, and utilities providers. The chart below shows where these different kinds of organizations lie in relation to each other.

organization chart

Of course, in the real world organizations rarely fall neatly into one of these four categories. Like most things, organizations exist on a spectrum, and some subdivisions of your organization may fall more into one category than others, or may perhaps reorganize themselves from time to time. Just because your organization as a whole falls into, for instance, the bureaucratic category, doesn’t mean that your department isn’t closer to the innovative end of the spectrum.

Once you understand what type of organization you are a part of, you will be better able to determine how it can increase its adaptive capacity. However, this mapping process can often be difficult, particularly if you are only responsible for a small part of a very large organization. This is where coaching can be especially valuable. If you’d like to know more about how a coach can help you identify and reflect on what type of organization you are a part of and how it can better respond to various challenges, feel free to get in touch with me via my website, LinkedIn, or Twitter. I look forward to hearing from you!

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