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In this article, Henry Mintzberg sharpens our view on organizations – their differences and similarities. The way we discuss organizations remains primitive, says Mintzberg.

Mintzberg about Species of Organizations

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.

Henry Mintzberg about species of organizations

Years ago I set out to address this problem, in a book called The Structuring of Organizations (later issued in a shorter form called Structure in Fives). It has proven 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 theater, 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.

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.

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 to screw it up entirely, you have to appreciate that it gets its effectiveness by being inefficient. Without some slack, innovation dies.

These species don’t just HAVE different cultures; they ARE different cultures

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.”

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.

References

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

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ManageMagazine would like to thank Henry Mintzberg for these great words about Species of Organizations, which were originally published on Henry Mintzberg’s Blog.

Follow the link to find Mintzberg’s book: Mintzberg on Management

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I currently hold the Cleghorn Professorship of Management Studies at McGill University; the Desautels Faculty of Management. I've been an academic most of my working life. I devote myself largely to writing and research, over the years especially about managerial work, strategy formation, and forms of organizing. In recent years, I have shifted toward more general writing, including commentaries. In all, I have published about 170 articles, and 17 books.

1 COMMENT

  1. I like to distinguish between centripetal and centrifugal organizations. These are “subspecies” of information-focussed organizations, which tend to be in the public or 3rd sector, though private-sector organizations increasing fall into that category (Facebook, Google, et al.). Statistics agencies and universities are centrifugal in that they gather information but distribute it widely. Whatever they gather must *necessarily* be disseminated. Centripetal organizations gather information but tend to hoard it. In some respects, being centrifugal vs centripetal is a cultural/management/attitudinal difference between variants of the overarching species of information-gathering organizations. Organizations such as Facebook and Google, for whom privileged big-data is their bread and butter, are a little centrifugal and a little centripetal. How much of each, they aren’t saying. The RCMP and CIA are more centripetal than centrifugal.

    I suppose the problem for managers and employees in organizations that are a bit of each is when to distribute the gathered information, and when to hoard; when to be satisfied with hoarding/dissemination, and when to be frustrated by it. We’ve seen a few recent instances where employees who feel the organization should be centrifugal become labelled as “whistleblowers”.

    I suspect, as well, that “fit” of an employee is also a function of their understanding of what species of organization they have attached themselves to. My own understanding of what often gets called “engagement” is that employees can become very disengaged when their assumptions of what type/species of organization they have joined conflicts with management’s view of the organizational species. After all, species defines what role each employee has, and unclear roles make for restless employees.

    Alternatively, an organization that views itself as one species, and gets swallowed up following a merger or acquisition, by a larger body that wants it to be a different species, or that has a change in self-definition for some reason, can result in disaffected employees. I recall well a conversation I had with a woman working at Canada’s former Citizenship and Immigration back in 2002. She told me that, prior to 09/11 she and her fellow employees thought of themselves as Canada’s “welcome wagon”. In the wake of the WTC tragedy, the department was re-imagined as an impenetrable wall, and she found it very hard to adapt to the new mission and self-image.

    But these are wrinkles in what you propose as a broader model. Strains, if you will, nested under subspecies, species, families, and phylae.

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