The Theme of Organic and Mechanistic Forces in Organizations and Societies

One of the most profound and helpful themes that I have come across in analyzing organizations is the theme of two forces: mechanistic and organic. This concept has been used to analyze organizational dynamics from businesses to entire nations. Briefly, in an organic organization the “way to do things” emerges from the bottom up. The direction, processes, and values of the organization are all generated from within the organization. This leads to a customized organizational structure, one that is generally difficult to capture in a diagram. Individual skills/knowledge, relationships, and personalities are very important driving forces as the organic organization evolves. Communication runs mostly laterally. The other force, mechanistic, is easier to envision: guidance for the “way to do things” comes from above. There is clearly defined structure that (one hopes) delineates decision-making authority and assigned tasks. Communication runs mostly vertically.

Yin-Yang

I first read about these two forces not from an analysis of business organizations, but from the history of China. In preparing for a trip to China in the late 1980s, I discovered an interpretation of Chinese history that described the 3,000 years of Chinese history as a sine curve: a ruler would have the Mandate of Heaven, the moral authority to rule over the kingdom (mechanistic), but over time, the dynasty would become corrupt. A new force would arise from the people (from the bottom up) to overthrow the corrupt regime. These organic forces would eventually become sufficiently powerful to destroy the existing dynasty, replacing it. Once established, this new power would assume top-down authority (mechanistic), and, in the beginning, would rule wisely. With the passage of time, however, that dynasty would also become corrupt, create resentment, and eventually be overthrown by organically generated opposing forces.

While we in the West tend to view history, especially our own history from 1500 onward, as linear, with a line progressing upward (with some nasty bumps along the way – see below, second diagram), this view of Chinese history suggests a sine curve, with predictable highs and lows and consistent repetition (see below, first diagram). For the sake of further analysis, if we were to attribute such a world-view to present Chinese leaders, one could see why the ruling Communist Party in China might feel somewhat anxious, as they try to determine where their current dynasty sits on the relentless sine curve of China’s history.

[Different views of history or human progress: repetitive ups and downs (sine curve) or steady progress upward (ascending line on graph):]

[Ascending Graph]

I later returned to the concept of mechanistic and organic forces when I read The Management of Innovation, by Tom Burns and G. M. Stalker. This book, written in 1961, examined engineering firms in postwar Britain as they entered into business environments where significant changes in technology and the markets were emerging. Overall, Burns and Stalker found that organizations that were more “organic,” that is, less hierarchical, were better suited for changing situations, while mechanistic management systems were better suited for stable environments.

My own experiences with large organizations suggest that this distinction, organic and mechanistic systems or forces, is more complex than simply labeling an organization one or the other. Reality makes this less an “either/or” proposition for an organization, and more of a “what is the right balance of each” question. Many of the key forces that define an organization and how it works are organic, that is, they develop from within the organization itself. Many of the habits and assumptions that determine how an organization behaves have emerged from the bottom up in the organization. We have all been in organizations where some lingering attitudes or beliefs were “home grown” over the years, and which, if undesirable (for example), proved to be very difficult to modify or eliminate, even through a concerted “top-down” effort. At the same time, all organizations, by definition, are stratified. Many organizations may pride themselves on being “flat,” but there will always be some form of hierarchy around direction, assigning resources, decision-making, and execution. Therefore, I suggest that we can make organizations more effective by viewing organic and mechanistic forces as the ying and yang of all organizations, and determining the best mix for given situations.

For example, there are certainly situations that call for straightforward hierarchy – the classic mechanistic approach. I recall the words of an oil executive to me, when he was describing the demands of an oil refinery: “We don’t want any experimentation – we want everyone to do exactly what they’re supposed to do.” There are times when the vertical lines of communication must work and work effectively.

But the organic forces are always present as well, especially on the emotional side. Although countless tyrants have tried, no one can command people’s emotions from above. The culture of an organization, that set of beliefs and assumptions that determines how things get done, is almost always heavily influenced by organic forces. Informal networks can emerge that are more effective than the formal relationships on the wire diagrams.

Besides organizations inherently being a mix of mechanistic and organic forces, some organizations seek to generate the advantage of an organic-leaning organization [please see my blog in three weeks on innovation] by encapsulating an organic sub-organization within a larger, more mechanistic one. This is the classic use of a skunk works, think-tank, or innovation center within the larger, mechanistic-leaning parent organization. Some of these attempts have been quite successful, as I will discuss in a later blog.

However, I believe there is a bias that distorts this organic/mechanistic yin and yang. Most courses in business and politics stress the importance of effective top-down management. There is far less celebration of creating an environment that allows for more bottom-up influence and creativity. The most effective organizations that I have observed, both in business and the military, are where strong organic values were consistently reinforced by wise, top-down actions. In those situations I observed people at all levels in effective organizations who were, individually, both reasonably happy and successful. That is a worthy goal, and we need leaders who will pursue it.