A Leader’s Toolbox: Organization and Adaptability

Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal are two scholars who in 2008 published a seminal book on organizational management called “Reframing Organizations”. Their work was the result of many years of research and presented a complex historical analysis of some of the biggest organizational structures in the world today. By looking at examples such as Harvard University and McDonald’s, Bolman and Deal concluded that even the most complex structures must employ some level of adhocracy that allows them to be molded according to the changes in their environments. For the authors, at any given moment an organization’s structure represents its resolution of an enduring set of organizational dilemmas. Meaning that organizational structures must retain a certain level of fluidity and adaptability. This level of adaptability allows for ad hoc changes brought about by the continuous self-assessment and self-criticism.

Bolman and Deal use Mintzberg’s five-sector model to illustrate how organizations can restructure adaptively. The base sector is consisted of the operation core, the people who accomplish the basic tasks. It is followed by an administrative component that supervises and controls operation. Next, the technostructure and support staff analyze and facilitate the work of others, followed by a strategic apex of senior managers who focus on the outside environment, determine the mission, and provide the grand design. For the authors, this model is highly adaptable in five basic configurations: simple structure, machine bureaucracy, professional bureaucracy, divisionalized form and adhocracy.

Bolman and Deal’s use of Mintzberg’s five-sector blueprint shows the need for fluidity in today’s dynamic and ever-changing world of businesses and organizations. The blueprint is a tool to reshape old structures and outdated organograms that provide little flexibility. We currently live in a time where organizations must keep their “edge” by adapting to the demands of the sectors they wish to serve. I am always perplexed when I come across articles that often have catchy titles like, “8 Companies that Have Lost Their Edge”, “17 Jobs that didn’t exist a Decade Ago” or “25 Businesses that Failed to Adapt to the Internet”. At their core there always seems to be a case study concerning the failure of Blockbuster, Borders and other giant organizations. Regardless of the subject matter, what stands out from these trends is the often unpredictable and highly volatile reality that organizations must now navigate, and how some of the old maps of organizational structures are no longer useful today.

Bolman and Deal’s insight has very practical implications in my own missional practice. I have had the privilege of being in fulltime ministry for about fifteen years. For the majority of this time I have worked alongside of a specific individual that has had formative influence in my life. Together, we have worked in church plants, NGOs and education organizations in a variety of cultural and socioeconomic settings. He now works as a consultant and coach for churches and Christian leaders, while I have become a missionary to Greece and now doing ministry back home. Among the many maxims I picked up from him along the years is an example from the theology of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Based on the Genesis story he used to say that, “Life produces order but order can never produce life”.

By this, he meant that the organism comes before the organization, which in turn becomes indispensable in nurturing and sustaining the life of that organism. For him, models for organizational structures could never produce new life. Rather, the existing life within a particular reality is to be the force that shaped the structural model needed to sustain it. Organisms adapt and organize in order not only to survive, but also to thrive. In many ways, his maxim agrees with Bolman and Deal in that a given resolution of structural tensions may be right for a particular time and circumstance, but changes in the organization and its environment will eventually require some form of structural adaptation.

For about a decade I worked in Greece as a missionary. Perhaps no other context has gone through the dynamic changes Greece faced in the last ten years. Indexes in Greece are always mind-blowing. Emigration has surpassed a thousand percent whilst  unemployment is at record highs. All of these factors had forced local churches and ministries to adapt to a new environment. While many have struggled to survive, others have found new ways of organizing to preserve life. Like the organizations studied by Bolman and Lee, churches and other Christian institutions are often global historical structures guided by tradition. While tradition helps to place us within a grander narrative, Christian leaders must also be sensitive to their environment, allowing adaptability to reframe rigid structures.

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