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Adaptive Organizations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Abels
March 25, 2016

From an historical perspective, the field of public administration has progressed through several stages e.g., old public administration, new public administration, new public management. Through each stage discreet management philosophies emerged, each oriented to the environmental, political and economic environment that influenced the public organization in that era.

This article poses a fundamental question for public administration: Has public administration entered a new, profoundly different era, one where a new philosophy for public management and leadership must be designed? Reflecting this futuristic thought, Larry Arrington in his forthcoming book, The Civitas Project, states that our organizational structures, as well as our management-leadership tools are not adequate to meet today’s complex environment.

Four societal conditions are reshaping public administration. First, our economic system continues evolving through a fundamental transformation that has lead to citizen disillusionment about attainment of the “American dream.” Second, the social system is experiencing seismic change as we approach the status of a majority-minority nation. Third, the complexity of problems requires we dissolve parochial boundaries and interconnect public, private and civic organizations to maximize resources targeted to address societal problems. Fourth is the deterioration of the nation’s social infrastructure. The public is losing faith in our political and civic institutions. A Gallup survey found fewer than 50 percent of citizens possess confidence in nearly all public as well as private institutions.

If these social, economic, political trends are enduring fixtures of American civic infrastructure then the field of public administration must radically transform the hierarchical organizational model through which we have historically guided our public organizations. The accepted hierarchical command and control management structure with principles such as unity of command, hierarchy of authority, span of control must be integrated and possibly replaced with a decentralized system where participatory decisions and delegated authority are the norms.

General Stanley McCrystal in Team of Teams says the old hierarchal structure was effective in tackling complicated problems with clearly recognized solutions, but is not effective in addressing today’s complex problems, which do not have defined boundaries or linear solutions and cannot be solved by just one organization. As our public organizations increasingly operate in a complex environment, what design characteristics should shape the 21st century organization? What management/leadership characteristics should public managers utilize?

I would suggest that in this era of disruption, public administrators should view the public organizational system much as we view a well-formed tree. The trunk is the historical, hierarchical structure through which the organizational units or branches are fed resources, information and knowledge. The limbs and branches are the organizational units and teams, which operate collaboratively, but independently from the trunk as they accomplish their assigned mission.

sky-221528_640In the “tree” organization, the units or teams may consist of members as well as resources from other public, private and civic organizations. The branches operate relatively independently from the solid, fixed trunk. But unlike a physical tree, in the new organization the branches must all be interconnected. Limbs of the organization sense how the environment is changing and they move in response to the wind, making independent decisions necessary to be effective in the new age.

The trunk, or top management, does not direct or control the actions of the limbs and branches as the branches must react quickly and move in any direction based on the forces and environment they face. The trunk functions to insure information is provided about environmental conditions, personnel are trained and possess required resources, outcomes are evaluated and results communicated throughout the tree. One of the key responsibilities of the trunk is to evaluate, create and sustain coordination of all branches.

The “tree” organization will be noted by:

  1. Initiative
  2. Delegation of responsibility with authority to all branches
  3. Speed
  4. Flexibility
  5. 360 communication
  6. Collaboration across units and organizations
  7. Citizen engagement
  8. Transparency and openness

The Genesee County Michigan Sheriff demonstrated an example of the “tree” organization after the Mayor of Flint declared a state of emergency due to contamination of the city’s water supply. Seeing a human tragedy and realizing the state was not responding, the Sheriff took a proactive leadership role. While providing clean water was not his “organizational” mission, the welfare of the citizens of Flint was implied in his public safety mission. Therefore, he assigned his agency with a public water mission.

Sheriff Pickell mobilized his office to find, and distribute water filters and bottled water to the residents of Flint. He mobilized private and public resources to be members of a larger team. The Sheriff saw the emergency need, adopted a new temporary mission, mobilized resources, delegated responsibility and authority throughout his organization to distribute needed filters and water to the residents of Flint.

In conclusion, if public administration is undergoing transformational change and now operates in a state of disruptive conditions, how should the paradigm though which we organize, manage, and lead the public organization be crafted?  Who will take the lead in designing the new “tree” organizational paradigm? ASPA possibly?


Author: Michael Abels is a lecturer at the University of Central Florida. Email: [email protected]

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2 Responses to Adaptive Organizations

  1. Pingback: PA News: 11/07/2016 | IIAS Knowledge Portal on Public Administration

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