Organic Organizations 595
Photo by: Dmitry Sunagatov

The term "organic" suggests that, like living things, organizations change their structures, roles, and processes to respond and adapt to their environments. Burns and Stalker noted in The Management of Innovation that organic structures are appropriate in unstable, turbulent, unpredictable environments and for non-routine tasks and technologies. For organizations coping with such uncertainty, finding appropriate, effective, and timely responses to environmental challenges is of critical importance. Organic organizations are characterized by:

In organic organizations, the emphasis is on effectiveness, problem solving, responsiveness, flexibility, adaptability, creativity, and innovation. Such an organization is able to respond in a timely manner to environmental change because employees are empowered to be creative, to experiment, and to suggest new ideas. The process of innovation is triggered by employees throughout the organization in a "bottom-up" manner. The following four sections explain how these characteristics fit together in a cohesive organizational structure that allows for flexibility and ongoing change.


An unstable external environment increases the uncertainty and complexity with which an organization must contend. An organization is continually confronted with a variety of new and unexpected problems and opportunities, of which the nature and relevant factors are initially unclear and for which appropriate responses are not immediately obvious. Further, since the environment changes rapidly, responses to today's problems and opportunities may need to be modified or may even be inappropriate or irrelevant to tomorrow's challenges. In short, the organization cannot keep doing the same old things in the same old ways. Under conditions of uncertainty and complexity, the organization must design its structures and processes to be flexible and responsive to changes in customer desires, technology, governmental regulations, and economic conditions.


The need for flexibility and responsiveness leads to the decentralization of decision-making authority in organic organizations. As a result, rules, regulations, procedures, and policies tend to be few, are defined broadly rather than precisely, loosely rather than rigidly, and are often informal rather than written. Employees are allowed to exercise a great deal of discretion. The authority to identify problems and opportunities and to devise responses is delegated to those best able to respond, regardless of their position, unit, or level in the organization. Emphasis is placed more on individual and group control than on managerial, hierarchical control. Top-level managers in organic organizations are more concerned with coordination and integration as opposed to passing directives down a vertical hierarchy, which is a common task of top-level managers in mechanistic organizations.

The need for flexibility and responsiveness also affects how work is designed and performed in organic organizations. Jobs are not clearly or precisely defined in these organizations. Positions, roles, job descriptions, and standard operating procedures are broad and generalized rather than specific and specialized. Employees accept general responsibility for getting things done, but the manner in which they accomplish their tasks is dictated more by autonomous or semi-autonomous teams than by standard operating procedures. Because the work of organic organizations is often interdependent, specific tasks and responsibilities vary from one situation to another and are refined through direct interaction and mutual adjustment among employees and work units. Too much direction from top-level management may hinder rather than assist the accomplishment of tasks.

A key issue in organic organizations is determining who has the knowledge, perspective, experience, expertise, or skills required to identify opportunities or find solutions to problems. Rather than assuming that top management is the fountainhead of all knowledge and wisdom, organic organizations assume that various people in the organization may have crucial insights or capabilities. Thus, communication is multidirectional, decentralized, and informal rather than hierarchical and formalized. In order to facilitate the sharing of information and ideas, employees are frequently empowered to communicate across traditional organizational boundaries regardless of position or level or unit.

Going one step further, pharmaceutical firms, for example, may collaborate across corporations and with academic researchers to conduct basic research leading to new drug development. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, referred to this type of company as a "boundaryless organization." Coordination and integration with multiple constituencies beyond traditional organizational boundaries is a necessary component for success, especially in multinational organizations.

Diversity of information and perspectives is often the key to the development of creative responses to vague, complex problems and opportunities. Thus, in organic organizations, much work is done in groups composed of employees with different backgrounds and from different levels, units, or functional areas. Such teams are among the main coordination mechanisms in organic organizations.


Human needs and dynamics play an important role in organic organizations. The empowerment and participation of employees is motivational because it meets the human need for autonomy, responsibility, challenge, esteem, social interaction, and personal development. Furthermore, this empowerment and participation helps the organization develop and capitalize on its intellectual capital, which is becoming increasingly valued by many organizations. By emphasizing initiative, direct interaction, open communication, and the creation of teams composed of various members of the organization, organic organizations are able to utilize their internal diversity to foster innovative responses to environmental challenges and changes.


The organic organization is not entirely without hierarchy or formalized rules, regulations, procedures, and processes. Indeed, structural parameters, even if loosely or broadly defined, are necessary to prevent the chaos that would result from absolute decentralization (i.e., where everyone in the organization is completely free to decide what they want to do or not do). As an example of such structural parameters, while employees of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) are encouraged to take the initiative in suggesting new products and seeking support from others in the organization, new product teams must still meet specific financial measures at each stage of product development. Nonetheless, the real control is found in constant interaction among peers and the normative rules that develop informally among them.

It is not always necessary for an entire organization to be organic. Some units, such as research and development departments, may benefit from an organic structure because they face an unstable environment. Units that have a more stable environment, such as routine, administrative departments, may favor a mechanistic structure. Some units may borrow from both models. Customer service departments, for example, can build flexibility into responding to exceptional circumstances while maintaining standardized protocols for more typical situations.

The structures of organic organizations are informal, fluid, and constantly changing to identify and develop responses to new problems and opportunities. Authority and responsibility shifts from one situation to another. Groups are established, complete their work, and disband, and a single employee may belong to several temporary teams at the same time. In organic organizations there is diminished emphasis on superior-subordinate roles in favor of dispersed initiative. Roles, tasks, and responsibilities are not limited by rigid, vertical boundaries of hierarchy for decision-making, communication, coordination, and control. Relations and interactions between personnel and units continually change, and managers and other employees must figure out which relations and interactions will be most effective for each particular problem or opportunity.

SEE ALSO: Effectiveness and Efficiency ; Mechanistic Organizations ; Organization Theory

Durward Hofler

Revised by Scott B. Droege


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