Saturday, 8 November 2014

What's the organisation's operating metaphor?

Johnstone, Scholes and Whittington describe organisational culture being made up of 4 layers: Values, beliefs, behaviours and a paradigm of 'taken for granted assumptions'. It’s this paradigm or world view that is represented by the cultural web which consists of:

  • stories
  • routines and rituals
  • symbols
  • power structures
  • control systems
  • organisational structures
Observation of each of these for a given organisation will provide an insight into the paradigm or world view of that organisation. It’s this paradigm I'd like to explore today - more specifically the operating metaphor that describes this paradigm.

Just consider the implication to an organisation if their underlying metaphor is one of the following:
  • War: life and death situation, defence, lots of battles, winning at all costs, troops
  • Race: start and finish, winning and losing, competitors
  • Family: support, nurture, family members
  • Gardening: nurturing, seeds, growth, harvest, gardener, weeds
  • Game: players, rules, wining, losing, competition
  • Journey: hero, destination, steps, endurance, challenges, baddies
  • Machine: components, specification, output, efficiency, standardisation
As my personal metaphor will be impacting my ability to adequately describe some of the above you may find you have additional descriptions for each of the above metaphors.

You may want to spend some time considering what stories might get told within an operating metaphor of war vs one of gardening. What about the power symbols how may they differ dependant on the metaphor, or the organisational structure or routines people adopt. What about communication between different metaphors:
  • War talking to family - family certainly won't feel very valued nor understand the need for such conflict (unless you can link the war to survival of the family)
  • Race talking to a journey - impatience is likely to play a part here and the level of preparation they think is needed would look very different too
  • Machine talking to a garden - oh dear the machines just not going to get the laissez faire attitude of the gardener to his seeds, as he leaves them to fend for themselves knowing they'll all turn out unique yet perfect in every way!
Just understanding the metaphor means you can amend your communication and message. It's back to the language analogy - you can either continue to talk in different languages, and muddle through hoping you understood each other correctly, or try to speak the same language.

Have you ever considered the metaphor you run whilst at work?

How does that align with the team in which you work, and the overall organisation?

What about the suppliers you deal with, or other stakeholders?

I’ve worked with a number of people who have a personal metaphor which is not aligned with others at work. Personally my gardening metaphor means I find it difficult to work in an environment where there are winners and losers, or too much competition. What about you?

The challenge then is to adapt your style of communication to the metaphor in which you're operating - you may be surprised when you've paid attention and amended your message - and just find the board suddenly embracing your strategies more easily.

Do let me know how you get on.

Alison Smith
Inspiring change inside and out - when what you're doing isn't working.

Without realising it we use metaphors in language all the time. It has been a topic of a number of blogs:


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