What is your organisation like?

Jun 14 2006 by Max McKeown Print This Article

In my last column, I made the comparison between certain kind of organisation and the autistic brain, because I consider metaphor/comparison to be a useful technique for revealing hidden insights and a way of using knowledge gained in one field to shed light on another - and certainly not to cause gratuitous offence.

A metaphor is defined by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language as "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another thus making an implicit comparison as in the Shakespearean, "a sea of troubles" or "All the world's a stage"."

According to the Wikipedia, a metaphor is "a rhetorical trope", (trope meaning figure of speech), "defined as a direct comparison between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects. In the simplest case, this takes the form: "The [first subject] is a (or is like a) [second subject]."

The word comes from the Middle English methaphor, the Old French metaphore, the Latin metaphora, and the Greek metapherein meaning to carry or transfer.

Metaphor comprises a subset of analogy and closely relates to other rhetorical concepts such as comparison, simile, allegory and parable.

The accuracy of metaphor in, and about, organisations is necessarily limited as Gareth Morgan, author of Images of Organisation and a pioneer in the use of metaphor to read, analyse and facilitate organisations to change, explains:

"All theories of organisation and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no 'correct theory' for structuring everything we do."

Morgan argues that all theories of organisation (implicit or explicit, private or published, formal or informal) are based on metaphor. These play what James Lawley, writing in Effective Consulting in 2001, describes as: "a paradoxical role: they are vital to understanding and highlighting certain aspects of organisations, while at the same time they restrict understanding by back grounding or ignoring others."

Morgan believes that organisations are typically understood by a small number of metaphors, suggests alternative metaphors, and claims - reasonably in my opinion - that metaphors can be used to analyse, diagnose, and improve organisations.

So what is your organisation like? What is your own personal metaphor for life at work?

His list includes eight archetypal metaphors: machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, flux and transformation, and instruments of domination.

So what is your organisation like? What is your own personal metaphor for life at work?

James Lawley and Penny Tomkins have written about how the metaphors you use to describe your perceptions of organisational life and your own role in it can also be used to discover the meaning behind them and their negative and positive impacts.# Their approach is based on the therapeutic approach of David Grove and claims to be an, "emergent, systemic and iterative way of facilitating the psychotherapeutic process".

One of the most striking features of this approach is the use of "clean language" that attempts to use another person's metaphors without altering or contaminating the symbolism that they have used.

In one example, they describe a coaching session with a manager in a multinational company where "clean language" is used:

"A manager in a multinational company revealed he wanted "to be able to hold the line against aggressive senior managers." As I listened to him describe his work, I noted down some of his metaphors: "I have to defend my people, "I blew up," "I was in a Catch 22 situation," "His method is to drill you and then attack," "The troops are falling by the wayside," "His lieutenant had a word with me," "I can lose it in the heat of the battle."

When these expressions are taken together it is easy to identify the manager's underlying metaphor: Work is a battle.

When I repeated his exact words back to him he said he was "shell-shocked," and we laughed. I asked "And where does being in 'the heat of the battle' come from?". He replied immediately, "You must defend your territory to be on the winning side." Then I enquired, "And when you must defend your territory to be on the winning side, what would you like to have happen?" Traces of emotion flickered across his face before he shook his head and said "Not to have to defend myself." I asked him what metaphor he would prefer instead. After trying on and rejecting the idea of a sports team, he settled on an orchestra -- which I then helped him explore by using Clean Language. Later, he used this metaphor to gauge his, and others' behaviour: Am I participating like a member of an orchestra? When am I the first violinist and when am I playing the triangle? When I chair a meeting, are we all playing the same tune and am I conducting appropriately?

The manager recognised that seeing his work as a battle had significantly influenced the way he responded to his colleagues, and in particular those "higher up the command chain." Over the next few months he gradually altered his behaviour to more closely fit his orchestra metaphor. And surprise, surprise, senior managers started acting differently towards him."

So what metaphor did you use? What would you organisation be like if you used another metaphor? What would you like your organisation to be like? How would life be different?

Do you feel that your organisation is like a machine? An animal? What kind? Bird? Pig? What breed of pig? A person? A personality? Is it hard to pin down? Androgynous? A mirage? Feminine? Masculine? Go-Hung? Militaristic? The guy from the film SAW? Is it a hero? A father figure?

What is your organisation like? What is your bit of the organisation like? Is there a difference between what is projected by formal (internal and external) communications and the way it feels to you?

How far can you extend the metaphor? How do you fit into that metaphor by way of analogy?

In ancient Greek, the word analogia originally meant proportionality and, "was understood as identity of relation between any two ordered pairs, whether of mathematical nature or not" and Kant argued, "there can be exactly the same relation between two completely different objects" a concept that is also used in IQ style tests as in, "Hand is to palm as foot is to ____?" or Cog is to Machine as ______ is to Organisation?"

The Clean Language approach suggests that you use the metaphor suggested by another person without "contaminating" them with your own metaphors so that you can help draw out the meaning that is embedded using language is meaningful and familiar to the person using it.

Of course that's very difficult for me since I can't hear your answers and change my language to fit yours. It's equally difficult if we are not trying to listen and if we insist on imposing our own language and/or interpretation.

To further contaminate (sorry!) your chosen metaphor here are some "my company is like" metaphors that I found:

"For me, my company is like a friend,'' said Masanori Koga, the CEO of TMS Entertainment Ltd, producers of anime films, in an interview with The Japan Times Online, "If you are not having fun, your staff is not going to have fun, and there's no way your audience is going to enjoy it."

"My company is like my family," said Frank Goldstin boss of a Chicago-based event planning company, who had to fire all staff members who were not revenue earning after 9/11 having never previously experienced layoffs at his 15-year-old company, "It was terrible."

"I always say that my company is like a fly-trap. We hire candidates based on their suitability, whether they are able to work with others and can fit in", says Mr Yong Choon, CEO of Nutek, for which designs and builds automatic production lines for multi-nationals.

"My company is like a fascist regime. We can turn a battleship on a dime," boasts Taylor-Taylor of DandyWarhols (remember the Vodafone ad?) fame.

"My company is like a sinking ship, and management is still rearranging the deck furniture", anonymous quote.

"Going to work for a large company is like getting on a train. Are you going sixty miles an hour or is the train going sixty miles an hour and you're just sitting still?", from J. Paul Getty.

Business has been compared to a bunch of bananas, a bowl of cherries, running a marathon, nature, a tree, managing a theatre production, conducting an orchestra, running your own life, the engine of society, playing golf, raising a child, sports leadership, climbing a mountain (you may even have paid a mountaineer to tell your company that!), dating (if it's no fun you're not doing it right), setting out on a trip, a game, war, poker, a wheelbarrow, soccer, a fingerprint, a foreign country, and so very many more!

So back to the beginning: What is your organisation like? And how does that comparison reveal hidden insights and a way of using knowledge from one field about a phenomenon to gain understanding of another previously unrelated field/phenomenon? How does it compare with the metaphors others use to describe their lives, selves, or organisations?

Metaphor is a way of gaining insights that get behind the assumptions that are so often made about anything and anyone including whether or not they are racist, lazy, or easily offended. In fact one of the suggested tenants on communicating with those who disabilities is to not assume anything - including "being easily offended".

And on that note a little more about autism.

The first is from Andrew Main who penned an essay arguing that: "non-autistic people describe autism as a neurological disorder. From an autistic point of view, it is the lack of autism that appears to be a disorder."

"Neither should be treated as a disorder", he suggests, "but rather they should be viewed as different cultures."

Those who are not "autistic" could be labelled "allistic", he suggests, as a way of saying that these are labels, not disorders. They label different forms of communication, and, more fundamentally, different forms of cognition.

"Allistic people tend to feel that they feel things, whereas autistic people tend to think that they think things. Watch for the words "feel" and "think" when people are expressing their opinions: it's quite revealing of how they view their mental processes"

He even lists some of the problems that arise from, "intuitive but unreliable channels of communication", and an impaired, "capacity for attention" - including "mob culture".

So it would be entirely possible to write another column entitled "is your organisation allistic?" following his description.

The trouble is that Andrew is not "autistic" in the way that 97 per cent (or so) of those who are autistic. He functions at such a high level that he considers himself - even if tongue-in-cheek - to be equal or superior to we "allistic" folk as if from a different culture.

Ian Hacking, who holds a chair in the philosophy and history of scientific concepts at the Collège de France in Paris (not necessarily proof of being right) would describe Andrew as a "high-functioning' autist", and claims that, "the success of the high-functioning, their foibles and their triumphs, tends to make the general reader think, ah, so that is what autism is like."

This is, perhaps, the consequence of the ever expanding (and frustratingly imprecise) definition of, what has been termed an "autistic space", into which so many behaviours, cognitive approaches, and personality traits co-exist uneasily.

As Hacking says: "Autism ranges in at least three dimensions: language deficit, social deficit and obsession with order. We should talk of an autistic space. So, are all the individuals that we now place in this space of symptoms in the same neurobiological space? Or should we more cautiously speak of the group of autisms, without implying that in terms of causes they are variations of the same thing?"

Or alternatively - since Hacking has been criticised for being overly negative - it could be, as some radical autists argue, that more deep links are better for some kinds of thinking.

According to some, this so-called "monotropic theory" can explain how Newton and Einstein were able to make such huge conceptual leaps. As a piece last year in the Observer newspaper put it: "many of the features that are supposed to mark out autistics as a group with a form of brain damage are actually just down the far end of a trait we all share - attention. So autistic wiring is not necessarily more pathological than variations in IQ or emotional robustness."

Quite, but if you are far enough down that line there will be problems - whether for individuals or organisations - which is what my original piece argued. And this why even radical autists are pushing for environments and tools that are more suitable for autists at whatever point in the autistic space they reside.

And on that - as on most other things - my mind is as open as a very, very open thing.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

I loved the unity of purpose of the orchestra metaphor versus the competitive sports or combative military alternatives. However there is still plenty of room for dissatisfaction or even disillusion in this metaphor. Most of the 53% of musicians, or middle managers, discussed else where on this site simply hate the music they are currently playing.

Michael Power EMEA