Expanding Our Organizational Metaphors

Why language that describes complexity can help us see business realities more clearly.

Dialing up and dialing down. Finely tuned processes. Levers, targets, inputs and outputs.

If you’re in the business world you’ve probably heard these metaphors repeatedly in the course of your work week. Mechanical language dominates organizational life. (We’re not immune from this at Domain7; occasionally a team member will take mild exception at being called a “resource” at a planning meeting.)

This type of language is largely contained to our professional lives. We would never refer to life’s other routine tasks as “processes,” or our family’s weekly scheduling as “resourcing.” Where does this use of detached metaphors in professional life come from?

In his book Holocracy, Brian Roberston argues that much of our current thinking regarding modern organizations can be traced back to an industrial era paradigm that matured early in the 1900s. The oft-vilified Frederic Taylor is widely believed to have contributed to this as well, with his work on scientific management. Over the decades it’s become so ingrained in organizational discourse that — apart from the odd parody of office life — we almost don’t notice it.

Several months ago, I attended a panel discussion on leadership in complex environments hosted by Fielding University. One of the panelists, Dr. Alice MacGillivray, advocated for use of more organic metaphors, such as gardens or ecosystems. Though it wasn’t the first time I’d heard this sentiment, her talk resonated with me and I’ve been mulling over the merits of the idea ever since.

Before I share a few of the benefits that I see in incorporating more organic metaphors into our organizational vocabulary, I’d like to discuss the idea that this is “simply language”: that the words and imagery we use when we speak about our companies is irrelevant to how they actually operate. Fred Kofman dealt with this criticism beautifully when he wrote “language can serve as a medium through which we create new understandings and new realities as we begin to talk about them. In fact, we don’t talk about what we see; we see only what we can talk about.”

Perhaps expanding our language will not only influence how we see things, but may, in fact, allow us to see and create entirely new things within our organizations, teams, and colleagues.

Recognizing and naming complexity

Mechanical metaphors suggest ordered, linear relationships between cause and effect, whereas organic metaphors — gardens, ecosystems, forests — remind me of the true complexity inherent in social systems.

In their outstanding article in Harvard Business Review, Snowden and Boone outlined this difference by contrasting a Ferrari and a Brazilian rainforest: “Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux — a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source — and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’, and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.”

Brian Robertson echoed this sentiment, arguing that current organizations work “more like biological systems than what we use to think of as mechanically structured systems.” The challenge in working in modern organizations is not to get rid of complexity or to pretend it isn’t there; rather, it’s to see complexity, recognize it, and work within it. As Kofman suggests, seeing complexity starts with being able to talk about it.

Understanding our wider responsibilities

Mechanical metaphors imply clearly defined, impermeable boundaries, whereas organic metaphors force me to acknowledge the complex interplay between different systems.

It’s easy to draw the lines around a machine and say that you have captured the entire thing. It is far harder to draw lines around, say, an ecosystem. Even if you do, you will be forced to deal with interactions with systems outside of those boundaries. This latter picture is far more consistent with my experience. Our organizations are open systems interacting with diverse forces: competitors, partners, customers, legislation, governments, and technology changes, to name but a few.

There is a deeper implication here: as we acknowledge that our organizations do not exist in isolation, but are part of a complex interplay with other systems, we are increasingly forced to deal with the consequences of our actions and work. A machine does not have to worry about pollution or toxic waste; an ecosystem does. The products and services that we create shape our experiences as humans in the world.

This broad responsibility suggested by more natural metaphors is highlighted well by Peter Senge, who argued “all organizations sit within larger systems — industries, communities, and larger living systems. In one sense, it is illogical to think that the well-being of a company can be advanced independent of the well-being of its industry, its society, and the natural systems upon which it depends”.

If organic metaphors do nothing more than highlight this interconnectedness, they are worthwhile.

Effective leadership for complex realities

Organic metaphors remind me that, no matter how much I read or think or try to predict the future, my foresight and engineering skills are no match for the power of evolutionary adaptation. Thinking of organizations as machines implies that some people — often leaders — exist independent of the machine, and are in charge of coming up with a clear, optimal design (I’m reminded of H.L. Mencken’s assertion that for every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong).

This notion of detached “organization engineers” strikes me as a misguided, and possibly dangerous, metaphor.

Viewing our organizations as natural systems helps leaders focus on embracing complexity as an evolutionary, shaping force, rather than trying to engineer it away.

As Roberston points out, “evolution may not be a common topic within the business world, but its workings have an unparalleled capacity to produce exquisitely crafted systems that thrive amidst complexity”.

There’s a common thread running through each of the three benefits that I’ve just outlined: the principle of embracing complexity. I sometimes crave simplicity and clear, known relationships between cause and effect. But these elements are notably absent in organizations today. This is not a fault, deficiency or problem to be solved, it is a reality to be embraced. The sooner we can accept this, and begin to dig into the awesome potential of our new, complex realities, the better our organizations — and our world — will be.

Editor’s Note: Do you resonate with James’ take on humanizing organizational life? Want to reach out to him or Domain7 on an idea or partnership? Send James an email—we would love to hear from you.