Organizational Metaphors


Organizational metaphorsIs your organization a ship? Do you say: "Welcome on board?" Or is it a machine? An organism? A person? A group? A community? A family? A dynasty? Or something else? 

Organizational metaphors operate in the background but they can strongly determine how we think about organizations and affect how we work and make decisions. It is good to be aware of how they shape our thinking.

Organizations as Ships

The ship metaphor explains why we welcome newcomers on board and talk about running a "tight ship."  But a ship knows its direction before it sets sail.  Ships have a clear direction from start to finish because their destination is not a moving target, unlike business today where direction cannot be fully decided in advance and it can change constantly.  Also, on a ship, the captain decides direction. 

The ship metaphor does not fit very well with empowerment.  If it is operating subconsciously in your business it may be blocking empowerment. 

Your metaphors determine how you think organizations should behave.  The ship metaphor was OK in the old days when we could sail towards a destination that was not shifting as we sailed.  Today, this metaphor is comforting but dangerous - not only is the destination shifting, but you have to make it up as you go! 

When you think about how best to manage your organization, question your underlying metaphors to ensure they fit with your environmental demands. 

What metaphors determine your thinking about organizations? 

Organizations as Machines

The machine metaphor appeals to minds that like orderliness - such as engineers.  It also ties in with business process re-engineering.  Any business requiring a high level of efficiency is essentially a machine. 

MacDonald's and similar service businesses are examples - they offer the same product everywhere all the time at minimum cost and maximum quality - this is machine-like.  Machines can only be repaired or replaced, they cannot evolve or develop. 

We cannot dispense with this metaphor - contrary to the advocates of adaptiveness.  All businesses need to deliver today's products efficiently as well as adapt to the future.  So, all businesses will have a relatively machine-like part.  Those that compete solely on cost, service and quality, not on innovation, need to be machine-like in their efficiency. 

Problems arise when managers insist on employing only one fundamental metaphor.  Even fast evolving businesses need to be machine-like if they are to be profitable. 

Organizations as Organisms 

Organisms, like businesses, compete for survival and evolve to gain an edge.  An organism is responsive to its environment, it can learn and adapt.  Like organisms, businesses are born, grow and die. 

Organisms are more receptive to environmental feedback than machines.  Businesses also operate within a delicate ecology with a lot of interdependencies.  It's not as clear who's in charge of an organism as it is with a ship, however. 

Do businesses have no more control over their fate than animals facing evolutionary pressure?  Entrepreneurial organizations grow more by evolution than rational planning.  Perhaps businesses have both machine-like and organism-like characteristics. 

Thinking of your business as an organism may encourage a stronger external focus.  Organisms look to their environments while being a machine encourages internal tinkering. 

Organizations as Persons

This metaphor captures the idea that organizations have brains.  Senior management consitutes the brain of the organization.  This idea is O.K. in businesses where all the thinking is done only at the top. 

Like other organisms, persons grow and develop, learn and adapt.  But they also get old and set in their ways!  It makes sense to talk of persons forming partnerships and cooperating with other firms.  We like to think of organizations as having a personality, character or moods. 

We attribute personality traits to organizations - like integrity or openness.  Organizations can also be neurotic, immature or unfit - just like people.  A manager is called the "head" and the employees "hands" -- it is no coincidence that employees were once referred to as "hired hands." No wonder organizations are so poor at employee engagement.

Organizations as Groups

This metaphor sheds light on the reality of competing factions and stakeholders. But, we run the risk of excessive internal focus again - as with machines. Only groups can be teams and this is a major benefit of this metaphor. What's less inspiring is just the fact that "group" is not really a metaphor.

An organization IS a group in a way that it can never be a machine or an organism You could substitute the metaphor of an army or beehive - both types of groups. How about a group of pirates or explorers? The latter ties in with entrepreneurship.

Explorers are discoverers who need to improvise, adapt and break new ground. What happens to routine execution, administration and efficiency in such a culture, however?

Organizations as Families

Conflicts in organizations are a lot like family conflicts. This metaphor can shed light on otherwise confusing dynamics. It also ties in with the paternalistic character of some organizations.

Authority in organizations is a lot like the authority in families. We often want to rebel against organizational authority for the same reason. We refer to hiring people as ''getting into bed with them''.

Our relationship to our employer is often thought of as a marriage. Like marriage, joining an organization used to be a lifetime commitment. Talking to other prospective employers is seen as disloyal - like having an affair!

Manager - subordinate relationships are very much like parent - child relationships. Executives often want their favourite ''son'' to follow in their footsteps. We often like to work somewhere that has a family atmosphere. It is hard to rejoin an organization if you leave - as with divorce you are a traitor!

Organizations as Family Dynasties

The family dynasty metaphor makes sense of decentralized conglomerates. The parent organization acquires offspring or spins them off as new divisions. It is also conducive to images of successions of generations taking control. And of decentralized divisions wanting the independence to run their own lives.

Viewing divisions as children in need of support is also quite paternalistic, however. As if a business has to be protected until sufficiently mature to be let to run itself. Often it is "parental" interference that destroys an "offspring's" chances of success.

This metaphor suggests a certain rigidity and resistance to change. What counts in a family dynasty is tradition, maintaining links with the past, respect for elders, continuity - everything but dynamic change to meet future challenges.


See my latest books on Amazon to learn how to be happier regardless of your beliefs or circumstances and how to empower yourself to show leadership every day without being in a position or having to overly defer and depend on positional leaders: