“All theories of organization 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. “
If you are a consultant, facilitator or manager interested in organizations and how they do and don’t work, then Gareth Morgan’s books, Images of Organization and Imaginization are a ‘must read’. An abstract can be found here. Images of Organization The central thesis of this book is that all theories of organization and management are based on implicit metaphor, and that metaphors play a paradoxical role: they are vital to understanding and highlighting certain aspects of organizations, while at the same time they restrict understanding by backgrounding or ignoring others.
In all aspects of life, we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor. Take for example the the very common metaphor that an organization is like a machine. We think in terms of ‘inputs and outputs’, maximizing ‘production’ and making ‘efficiency the driving force’.
When things are going well we say the organization is ‘running like clockwork’, a ‘well-oiled engine’ or an ‘assembly line’. When they are not, then communication has ‘broken down’ and ‘things need fixing’ because there is ‘a spanner in the works’. In response we want to get to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the operation and intervene at the point of maximum ‘leverage’. We conduct ‘time and motion’ studies, regard people as ‘cogs in a wheel’, and attempt to quantify and measure everything.
We establish human ‘resources’ departments, allocate ‘manpower’ and recruit to ‘fill a slot’. And all because the organization loves ‘re-engineering’. Gareth Morgan says, “One of the most basic problems of modern management is that the mechanical way of thinking is so ingrained in our everyday conception of organizations that it is often difficult to organize in any other way”. To open up our thinking he seeks to do three things: (1) To show that many conventional ideas about organization and management are based on a small number of taken-for-granted images and metaphors. 2) To explore a number of alternative metaphors to create new ways of thinking about organization. (3) To show how metaphor can be used to analyze and diagnose problems and to improve the management and design of organizations. Morgan illustrates his ideas by exploring eight archetypal metaphors of organization: * Machines; Organizations as rational enterprises, designed and structured to achieve predetermined ends as efficiently as possible, using the “one best way” to organize and linear notions of cause and effect.
Keywords are: efficiency, waste, maintenance, order, clockwork, cogs in a wheel, programmes, inputs and outputs, standardization, production, measurement and control, design * Organisms; Organizations as living organisms, seeking to adapt and survive in a changing environment. Keywords are: living systems, environmental conditions, adaptation, life cycles, recycling, needs, homeostasis, evolution, survival of the fittest, health, illness * Brains; Organizations as brains, which are flexible, resilient and inventive.
Here, the capacity for intelligence and control is seen as being distributed throughout the enterprise, enabling the system as a whole to self-organize and evolve along with the emerging challenges. Keywords are: Learning, parallel information processing, distributed control, mindsets, intelligence, feedback, requisite variety, knowledge, networks * Cultures; Organizations as mini-societies, with their own distinctive values, rituals, ideologies and beliefs.
An ongoing process of reality construction, which allows people to see and understand particular events, actions, objects, comments and situations in distinctive ways. Keywords are: Society, values, beliefs, laws, ideology, rituals, diversity, traditions, history, service, shared vision and mission, understanding, qualities, families * Political Systems; Organizations as systems of political activity, with patterns of competing interests, conflict and power.
Keywords are: interests and rights, power, hidden agendas and back room deals, authority, alliances, party-line, censorship, gatekeepers, leaders, conflict management * Psychic Prisons; Organizations as systems that get trapped in their own thoughts and actions; and in which obsessions, mind traps, narcissism, strong emotions, illusions of control, anxieties and defense mechanisms become the focus of attention.
Keywords are: conscious & unconscious processes, repression & regression, ego, denial, projection, coping & defense mechanisms, pain & pleasure principle, dysfunction, workaholics * Flux and Transformation; Organizations as expressions of deeper processes of transformation and change.
Keywords are: constant change, dynamic equilibrium, flow, self-organization, systemic wisdom, attractors, chaos, complexity, butterfly effect, emergent properties, dialectics, paradox * Instruments of Domination; Organizations as systems that exploit their employees, the natural environment and the global economy for their own ends; exposing the ethical and social dimensions as important points of focus. Keywords are: alienation, repression, imposing values, compliance, charisma, maintenance of power, force, exploitation, divide and rule, discrimination, corporate interest
In describing how each metaphor has been used by different organizational experts, Images of Organization contains a wonderful summary of almost every management theory ever expounded. If you want an overview of Taylorism and time and motion studies; organizational needs analysis, open systems and contingency theory; organizational ecology; cybernetic and holographic thinking; corporate culture; organizations as a collection of interests, conflicts and power; psychoanalytic theory; self-organizing systems; Marxian dialectics; or framing and re-framing, they are all in this book.
The final chapter presents an example of Gareth Morgan’s organizational analysis applied to a small firm employing 150 people. He splits the process into two stages. First he uses each of the eight metaphors described above as a “frame” through which to view the organization and to produce multiple” diagnostic readings”. Then he engages in a “critical evaluation” of each reading to produce a “storyline” that brings them together in a meaningful way and implies a course of action.
Imaginization While Images of Organization is highly theoretical, Imaginization is devoted to the practical art of using metaphor for organizational analysis and creative management. Imaginization, with its cartoons and large print, has a completely different style. Throughout, the principle is: “It is impossible to develop new styles of organization and management while continuing to think in old ways”. It shows how metaphors can be applied to organizational change, resolving conflicting ideas, identifying core problems, reading and reshaping teams, creativity, and rethinking products and services. Although Morgan is at pains to avoid asserting the supremacy of any given metaphor or theoretical perspective, it is clear that he prefers a relativistic, self-organizing approach to management. Conclusion Images of Organization was written entirely from the consultant’s viewpoint.
In Imaginization, however, Morgan recognizes that people within organizations can describe their own metaphors and create new ones. He concludes, “The challenge facing the modern manager is to become accomplished in the art of using metaphor: To find appropriate ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping the situations with which they have to deal”. This is not some ‘nice to have’ tool, but an indispensable skill. Whether you realise it or not, you, and everyone around you, are using metaphors all the time, and are taking decisions based on those metaphors.