Metaphor madness: To what may we compare your organisation today?

There’s plenty of metaphors out there to describe organisations; you will recognize them from job ads, image brochures and consultant pitch decks:

  • There’s the ever-popular machine metaphor – lots of parts coming together to form something bigger than themselves; every cog serving its purpose; a well-oiled system running at peak performance.
  • Then you have the family metaphor – different people coming together to form a unique bond; everyone taking responsibility for the whole and looking out for their peers.
  • Increasing in popularity is the city metaphor – a highly complex mixture of stakeholders from different backgrounds bundled together in an urban melting pot.
  • Also popular these days is the ecosystem metaphor – a system ruled by autonomous, self-managed organic growth that is able to adapt to almost anything.

The problem I have with metaphors like these is that they are easy to create but deliver little value: They sell the reader on the idea of a better system, largely ignoring whether the actual system makes sense for the reader – much like some management books that only sell you the author’s idea of success instead of an actionable way to achieve success.
Let’ take one more look at the images above:

  • Machines are judged by output and efficiency – a machine’s only goal is to be better, faster or more efficient. It’s expected to do the same chore over and over for years or decades with little or no change.
  • Families are the societal result of the drive to procreate, an organisational equivalent is growth for the sake of growth – not very sustainable. Plus, in my experience, families are at least partly dysfunctional more often than not.
  • Cities tend to be dirty, noisy and crowded – with all the results to be expected regarding public health, social issues and more.
  • Ecosystems are very good at adapting to internal and external changes. Their individual components, however (think plants in a garden or cells in a body) are basically operating as organic machinery with no concept of the whole system. Also, if the main point is adaption, there is little room for purpose.

All these images fail to depict the complexity of humans working together. Don’t get me wrong: Metaphors are useful to clarify individual aspects or illustrate certain similarities (which is a metaphor’s job) but they are useless as blueprints for building a better organisation. So there is no value in recommending an organisation should strive to be like my favourite metaphor (I was actually tempted to create my own to further our consulting brand but kept running into that very problem – eventually it turned into an insight and this article).

So instead of creating catchy metaphors about how organisations should be designed, it might make sense to ask why organisations are formed in the first place. This way we can deduce functional specifics as necessary from what it is we want to achieve together.
For what it’s worth, you can’t have a company without company: Since the dawn of man, people have worked together because unification provides a better life than each could have on their own. So a successful company serves human needs and amplifies the strengths of human nature, making life together better for everyone – whatever “better” may mean for any individual company and its members.

To me, that’s a more useful starting point in the conception of a company – and more appealing than imagining life inside a machine or as a garden plant.

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