Wrong Metaphor?

“Fix”, “adjust”, “restructure”, “function”, “process”, “re-engineer”, “well-oiled” …

Companies are not machines. But we managers keep treating them as though they were.  It’s not often stated, or even consciously thought, but both our reflex actions and our cognitive processes respond to issues in companies very much as though they were issues in a mechanism.  Something’s broken, let’s find the problem and fix it.

The odd thing is, it goes on not working.  We “fix” here, tweak or adjust there, and something else pops up to bite us in the backside.  Maybe the metaphor is misleading us?  Of course, we’ll say on reflection, we don’t really think a company is like a machine.  But our language still says so.  Very rarely indeed do we speak of companies in terms more appropriate to an organism, an ecosystem or a central nervous system.  But they are, are they not, living systems?

The Appreciative Inquiry people have some relevant insights.  One is that human knowledge and the unfolding of our companies are deeply connected.  Knowing, and applying knowledge, are pivotal to any attempt at change.  So how we know is vital: if we know and understand our companies as living human constructs, won’t we manage them better?

They also point out that the question and the change are not really separate: “Inquiry is intervention,” they say.  In the moment of framing our question about what we will change and how, what the future will be like, we determine what we will discover and what we will do about it.  This is profound.  The question fetches the answer, and I think that holds in perhaps all our dealings with the world — not excepting science.

I’d like to come back to the Appreciative Inquiry people another time, and there’s thinking to do here about how we experience and interact with these ubiquitous organisations of ours.

For now though, I think the usual metaphor is leading us astray, and I think it’s time we examined it critically.  I think companies are more like organisms or ecosystems than mechanisms.

That’s what I think.  You?

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