Subtly, under our conscious thought, we have models for organizations. The way that we see the organization colors how we interact with it and shapes our thinking. In Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan exposes the different kinds of models that people use for organization and their implications – both positive and negative.
All Models Are Wrong
George Box, a famous statistician, said, “All models are wrong. Some are useful.” Morgan clarifies that all models are useful in some ways and unhelpful in others. Metaphors allow us to process complex ideas and situations, but in doing so, they obscure and hide aspects that may be relevant. They can also distort our view of the organization in ways that can cause us to operate ineffectively with them.
It’s not that we should stop using models of organizations but rather we should understand the limits of the model and should be willing to change models when the distortions exceed the value generated by the model.
The Mechanical Model
Perhaps the oldest and most prevalent model of organizations is that of a machine. Fredrick Taylor and scientific management is the epitome of this model. People are but cogs in a giant machine. Even successful adaptations of this model, like the ones used in the Toyota Production System, treat humans as an extension of the great machine. (See Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management for more.) The tradition goes back to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Specialization, compartmentalization, and deskilling are the name of the game.
Henry Ford may have revolutionized production with the assembly line, but his 380% annual turnover did nothing for the bottom line. It wasn’t until he offered his famous $5 a day wages that he was able to get his turnover under control. It was perhaps the first time that golden handcuffs became used. People stopped quitting, because though they didn’t enjoy the repetitive nature of the work, they were getting paid handsomely for doing it.
One of the persistent criticisms of the assembly line is the deskilling of the workforce. It was easy enough to train the “farm boys” to work the assembly line, because not much training was needed. By focusing on a single tiny role, the training was minimal. The result was that instead of craftsmen, the factory was filled with people who only knew their one small part of the broader picture.
Work in a machine model is also dehumanizing. People don’t get the chance to interact with others and build the kind of relationships that they used to form when they were working together in a small village as craftsmen and community members. The research at the Hawthorne Works was noticeably disturbed by the desire of the test subjects to have more control of their work and to talk amongst themselves as they worked. (See Management and the Worker for more.)
When you view the organization as a machine, you look for ways to optimize the machine. Instead of optimizing the individual pieces or departments, organizations shifted to a view of the processes. The flows that added value to the organization were optimized, thereby addressing gaps and challenges among the various pieces and departments of the organization.
Despite some successes and a lot of fanfare, reengineering often failed to produce the value that it promised. To be sure, there were efficiencies to be gained by addressing the handoffs and the overall experience, but they still paled in comparison to the promises. Often, this was because people didn’t want to work that way.
Perhaps the greatest challenge with the mechanistic view of organizations is that they underestimate the richness of the human experience. Humans are not simple cogs in a big machine but are instead complicated by their values, emotions, and aspirations. Failing to account for this has often resulted in a failure of the organization.
Working to the rules should be a good thing. If the organization and the bureaucracy are set up correctly, then working to the rules should make everything more efficient. That is, unless you’re a British railway worker. When the union wants to apply pressure to the company, they don’t do so by creating a strike or a work stoppage. Instead, they apply a “work to rule” approach. The system grinds to a halt as the workers stop providing the workarounds that have kept things functioning.
Taiichi Ohno and his mentors had it right. Humans are naturally more adaptable and capable of solving problems than the machine metaphor gives them credit for. Organizations are substantially more complex than even some of our most complex machines. A failure to realize the complexity of an organization necessarily strains the model of a machine.
Good and Bad
The machine model is good in that it allows for standardization, à la Michael Gerber in The E-Myth Revisited and in the case of franchise systems. It’s bad in that it can lead people to accept the standard number of errors, levels of inefficiency, and general slack that they may not need. In the end, it’s the lack of human spirit that brought down communism that can be found in organizations that operate like machines.
Organizations as Organisms
If machines aren’t complex enough, then perhaps we can think of organizations with all of the complexity of an organism. Instead of the clean lines of a gear, perhaps organizations are more akin to the flowing lines of cells as they work together?
Morgan’s perspective is that systems theory, which originated out of MIT, is really thinking about systems as organisms. While there are some similarities, Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems: A Primer provides a different dimension to the perspective. As Kurt Lewin commented, it’s one thing to observe an organism or a system but it’s quite a different thing to change it. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality and Principles of Topological Psychology for Lewin’s work.)
Organisms are boxes inside of boxes. You can think about an organism as one level – say systems of a body – which contains other components. Systems, for instance, contain organs. Organs contain cells. Cells contain proteins. The way that these components are broken into component parts is its own paradigm, and therefore the way that we deconstruct the organization as an organism influences the way that we think about it.
However, as Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power, our ability to make progressive levels of abstraction in our models gives us the power to simulate very complex things with our quite limited brainpower. It’s only when there are emergent properties that we don’t expect or when our model doesn’t include all the variables that we run into trouble.
There’s a whole discipline around optimal organization and breakdown of information that can inform the way that we navigate into deeper and deeper levels of understanding. (See Intertwingled and Pervasive Information Architecture for more on this.)
One of the other benefits of considering organizations as organisms is the opportunity to view some aspects of the organization as ad hoc and temporary. Adhocracy is the tendency for an organism to create temporary –ad hoc – structures that are often replaced with other, more permanent, structures. Consider baby teeth and permanent teeth. One gives way to the other.
It can also be said that one metaphor of an organization can give way to another, like moving from the idea of the organization as a whole organism to the organization being only the brain.
Organizations as Brains
The human brain is an amazing, if not well understood, thing. Its power to shift time, perceive others, and create is amazing. It’s no wonder that one metaphor for organizations is that they’re a powerful brain seeking to coordinate various parts of the world to their will and transform the environment into what they desire. Considering how little we actually know about brains, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare organizations to them, but compare we do.
One thing we do know about brains is that thoughts and functions aren’t completely isolated to one tiny area of the brain. While we know there are processing centers that typically process different kinds of signals, our research of those with brain defects has led us to the amazing ways that our brain can adapt. We also know that there’s no one area of the brain that encodes memories. Instead, memories seem to be the result of coordinated activity from multiple neurons. Studies of rats taught to run a maze are remarkably resilient to substantial quantities of brain tissue being removed.
It’s sort of like holography – or the creation of holograms. They’re created throughout the substance, not just in one small area. As a result, there’s no one place to remove a hologram. Instead, as more and more of the material is removed, the image retains less and less clarity.
Organizations often exhibit this extraordinary behavior as well, resisting changes even as more and more of the organization becomes changed.
We’ve learned that humans aren’t rational creatures, they’re rationalizing creatures. Even when we’re rational, we’re only rational to a point. We’re rational with the information that we have; however, it can be that our decisions make no sense when viewed from a broader perspective. Herbert Simon was fascinated with the need for information to make decisions and the reality that, in most cases, the information acquisition wasn’t worth the improved decisions. He suggested that we mostly satisfice ourselves with good enough rather than objective completeness. (See The Paradox of Choice for more.)
By satisficing rather than maximizing, we make decisions based on the information we have and our considerations that we can’t or don’t want to accept the costs of acquiring more information.
In my review of Dialogue, I explained how we settle into routines. We mindlessly respond or respond in defensive ways that aren’t appropriate to the situation. One of the challenges of viewing an organization as a brain is that it should then follow the same unhelpful routines as well as those routines that are helpful, and that makes it subject to defensive routines.
We’ve all seen organizations recoil at the idea of change, ignoring it until it can no longer be ignored and then fighting back against it as if there’s an option to prevent it. Consider the case of Blockbuster: they were mired in the idea that they rented video cassettes and DVDs instead of thinking about how they could deliver the best entertainment experience to the customer. They were locked into the revenue source of late fees, and as a result they lost their core business to Netflix. As the market transitioned to internet based video streaming, they couldn’t recover.
Defensive routines may serve to protect us at times, but other times, they close us off from learning and growth.
Organizations as Cultures
There are organizational cultures – the way that the organization behaves – and there are the cultures that exist around the organization. For multinational organizations, they’ll necessarily confront multiple environmental cultures with organizations that have multiple locations experiencing the same phenomenon to a lesser degree. What’s more interesting is to understand how cultures behave, how those patterns of behavior interact and continue to create ever more intricate patterns.
Work and Service
Many rice farmers lived at a subsistence level. That is, they were barely surviving. Around this developed a culture of mutual support. It’s the same kind of community that you find in Amish cultures in the United States – everyone helps one another for the common good. Samurai were protectors, but also they were servants. They depended on those they protected to provide them with the essentials they needed like food to survive.
This describes a culture built on hard work, mutual cooperation, and service. This picture could equally apply to an organization focused on the same values and patterns of behavior.
Legends and Lore
One of the ways that cultures are formed is around legends and lore. Every large organization abounds with stories how the founders and leaders clearly communicated values. Whether it’s Bill Hewlett (of Hewlett-Packard) chopping a padlock off a supply closet and leaving a note or some of the antics of Steve Jobs or Steve Balmer, the message is a clear expression of the core values and therefore culture of the organization.
Viewing the organization as a culture allows you to focus on the big picture values that drive many downstream behaviors – behaviors that the book Change the Culture, Change the Game explains you can’t control anyway.
Resistance to Change
There will always be resistance to change. Resistance can be conflict and therefore a difference of perspective and values, or, more frequently, it’s simply a result of the grief that comes from the sense of loss associated with the change. However, resistance to change need not become dysfunctional. A degree of resistance – a struggle for healthy understanding and alignment – is appropriate. It’s only when the resistance becomes calcified and resistant to efforts to move forward that resistance becomes a problem in change.
Attempts to move past resistance and move forward without properly addressing the resistance itself can result in a variety of resistant behaviors that collectively look like sabotage. They may be as simple as an internal value that is in conflict with the requested change (see Immunity to Change), or there may be a legitimate sabotage as a result of a lack of respect or vengeance on the part of those being changed.
Organizations as Political Systems
Organizations can also be viewed as political systems filled with conflict and power struggles. Before delving into the specific aspects that viewing the organization as a political system brings to the surface, we must first strip political systems of their contemporary baggage.
Going back to the way that the Greeks saw political systems helps us to strip the idea of a political system of the baggage that it’s developed as we see politicking at its worst. If we rewind the clock, we find that we have the option of a dictatorship or a democracy. As Winston Churchill put it, “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” In short, democracy – and the required politicking – is bad, but it beats the alternative.
When we view organizations as political systems, we’re not accepting that they’re perfect but rather that they are the best way of organizing people towards a common objective. Without some sort of mechanism to coordinate people, there would be chaos. Politicking is the fuel that the democratic engine runs on.
Politics Are Not a Side Effect
Edward Deming said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” When we look at organizations and the politics, it’s easy to discount them as some unintended side effect. However, as you look more deeply, you realize that it’s the system of politics that allows ideas to be evaluated by multiple people and in multiple lenses. It’s the system of politics that can inform better decisions at its best. At its worst, it devolves into a network of quid pro quo trades. (See Personality Types for more about good and bad in each approach.)
Politicking is therefore the fuel upon which democracy runs. It’s the way that ideas are evaluated and there by performs an essential function for democracy – or the variation of democracy that exists inside of an organization, which might be better described as an oligocracy. An oligocracy is rule by the few. Otherwise, democracies and oligocracies are similar – the only question is the scale of those involved in making the decisions.
It’s natural for there to be conflict inside of any organization of people. Viewing organizations as political systems elevates awareness of the function of conflict in organizations – in a positive way. I’ve studied conflict for a long time and landed on an awareness that all conflicts are caused by only two causes: a difference in perspectives or a difference in values.
Organizations as Psychic Prisons
The idea originated with Plato’s The Republic. We’re trapped in our cultures. The words and rituals of daily life structure the prison for us. We only see the reflections of what is around the corner. The self-insulating properties of the organization create the possibility that it may become the prison that contains us.
Fredrick Taylor’s work and the scientific management movement that he spawned was preoccupied with the idea of control. If you can control the workers, then you need not worry about how they may be seeking to sabotage or get back at you. Ironically, Taylor was reported to have suffered from fearful nightmares and insomnia. Perhaps his desire to control others was about his unsuccessful desire to control his own thoughts and fears.
Our fears, more than anything else, keep us prisoner. Nothing is more pervasive than the fear of death and the twin fear of irrelevance. (See The Worm at the Core for more.) However, humans are filled with other fears, so much so that we’ve developed a long list of psychic defenses. (See Change or Die for more.) These defenses are sometimes quite adaptive and functional but suffer from the real possibility to degenerating into maladaptive behaviors. These maladaptive behaviors keep us trapped into the very situation that initiated the cycle of maladaptation.
Organizations as Flux and Transformation
The stability of an organization is an illusion. People join. People leave. New policies are created. The environment changes around the organization. Organizations by their nature and by the nature of their environment are always changing. They’re always adapting to new internal and external realities. Instead of being poured in concrete, they bend with steel. David Bohm explained the transformation process by which an acorn becomes an oak tree as an aperture. (See On Dialogue.) No one would argue that the acorn is an oak tree nor an oak tree an acorn. However, no one could deny that the acorn can become a tree over time with the right environment and the passage of time.
From this view, organizations are just their current state, and they’re always in a state of flux and transition. They’re the lines surrounding Lorenz’s attractors as they simultaneously capture a particle and cause it to trace ever-varied patterns around the attractors. There is, at the same time, change, flux and transition, and a relative stability. From the outside, it looks like a stable pattern. It looks like it’s constant – but when you look more deeply, you see the variation and change. It’s like fractals where there are seemingly infinite variations on patterns as you look deeper and deeper. (See Fractal Along the Edges.)
Here, the view of systems iterating endlessly in their variations gives you the feeling that organizations are subject to predictable patterns of behavior when they encounter a force. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems thinking.) When you take a gyroscope and apply a force to it, the resulting force comes out as a force translated 90 degrees in the direction of rotation. This is predictable, but it’s also the result of the rotational energy in the gyroscope. When the energy is gone, the translation no longer occurs.
The complex interactions between the systems in an organization are infinitely harder to predict in detail but in general they settle into patterns. The result is a way of seeing the organization that is both dynamic and stable at the same time.
Organizations as Instruments of Domination
It was Karl Marx that demonized capitalism and its army of organizations as being oppressive to the masses. Organizations were seen as the instruments that were being used to keep the masses down. We’ve seen the failure of communism in places like the USSR and recognize that Marx’s approach has its own limitations. We formed unions to protect the employee from the organization. We developed labor laws to prevent organizations from executing their dominion over workers. Still, maintaining the balance between the return on investment from the owners and the value of the labor is difficult. (See Human Capital.)
We need these safeguards, because it is possible for organizations to lose their respect for human life and the worker. The unethical decision to pay compensation for accidents instead of addressing the core problems, because addressing the core problems that cause the accidents are perceived to be more difficult or too costly, is a reality in some organizations. It was Paul O’Neill who transformed Alcoa to a safety culture, because it was the right thing to do – whether or not it was cost effective. (See The Power of Habit for more on this story.)
Capital in the Twenty-First Century speaks at length about income inequality and how to try to minimize it. We continue perceive income inequality as a serious social issue. There are reasons to believe that it’s poor organizations that keep the income inequality in place. As such, it makes sense to view them as instruments of domination.
Perhaps the greatest learning from Images of Organization wasn’t a specific view of the organization but instead was the idea that we need multiple views of the organization to support our understanding. I’d encourage you to take a look to see what are your Images of Organization.