Time for a new metaphor for organisation life?

I recently wrote a post calling for a rethink of systems thinking. I argued that

“thinking of organisations as ‘human systems’ leads to the assumption that people are ‘devices’ in a machine. They become thought of as similar to the computers and other non-sentient resources [and that therefore] human beings continue to be ‘human resources’ to be counted, programmed and deployed.”

I closed by stating

“this thinking is propping up command and control styles of management that many see as counterproductive in these more unpredictable times and increasingly harmful to the well being of people working in our organisations. A new metaphor is needed.”

I was ready to write that next post and already had a new metaphor in mind. However, I paused for thought after receiving some comments.

In these comments I saw sympathy for my thinking on the risks of choosing metaphors and then obsessively applying them. I also saw an ask for new ways of expressing our realities, especially when those realities evolve through our own reframing of the way we see the world. Finally, I saw a warning that by suggesting a new metaphor, I would simply be creating the same kind of inevitably blunt instrument through which we attempt to better understand the human dynamics within organisations.

A recent experience helped consolidate my issue with the systems metaphor and my resistance to suggesting a new one to replace it. As a delegate in a room of around 100 people, I heard many of those present express themselves on various topics associated with life in organisations. There was a dominant metaphor in play, that being the organisation as a system. For some in the room, everything was a system. The word was used to describe any group, from 3 people sharing stories, to the whole organisation, its external stakeholders and the society it serves. For me, this constant referencing to ‘the system’ left me feeling less than human, like a device. I was also left wondering what alternative thinking, stimulation or creativity might have been possible if alternative metaphors had been allowed.

These alternatives were trying to make an appearance, During the day I heard reference to ‘networks’, ‘communities’, ‘groups’, ‘teams’, ‘families’ and ‘colleagues’. Not new or necessarily creative opportunities, but these alternatives might have added some richness to the narrative unfolding on the day and might have allowed for a deeper exploration of their ways of working, relationships and habitual ways of being. It seems the voice of systems thinking was so loud it drowned out all other possible ways of seeing and, therefore, reinventing their world.

This experience and the comments following my recent post, has led me to write this as a plea for us not to seek a single new metaphor with which to wean ourselves off an addiction to an existing one. Instead, I’m suggesting we hold any given metaphor more lightly and to introduce alternatives, in the moment, as and when we feel it appropriate. Further, I would ask that we use the introduction of metaphors as an opportunity to explore what it is to be involved in organisation life.

My plea is for us to ask more questions about the language we use and the metaphors through which we describe our experiences, relationships and lives within organisations. What metaphors do we use? Why do we use them? What do we visualise when we use the language associated with these metaphors? What thoughts, feelings and intentions do these metaphors conjure up in us? How do these thoughts, feelings and intentions change as we change our language and metaphors? Might these changes help us?

Spend the next few days listening to the language and metaphors at play in your organisation. You might be surprised at the dominance of some. You may also hear some others trying to be heard over the noise. Give these some air time. Things might begin to shift simply though this act of exploration.


Postscript: in case you were interested, my suggestion for a replacement metaphor was going to be ‘community’. I wonder what alternative thoughts, feelings and intentions might arise from thinking of our organisations and their wider stakeholder groupings as communities? I find this a more humanising metaphor to counter the de-humanising effect of ‘the system’. I’m also intensely curious as to how it might better support a move towards involving actual communities more in the day to day life of businesses, service providers and institutions. Some commentators believe there is a need to become less provider-consumer oriented and more jointly accountable for the way in which, as a whole, societies create, provide and consume goods and services. I may write a future post on this, but suggesting it as an alternative to be held lightly, in the service of exploring ways of working and to be used in conjunction with others, as the need arises.

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