Organizational Lenses

One of the questions raised by the group I was working with in Shanghai was "What lens should an OD consultant look through and how do I decide which lens to use?" First of all one has to understand the concept of a 'lens'. Two books explain this very well. The first Reframing Organizations by Lee Bolman and Terry Deal suggest four lens through which to view organizations, and Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization describes eight lenses. Briefly what they are both suggesting is that people interpret organizations differently according to their preferred way of looking at the world.

At simplistic level people who are 'glass half empty people', see things differently from people who are 'glass half full' – one sees the world through a pessimistic lens where things are going to go wrong, life is gloomy and people are out to thwart each other. The other approaches the world optimistically as a place of opportunity and adventure where things tend to go well and people act in the best interests of each other.

As Authenticity Consulting points out:

One of the most frequent reasons that organizational consultants argue about the best methods for organizational change is because consultants often have different perspectives, or lens, through which they view organizations. The impact of these differences is often underestimated. For example, you can have two different consultants interact with an organization and they might later provide different descriptions of the same organization. Therefore, it is critical that consultants understand their own perspective and be sensitive to the organizational perspectives of others.

Bolman and Deal argue that having the ability to think of situations from more than one perspective i.e. through a number of lenses "help us decipher the full array of significant clues [in a situation] capturing a more comprehensive picture of what's going on and what to do". The four lenses that they discuss are:

  • Structural (factories) ; Goals, objectives, roles, responsibilities, performance, policies and procedures, efficiency, hierarchy and coordination and control
  • Human Resource (families): Participation, feelings, fulfillment, communication, needs of people, relationships, motivation, enrichment and commitment
  • Political Power (jungles): Conflict, competition, authority, experts, coalitions, allocation of resources, bargaining and decision making
  • Symbolic Rituals (temples or carnivals): Culture, values, stories, different perspectives, language, expressions, myths, commitment and metaphors

On page 14 of their book they have a nice example of "Four frames: as near as your local bookstore", illustrating a manager looking for a book that will help her solve a particular management issue – she looks at several (each exhibiting a different lens) and finally picks one that matches her view.

Gareth Morgan discusses organizations in terms of each of the following lenses, ending with a case study inviting readers to interpret the case through each one:

 Instruments of domination: How organizations use and exploit their employees
 Machines: Organizations as mechanical systems
 Organisms: Organizations as growing and living 'beings'
 Brains: Organizations as information processing brains
 Cultures: Organizations as shared systems of meaning
 Political systems: Organizations as systems of government and political activity
 Psychic prisons: Organizations trapped in one view of the world
 Flux and transformation: Organizations as continuous changing entities

The classic book Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono is rooted in the same notion that a situation can be looked at from a number of perspectives but none is more right that the other. Consultants who have the skills to look themselves through various lenses and who appreciate that their clients are looking through one or more lenses (that may be different from the consultant's) the better able the consultant is to do a good job for the client.