On models and metaphors

Galbraith’s Star Model™ is a sacred cow of organisation design.   Amy Kates notes that it ‘has been the gold standard for conceptualizing organization design since the early 1970s’.  Galbraith himself, said,  ‘The Star Model™ framework for organization design is the foundation on which a company bases its design choices. The framework consists of a series of design policies that are controllable by management and can influence employee behavior. The policies are the tools with which management must become skilled in order to shape the decisions and behaviors of their organizations effectively.’

The Star Model is one of several dating from the 1970s.  Others include the Burke Litwin model, Weisbord’s 6-box model, Nadler and Tushman’s congruence model, McKinsey’s 7-S model, and Leavitt’s Diamond model.

Facilitating an organisation design course, a couple of weeks ago, participants asked me if there were any newer models.  They wanted to know why we were still working with 50-year-old models.  That’s a good question.  Why are we?

In a general sense we need models.  Scott E Page in his book The Model Thinker tells, us ‘Models are formal structures represented in mathematics and diagrams that help us understand the world.  Mastery of models improves your ability to reason, explain, design, communicate, act, predict and explore.’  Listen to a podcast discussing the book here.

Yet, the organisational models from the 1970s derive from, and have been dominated by, a mechanistic metaphor of an organisation.  Dee W Hock, founder of Visa, says, ‘it was Newtonian science and Cartesian philosophy which … fathered the concepts of hierarchical, command-and-control organizations, giving rise to the machine metaphor.  That metaphor has since dominated our thinking, the nature of our organizations, and the structure of Industrial society to an extent few fully realize.’

This domination of the machine metaphor has consequences.  Peter Drucker said (in 1974) ‘some of the worst mistakes in organization building have been made by imposing on a living business a mechanistic model of an ideal organization.’

Using a different organisational metaphor, from the mechanistic one, might give rise to other models that could form the framework for design.  Gareth’s Morgan’s book Images of Organisation (1986), for example, offered eight organisational metaphors.  Each one ‘incorporates a group or cluster of organizational theories, as described in the paper  Beyond Morgan’s eight metaphors: Adding to and developing organization theory  and shown below:

  1. The machine metaphor encompasses such theories as Taylor’s scientific management, Weber’s bureaucracy and views of organizations that emphasize closed systems, efficiency and mechanical features of organizations.
  2. The organism metaphor depicts organizations as open systems that focus on the human relations and contingency theories.
  3. The brain metaphor focuses on the cognitive features of organizations and encompasses learning theories and cybernetics.
  4. The culture metaphor emphasizes symbolic and informal aspects of organizations as well as the creation of shared meanings among actors.
  5. The political system metaphor encompasses stakeholder theories, diversity of interests, and conflict and power in organizations.
  6. The psychic prison metaphor draws from psychoanalytical theories to examine the psyche, the unconscious, and ways that organizations entrap their members.
  7. The flux and transformation metaphor emphasizes processes, self-reference and unpredictability through embracing theories of autopoiesis, chaos and complexity in organizations.
  8. The instrument of domination metaphor draws from Marxist and critical theories to highlight exploitation, control and unequal distribution of power performed in and by organizations.

However, other metaphors may emerge or be emerging.  A 2016 special issue of the journal Human Relations aimed to ‘rethink or add to Morgan’s metaphors and to generate new organizational images’.  Several new metaphors are discussed:

Jonathan Pinto’s (2016) image of an Icehotel focuses on the temporal nature of organizations; that is, how they die and become reborn, disintegrate again, and then become reconstituted.

Darren McCabe (2016) adds the image of Wonderland, in which irrationality exists as the normal organizational state rather than an anomaly. … absurdity, uncertainty and disorder infuse organizational experiences.   (NOTE: This is my favourite metaphor and one I think most apposite in the organisations I have worked in).

Linzi Kemp (2016), contends that Morgan’s metaphors are genderless and consequently fail to address concerns about women’s inequality. She proposes two new images – femicide, which attends to women’s inequality, and justice, which privileges women’s equality.  (NOTE: Morgan, himself, says ‘There’s also a case to be made for viewing organizations through the lenses of gender and race)

Morgan tells us, ‘the metaphor that I most wish that I had included would be …  “Organizations as Media” with a particular focus on the transformations created in the wake of phonetic literacy and the rise of new electronic media, particularly the digital forms that are currently unfolding.’

As far as organisational metaphors go, if we follow Morgan’s list, and observing from my work experiences, we seem to be heading towards the dominant metaphor becoming either organism or transformation and flux.  (Roger Martin describes the power of metaphor in his HBR article Management Is Much More Than a Science).  But neither is giving rise to accompanying models.  Rather, they are generating approaches to organisation designing.

Approaches worth looking at are:

The Cynefin Framework, ‘which allows executives to see things from new viewpoints, assimilate complex concepts, and address real-world problems and opportunities…. The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these—simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic—require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth—disorder—applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.’

Systemic design principles for complex social systems, developed by Peter Jones (2014) ‘identified a set of systemic principles shared between design practice and systems theory, which might guide design thinking’ and in a later paper presents a detailed discussion of these, arguing that ‘By integrating systems thinking and its methods, systemic design brings human-centered design to complex, multi-stakeholder service system.’

Social systems design in organisational change,  discussed by Doug Walton offers a slightly different approach from Jones’s.  Walton says ‘The pressing need for the continuous redesign of organisational operating models increases the demand for new approaches to conducting design.  To manage this, a new approach must created that embeds the capability to redesign the organization at all levels, not just the in the offices of executives or process experts. Social Systems Design provides important underpinnings for how to architect such collaborations. Inherent to this approach is the realization that designing complex social systems is not just a construction or specification process, but rather a human knowledge development process.

Human-Centered, Systems-Minded Design is taken up by Thomas Both in his article. His approach integrates the human-centered and the system thinking design methods and ‘poses eight questions that outline what each approach brings to the table and how they can work in conjunction to effectively advance a project.’

If the machine metaphor is giving way to a different organisational metaphor then do we need different organisational models?  Is it time to move on from Galbraith’s Star Model™, McKinsey 7S et al?  Is it sufficient to design with approaches rather than models?  Let me know.

Image:  This is your brain on metaphors

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