Choosing an organisational metaphor? Choose wisely!

Organisational Culture – Part 3

A cautionary note

Beware the power of metaphor. The metaphors used to describe your organisation can exert a strong influence on your team and stakeholders – for good or ill.

I recently heard of an organisation in which some of the members had started referring to the entity as “The Beast’. This description suggested that they saw the entity as big and unwieldy, and that a “What can you do?” attitude had developed amongst the players. In this instance, the metaphor was not chosen by the directors or managers, but if that’s the way team members refer to it, the board and their team have some work to do.

Several negative organisational metaphors appear in the animated header image above. Doubtless, you have heard of many others over the years. Regrettably, there seem to be more negative than positive examples online. A selection of positive organisational metaphors appears at right.

Some caveats

For readers who have not read my previous articles on various models, I will repeat the usual caveats, courtesy of Korzybski and Box:

“The map is not the territory” – Alfred Korzybski
“All models are wrong, but some are useful” – George Box

No model or metaphor can hope to express all the complexity and subtlety of an organisation’s culture. Metaphors involve generalisations and themes which are necessarily high level, and so granularity is not a feature. These figures of speech can help to inform reflection on your culture, holding a mirror up to an idealised ‘standard’, but they are not magic charms that can be used in isolation to fix a cultural problem.

It would therefore be wise to remain alert to the risk that your metaphor is trapping you into oversimplifying your culture.

Metaphors abound

Governance and management literature uses a multitude of metaphors. Some are simple while others are more complex. Given that organisations are complex adaptive systems, I prefer organisational metaphors which reflect that complexity, however, I recognise that simple metaphors can sometimes serve useful purposes.

Morgan’s Organisational Metaphors

Gareth Morgan’s classic book, Images of Organisation, identified numerous metaphors commonly used to describe organisations, some of which are illustrated in the animated gif below.

Eight of these have been selected as categories or themes within a typology of organisational metaphors, with numerous variations on each being identifiable.


Beneath the surface

Several cultural metaphors distinguish between the observable effects and products (artefacts) of culture, and the collective beliefs, attitudes and values which generated those outcomes, but which are not readily observable (unless examined).

Four such cultural metaphors are illustrated in the chart below, with commentary following. Each of these references human psychology by using symbolic representations of what is conscious and observable (above the surface), versus what is sub-conscious or unconscious, and not observable (beneath the surface). The collective consciousness and behaviour of an organisation’s culture are described in essentially the same ways one would describe an individual’s personality, temperament, and character.

The Pyramid

Prof Edgar Schein is one of the more influential authors about organisational culture, and his three-tiered conceptual map is often illustrated in the form of a pyramid. Artefacts such as your organisation’s website, newsletter, strategic plan, annual reports, products, events, and even your office layout and fittings, are all observable ‘above the surface’. The collective assumptions, values and attitudes of the organisation’s personnel and their way of working together, are foundational layers in the tiered structure.

As an aside, it is interesting to note similarities between the pyramid culture model and the ‘Ladder of Inference‘ devised by Prof Chris Argyris.

The Tree

Like the pyramid metaphor, the tree metaphor assigns beliefs, values, mental models and perceptions to the root system, beneath the surface, while the behaviour of the organisation’s personnel and their outputs are the trunk, leaves and fruit, above ground.

The Iceberg

Schein’s Pyramid Metaphor could be considered a precursor to the popular iceberg model, with what we say we do (vision, mission, strategy, plans, reports, etc.) being the visible artefacts above the waterline. What we actually do, and the motivations which drive that behaviour, are beneath the water’s surface. As they are submerged, they are not readily observable.

The Pond

Frustrated with the suggestion that culture is frozen (like an iceberg), Prof Schein has commented that this metaphor fails to do justice to the ephemeral nature of organisational culture. It implies that all values, beliefs, assumptions and the products of those underlying forces are fixed, when in fact they are often in a state of flux, and indeed are amenable to transformation in response to various stimuli and environmental factors.

As another aside, the notion of ‘unfreezing’ culture, changing it, and then refreezing it, was central to the change model devised by Kurt Lewin and widely used for some decades in the latter half of the previous century.

Schein suggested that a Lily Pond may be a more suitable metaphor for organisational culture. It still allows for an organisation’s artefacts to be visible above the surface, but also suggests a more dynamic relationship between the ‘lilies’ and their environment – both above and below the waterline.

Metaphors for complex adaptive systems

While the Lily Pond metaphor may do some justice to the dynamics of cultural governance, in my view it seems to be missing the role of directors and managers in shaping and managing the organisation’s culture. For that matter, where is the rest of the environment in which the pond is located?

I enjoyed reading Ari Weinzweig’s Leaders are Weeders posts on the Zingtrain blog, which uses the organisational ecosystem metaphor. His observation that not all metaphoric ‘weeds’ should be ‘weeded’ offered insights into supporting diversity of thought in the workplace – including around the board table.

While the ecosystem illustration accompanying his article offered more of a systems view of the organisation, I wondered whether it might be enhanced by recognising the role of directors and managers in ‘cultivating’ their desired culture. That would mean substituting a garden for an ‘untamed’ natural system, and acknowledging the responsibility organisational leaders have for cultural development and maintenance.

In my view, this garden metaphor offers a more accurate reflection of the complex adaptive system (ecosystem) which we call an organisation. It also places emphasis on the role of the gardener. The garden is located within a natural environment and social setting in which other forces and events need to be accounted for. It is nonetheless a product of ‘cultivating the soil’, ‘planting seeds’, ‘nurturing growth’, ‘weeding and pruning’, ‘composting waste’, and ‘harvesting the fruit’ of the gardener’s labours. The garden experiences various seasonal changes and weather, and also suffers pests and diseases, all of which require preventive and/or restorative treatments.

These factors make it a rich metaphor (perhaps even a meta-metaphor), offering ‘fertile ground’ for your thinking about cultural curation within your organisation.

Gardener or Guardian

The garden does not exist or survive without the gardener. Both the garden and the gardener can be seen as complex adaptive systems in a dynamic relationship, responsive to circumstances and focussed effort in priority areas.

As gardener (i.e. cultural guardian), you may be responsible for a ‘market’ garden or a ‘community’ garden, a ‘rose’ garden, a ‘veggie’ garden, or a plot overrun with weeds. In selecting the most suitable metaphor for your organisation, the choice is yours.

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