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Metaphors we organize by

November 11th, 2007 · 5 Comments · Management

Often when I interview people in organizations I ask them which animal they would liken the company to. The responses are interesting and very revealing of how they perceive the culture of the organization. After all there are huge differences between squirrels, boars, elephants and cats. When I ask them to tell me more I get fascinating descriptions of the behavioral traits of the animal that adds a lot of color to the interview.

Just as revealing is the difference between higher managers and subordinates. The managers almost invariably select powerful animals such as tigers, lions and sharks, which are seldom mention by others. Subordinates seem to select animal metaphors that describe the organizational culture, whereas manager selects according to wished external effect and power towards competitors.

These experiences makes me wonder about metaphors about how we organize. Are teams and symphony orchestras wishful metaphors of target and structure driven managers? I have never heard higher managers liken their organization to a circus or a dance band, only other people in the company. I have only heard consultants use the jazz band metaphor as being useful to explain organizations or groups with high creativity.

The team
The focus is on winning the next match and eventually the tournament. Short term success is dependent on training, tactics and pepping the team (GO team GO!). Longer term success is seen as dependent on getting the right people on the team and the right manager/trainer. If the team doesn’t win, first sell some players, buy new one’s and if that doesn’t help then sack the trainer.

This metaphor seems to drive mostly male managers experienced in or fascinated by team sports. “If we just try hard enough we will be in the premier league”. In reality a lot of workgroups are more like Charlie Browns baseball team, made up of the available locals. Can be fantastically creative, but not in the direction that the manager was targeting.

My main difficulty with the sports team metaphor is the belief that you can motivate people. People motivate themselves. And there are few organizations were people actually do work together like teams.

The symphony orchestra
For a while the symphony orchestra was a metaphor in the vogue. Independent knowledge workers co-ordinated by the great master. But everybody have their fixed positions and the work is predefined by the composer. There is no way that the troboneist can come to the help of the third violinist. Those who come to the concert get to hear exactly what it says in the program. A clever factory with all the cogs in place producing high quality and hopefully somebody will come. A metaphor probably mainly used by those who like to see themselves as conductors.

The primadonna show
Without the starbilled primadonnas nobody would come to the show. The primadonnas are more important than the organization, and boy do they know it. Here we probably find what the British call “the chattering classes”, politicians and media, but probably a lot of consultancies as well. But who would want to admit being part of a travelling circus, when they see themselves as having the lead role? How many higher managers talk about their primadonnas in a positive sense rather than seeing them as negative and impossible to manage.

The dance band
Nothing special or to write home about. Next week another indistinguishable band will be on the stage, delivering what is expected, not more, not less. Since they all sound the same and play the same tunes they do try to make themselves different by inventing even more flashy and tasteless dress.
Like your average company. Humdrum, plods along. Delivers average quality but tries to differentiate by doing the wrong things. Not a metaphor that anybody but people with a cynical turn like me would use.

The jazz band
Jazz bands are interesting, they would consider themselves a failure if the tune is the same on Wednesday as on Monday. The musicians create as they go along and in resonance with their audience. Miles Davis refused to let his band practise together, he paid them to play. One jazz musician I spoke to said that while playing a tune he would have another two or more tunes in his head. The same musician told me of one of the great bands he played with, where several people could not stand each other. They respected each other professionally, but as soon as the gig was over they disappeared in different directions. Quite different from the “we like each other” or politically correct “we pretend to like each other” and “we pretend to like team building” in the modern workplace.
Is the jazz band where most people really would like to play, but probably would have difficulties coping with the constant pressures of creativity and innovation? And how many managers in organizations have the temper and direction to lead what they see as a herd of cats? There ain’t many like Miles Davis out in the business world.

Any more metaphors anyone?

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Forrest

    On orchestras: my sister-in-law is a professional cellist. She argues that the conductor role really developed because the players needed someone to keep time. That’s it. No art, just keeping the beat. The modern, Bernstein conductor role developed as orchestras (as organizations, not players) needed a face to the public. The whole idea that the conductor is an artist is a product of mass culture orchestras, where the bandleader ran the organization.

    There’s little that is more amusing than watching a conductor trying to lead an orchestra that doesn’t want to follow him. In the same way that it can be fun to watch a software development manager that the developers don’t want to follow.

  • Paul Holmstrom

    Thanks for your comment.
    Gives me a lot of thoughts. How many of us haven’t seen managers eagerly and almost desperately trying to “manage”, their subordinates, but they just keep on doing whatever they think they should be doing.

    The conductor as a time-piece is interesting. People need to be able to use their discretion in organizations, so managers need to stop micro-managing. But then on the other hand some sort of coordination is needed. How can we use a revised symphony orchestra metaphor to emphasize the coordinative role instead of that of the “great” manager?

    I suppose that an able conductor has an important role in interpretation and balancing different parts of the orchestra?

    • Ken Hundert

      Please consider reviewing the collaborative effort of musicians within the orchestra known
      as Orpheus; no conductor!

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