Metaphors Of Organisation: The Heart Of The “Scaling Agile” Problem?

Is the challenge of “scaling Agile” all about a clash of metaphors within your organisation? And if so, could that contain the seed of an idea for action? Let me explain.

Before reading on, take a moment to consider this. When you think about your organisation, your organisation is like… what? Write or draw your answer.

And when your organisation is like that, change is like… what? Again, write or draw your answer.

Maybe your organisation is like one of Gareth Morgan’s eight Metaphors Of Organization:

  1. A machine
  2. An organism
  3. A brain
  4. A “culture”
  5. A political system
  6. A psychic prison
  7. Change or flux
  8. An instrument of domination?

That’s not an exhaustive list, by the way! There are lots of other options.

The Importance Of Metaphor

Metaphor is the stuff of thought, the native language of the unconscious mind. That means you think in metaphor at a deeper level than that of words. And the metaphors you use in your unconscious thinking spill out in your words, providing clues to how you think.

The metaphors you use in your thinking have entailments, and these can profoundly influence how you behave.

Metaphors are highly individual. “Shared” metaphors aren’t really shared. They aren’t identical across a culture: individual versions of a particular metaphor will exhibit similarities, but also differences. For one person, the organisation might be like a machine. What kind of machine? Like a factory production line, and so change might be like retooling. For someone else the organisation, still like a machine, might be like a computer printer, and so change might be like scrapping it and buying a new one. Imagine how those two people would respond to the announcement of a new change process?

But having said that, metaphors are highly infectious. Language is the “carrier”. If everyone around you tends to talk about the organisation using one kind of metaphor, you’re likely to use the same jargon and, perhaps after continued exposure, to share the same underpinning metaphor.

Agilists’ Metaphors

In recent years I’ve explored metaphors with a lot of Agile enthusiasts, as I’ve worked with Agile coaches, with teams, and spoken at lots of Agile conferences. As a Clean Language enthusiast metaphor is my stock-in-trade: I can’t not hear the metaphors that spill out as people talk about their work and their organisations.

Often, I’ll even encourage them to make their metaphors explicit by asking, “When you are working at your best, you are like… what?”

My impression is that mostly, Agilists see the “their” part of the business as something quite organic, like an ecosystem, or perhaps a farm.  They talk about “holding space for people to grow”, “allowing things to emerge”, that kind of thing. From Morgan’s list, “an organism” comes closest, but I think it’s more like “a group of organisms”.

The implications of that kind of metaphor include the idea that everyone is part of the system; that everyone can and should both contribute to and benefit from the system; that certain environments favour the evolution of certain creatures and so on. Agilists talk about complexity, about uncertainty, and the inter-relatedness of things.

Meanwhile, as they talk about the expectations the rest of the organisation has of them, especially “top management”, they start to use much more mechanistic metaphors. They talk about more linear cause-and-effect chains, apply more rigid “rules”, and generally sound constrained by processes and systems. Even when Agilists say they don’t want a them-and-us culture, their language is revealing.

Are those mechanical metaphors a reflection of the Agilists’ thinking, I wonder? Or do they indicate how those outside the Agile bubble think, and talk, about the organisation?

I don’t have as much exposure to C-level executives or accountants, but what I do have tends to suggest that “machine” metaphors would be more prevalent there. What’s been your experience?

Metaphor Clash – And How To Fix It

When two groups of people have very different metaphors for something, they think about that thing very differently, at a profound level. The entailments are different.

There’s not much point “nurturing” a machine, for example. When a machine goes wrong, what you need is an expert who knows how to fix it! When you want a machine to change, it’s got to be a mechanical process. You certainly don’t need get the cogs’ and levers’ agreement to make it happen!

On the other hand, change in an ecosystem is complex and unpredictable. Supporting change is often about creating a generally fertile environment, and trying things out to see what happens. Sometimes organisms fail to thrive. Sometimes they unexpectedly bloom.

Could this clash of metaphors be happening in your organisation? I wonder if clashes like these could be happening in all kinds of places – especially where people are trying, and failing, to “scale Agile”.

If so, maybe Clean Language could help? It’s a good way of making tension more creative by helping “conflicting” metaphors to co-exist. There’s more on how to use it in that kind of context here.

Please comment, share your personal “metaphors of organization” and ask your questions below.

  • Many thanks to Nicolas Stampf, who thinks of organisations as permaculture, for inspiring this blog post.

2 thoughts on “Metaphors Of Organisation: The Heart Of The “Scaling Agile” Problem?”

  1. Thanks for the reference, Judy. Indeed I think of how useful permaculture could be as a metaphor for change (and this the permaculture design method as a change method)…
    But that’s assuming that my own metaphor for an organization is that of nature and that we can change the way we grow… People.
    If management connects to that agricultural metaphorical field, then moving then to permaculture might help.
    If they’re stuck with the tractor… Maybe I could present them with a horse instead… Or would it be a move back in time?

  2. Pingback: The Impact Of Hidden Organisational Metaphors - Judy Rees

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