Have you ever noticed how people use metaphors in describing how their organization works?
In my experience, managers and employees make extensive use of metaphors in explaining how they perceive their current organization, why they think it should be changed, and what the ideal organizational model would look like.
We should take this topic seriously. In the classic book on the subject, Metaphors we live by, the authors suggest that metaphors not only help us communicate an idea but also shape how we perceive and understand the world.
Particularly important in my field of work are metaphors, sayings or proverbs that are used to communicate criteria for evaluating the current organization or principles one should adhere to in designing a new organization. Here are some examples and possible interpretations (there may be many alternative interpretations depending on the situation):
- “We’re in the same boat” – we need to collaborate
- “Our firm is top heavy” – our firm has many management layers
- “There’s no captain on the bridge” – there’s no direction and leadership here (maybe too few management layers?)
- “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” – our units are poorly coordinated
- “Too many cooks spoil the broth” – if too many people are involved nobody is responsible
Some proverbs are remarkably similar to more rigorous principles developed by management and economics scholars. Consider the proverb “Let the wolf take care of the sheep”. There are many versions of this proverb both in English as well as in other languages (e.g., a Briton might say “Let the fox guard the hen house” and an Australian might say “Let the dingo take care of the kids”).
In the Scandinavian languages, we say (literally translated) “letting the ram take care of the bag of oats”. A friend from India told me that the equivalent expression in his language was “to give the keys to the thief”. I like that latter two versions better because they focus on the potential for conflict of interest without creating the mental image of aggression or predation.
Many economists who study organizational issues make use of the so-called Principal-Agent theory. This theory basically says that you can avoid conflict of interests by separating the role of the principal and the role of the agent (the agent is someone who carries out a task on behalf of the principal).
You can then use monitoring and incentives to ensure that the agent acts in the interest of the principal. This is the foundation for many of the recent recommendations regarding improved governance and control in financial services, for example. You actually sum up the essence of the theory quite well by using the proverb.
Although proverbs and metaphors are effective pedagogical tools and shape our thinking in many ways, one should be careful not to accept them as proof of the validity of an idea.
At times they lead companies astray.
I recall the story about a company (I think this was back in the 1980’s) that had two main product lines but the CEO argued that the company needed to introduce one more product line in order to have a “three legged stool”, i.e., a more stable business. Yet the diversification that followed proved disastrous and was later abandoned.
Metaphors is one way of thinking – another way is using logic. We should use both – a metaphor can powerfully express a key principle, but we should apply logic to define, test and refine it before putting it into action.