Metaphors we organize by

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?

Keep your eye on the ball

Whoever won a match by looking at a set of instruments showing the speed, angle and forecast path of the ball. Yet that is how most business seems to be managed.

Many years ago I was working with a major ski resort hotel and their change and development. I was there in off season when business was virtually non-existent. The hotel belonged to a major tour operator and they were using a customer satisfaction survey. Every year when they had recovered after the heavy season they pored over the data. The business plan stated that they wanted to increase customer satisfaction from 3.9 to 4.3 on a scale 1-5.

When I came the management team was heavily involved in that years major project aiming to achieve the goal – they were rebuilding the bar. Which they apparently did every two years, absolutely certain that this time they would make it. I asked how they knew that was what the customers wanted them to do. Well, they just sort of knew that was the right thing to do. In the season they did not really have the time to talk to the guests.

I was flabbergasted. Guests stayed for an average of about a week. Apart from the time they are on the slopes, they are virtually captives at the hotel – and nobody talks to them? If I had been the manager I would have invited 2-3 families a week to drinks before dinner. I would have rewarded staff for talking to customers and finding out what was important to them.

The Future of Management by Gary Hamel and Bill Breen

The Gary Hamel fan club is disappointed. I have been sucking up every word of Gary since I first heard him in 1991. Peter Day interviewed Gary about the book on BBC GlobalBiz some weeks ago. My expectations on the new book rose even more. But now I think that the podcast was better and I am still trying to figure out what happened.

A lot of critics have been castigating Hamel for being so positive to Enron in ”Leading the Revolution”. I thought that was a ggod book, although it at parts seemed to be written by his associates rather than by himself. The book introduced a new concept for business planning, which I still think is great. And who could foresee that behind the slitzy facade of Enron were such devious fraudsters?

This book has been written ”with Bill Breen”, which I guess that Bill did most of the writing. Bill is a former editor at Fast Company. At times the books reads more like an extended FC article than a book coauthored by Hamel. Some critics say that after the Enron ”fiasco” Hamel does not dare to be as prescriptive again. The book is full of questions for the manager to consider himself.

I do think that we need to see a change in management from old-fashioned command and control to something else. Partly because of the knowledge economy, but also new generations grow up in a more open and democratic society they will not accept autocratic management.

Hamel and Breen make a fairly good case for the need for change. They then roll out ”the usual suspects”, Google, Semco and Gore to prove that new forms of management do exist. As little has been written about Gore I lapped up all about them.

They give the reason for change, they give us the exemplary cases and all the questions for the manager to think about hid/her own company. It is a bit like paint by numbers. Here are the tubs of paint, these are some ready pictures, fill in the gaps yourself.

I doubt that we are likely to see radical management innovation in the large traditional industries. There are umpteen difficulties in the transition and at least as many excuses for not making any significant change. But the book did get me thinking about how the transition might be made and I will share my thoughts in this blog.

My rating:
3 stars

Why are managers outsourcing their core function?

I am thinking a lot about what managers do and should be doing. Mainly because I have undertaken to help a major national authority to structure its demands on management training dependent on levels of work. Since we all started talking about the knowledge economy I have been trying to get my head around how that will change the work of management.

Some years ago my wife and I wrote a long article about our experiences as leaders of leaders in a major volunteer organization. Our hypothesis was that knowledge workers are somewhat like volunteers – if they don not like it any longer, they leave quickly. I have started translating the article into English, it will be a slow job as I will be wanting to rewrite it at the same time.

I had great expectations when I started reading Gary Hamels latest book on the Future of Management. I was sorely disappointed, more on that in a forthcoming review. At the end he writes that the only acceptable hierarchies are the natural ones, but not a word about what a natural hierarchy is.

Since I work with Levels of Work / Requisite Organization / Stratified Systems Theory I have very definite opinions about what constitutes a natural hierarchy. When considering the new work of management we need to consider hierarchies, accountabilities, management span, allowing discretion etc. We need to move away from traditional command and control to something else.

Most managers have been brought up in command and control organizations, so they know that stuff. But over the years the work of management has changed and managers have brought in consultants to help them. My hypothesis is that what managers bring in consultants to do is the new work of management. In other words they are outsourcing their new core work.

When working with the National Authoritys demands on management training I am realizing that managers need to be trained to do what they use consultants to do for them.

Many years ago British Gas compared what their higher managers needed in the way of training and what the major institutes were offering. It was a great disappointment as the institutes were delivering at lower managerial levels than they were selling to. That still seems to be the case.