“All theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.” Gareth Morgan
We develop a formidable understanding of individuals and cultures through the use of metaphors. We’ve learned to maintain stability by not rocking the boat or have used wallflower to describe someone who is quiet or shy. These metaphors communicate values related to security and social acceptance. On the other hand when we use metaphors such as life is a battlefield or refer to someone as top dog wecommunicate values associated with winning, advancing and being the best.
The machine metaphor is ubiquitous. From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution we have used metaphors about machines to communicate about work. When things are running smoothly we say they are “humming along” or “it’s well oiled.” Likewise if we encounter a problem that needs to be fixed, we simply “re-engineer” the machine. Henry Ford captures the essence of the machine mentality when he asks, “why is that when I inquire for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached.”
A machine is inanimate, non-relational and made of disparate parts; all separate but each serving the whole. The machine’s purpose is to be as efficient, quick and productive as possible. Machines don’t have other needs besides serving its one particular function.
Fifty years ago the political, social, economic and technological climate fostered an environment that was conducive to thinking we were separate. We are not separate, we are interconnected, and together we serve the whole. John Muir saw this truth reflected in nature, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.” The metaphors we use to communicate our perceptions of the world profoundly shape our objectives, attitudes, behaviors and values.
The Need For a New Metaphor – Ecosystem Management
Modern organizations are composed of complex systems. In order to compete and stay relevant, we need to stop managing the static machine and start nurturing our dynamic ecosystem. The new recipe for success lies in our ability to keep our ecosystem healthy. As business leaders we need to continually ask ourselves if our actions make life more stressful or are they alleviating stress, simplifying processes and empowering those around us to do the same. The metaphor of an ecosystem implies we are part of a community of living organisms, in conjunction with non-living components (technology), interacting as a system. Future growth and success will depend upon aligning organizational objectives with ecosystem management principles, resulting in unprecedented success. Paragons of ecosystem management embody the following characteristics:
- Thinks systemically, strategically and contextually
- Leverages diversity to drive innovation
- Manages abundance instead of scarcity
- Acknowledges the ecosystem extends far beyond the physical organization
- Nurtures interpersonal relationships
- Designs work to optimize for the employee
- Engages in lifestyle and experience design
- Fosters a purpose-centric culture
- Leverages self-awareness as a source of competitive advantage
- Promotes a holistic approach to wellness, integrating bio/psycho/social/spiritual components
There is an interconnectedness of all life, from the smallest molecular compound to the largest galaxy, and undoubtedly between every person. Organizations aligned with ecosystem principles will drive innovation through the 21st century and beyond. The choice is yours to make, what metaphor will you choose?