More On Socially Constructed Reality: Using multiple metaphors/interpretations of reality…for a better future

We see the same event differently.  That’s a truism; the data is all around us, every day, all the time.  Just look at how we view our socio-political environment, or how we grasp our work issues.  Within my family, we children all loved our mother and agreed that she was an awesome woman, but within that image, we each had different reasons.  Yet we keep wondering why other people can’t see events in our way, at home, at work, in this society.  So be it.  But for a collective entity to engage in effective and efficient production, there needs to be some convergence on how we execute our respective responsibilities.  When all the rules, regulations, job specifications, manuals are written and spelled out, we still can’t function without attending to those pesky “relationships.”

Rules and regulations, anything that’s written down and specified, generate little disagreement (well, we can disagree on whether there needs to be these rules or not, but once specified, we know what to expect), but how we react to expectations, and how we feel about them varies from individual to individual, and it largely depends on our values, our worldviews, our backgrounds, our specific job situations and the roles we play.  Further, whenever we cannot immediately verbalize our general reaction, we may choose a metaphor to represent how we feel.  I once heard a colleague describe someone high-up in the administration: “She must eat barbed wire for breakfast!”  Knowing who my colleague was referring to, I thought that was a fantastic image, but of course, if I probed further, I probably would find the reasons behind this outburst somewhat different from what my interpretation would have been.  Metaphors are useful, but not always constructive until we delve deeper.

In my last entry, I described how a manager was portrayed by his colleagues in different images/metaphors.  And through discussions of these images, this manager hoped to modify his style to better work with peers and direct reports.  We can do similar exercises for organizations at large; today, I will use one image and see some of the different interpretations we can generate. Once again, Gareth Morgan provides an excellent example in his Imagin-i-zation, evoking the image of a spider plant to delineate how an organization may move toward decentralization and self-organizing.  A spider plant has a central bunch of leaves/stalks, and several offshoots fanning out with the next-generation of bunches of stalks. From this simple image, we can construct many variations for “how an organization is,” as well as “how an organization can be.”


The mother plant grows very big and healthy, but the offshoots are rather weak and small.  If the mother plant is a big organization and the small ones are various departments or divisions, one can say that this extremely centralized organization wields too much control; the various divisions are just doing the core’s bidding without much chance to be creative.  I have in mind the old-style communist regimes.  In many modern organizations, they’d be hard put to practice such centralization without quickly choking off profit sources.  Even in today’s assembly line manufacturing (which traditionally is more centralized), workers are allowed/encouraged to offer input where improvements can be made.  Certainly in the dynamic globalizing environment where rapid deployment (why do we keep borrowing terminology from military?) and rapid responses are the norms, some forms or degrees of decentralization is almost a necessity.


So, in the second image, we may have a sturdy central plant, with a bunch of offshoots (too many, too few, how do you judge?) that seem to grow steadily and maybe are ready to go solo.  Many conglomerates would fit with this image.  The logical follow-up questions would include:  How do you maintain connections with the nearly- or newly-independent offshoot(s)?  Or, how to strike the balance between nourishing the central plant while feeding the offshoots as well?  Another offshoot may be sprouting, is it really good for the whole plant?  These questions and considerations form the source of many conversations.


Same scene but with a few leaves and/or offshoots that are brownish and withering.  Should they be pruned away or be given more time to see if they recover?  When do you cut the loss?  If this is about a division of, say, 100+ people, cutting it won’t be an easy matter, and who should be involved in this decision?


What would be the source of nutrients?  source of water?  If this is the type of plant that needs pollination, should the source be from internal units or external “bees and birds?”

And so on.  The point here is that a metaphor may not accurately depict the organization, but it can help generate conversations.  If the central plant is too heavy and seems to inhibit the growth of offshoots, what is to be done?  If more offshoots are desirable, how does one gauge and maintain the amount of nourishment for them?

Morgan terms the tie between the central plant and the offshoots “umbilical cords.”  Since these metaphors are used as a starting point, there is no need to strictly adhere to reality.  So, the “umbilical cord” for the spider plant may be split into different strands, and each strand represents different type of expectations and agreements, etc.  One strand can be “vision and rules” with which to indoctrinate the offshoots so that there is coherence without the central office taking on too much authority.  “Resources” can be another strand, so that the central office can keep an eye on which division (offshoot) is anemic and which one is a bit bloated.  Accountability is crucial for decentralized operation, so that the offshoots can be fairly autonomous yet with clear expectations and responsibilities.  Yet another strand can be “rewards.”  Of course, then, at some point, we may want to have yet another conversation about “just how many strands do we need?”

As I said, different images generate different dialogues.  But this begs more questions:  How is the conversation possible? Does the organization encourage it? Allow it? Tolerate it?  Who initiates it?  At what level?  I’d image that a conversation that is initiated by the top would generate a rather different kind of discussion than if it is pushed by the lower rank or outside consultants.  It is not unlike an individual seeking psychotherapy, in that the recognition of the need and the finding of a therapist are more than half of the battle.

In honor of Steve Job’s passing, we should all take bold steps and initiate some difficult conversations.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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