Who knew that organizational theory could be so interesting? Alive? Mysterious? Adventurous?

It all started with a book. A very thick book at that. Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organization,” a seminal work on organizational theory,  sat dauntingly on my shelf for a while before I finally had the chutzpah to pick it up and read. Once I opened its pages, I was captured by a central idea that was both inspiring and amazing: organizational theories are metaphors in disguise. I say “disguise” because it seems like org theory’s presence in the world shows up more as stiff, starchy, boring, dry, somber, deep, intellectual, and elusive than alive and relevant. At least to those of us who have not tread these strange waters before.

But the deed was done. The book was opened. The pages pulling me forward into a new world that was strange and yet so familiar. How could this be? You mean, metaphors with their picturesque capacity to bring life to any concept was the “stuff” of theories? A lens that captures an idea about how organizations can work, function, communicate, produce and be in the world?

I learned that org theories are like colored glasses. Each theory views organizations through a different premise or perspective or lens. When the different pairs of glasses are worn, one can see different pictures or patterns of organizations. These pictures are metaphors. For example, one organizational theory is cultural theory. When organizations are viewed through cultural “glasses,” one sees the diversity of people, or lack thereof, the norms that have been established in the org, the obvious, and not so obvious, ways the org communicates, the underlying assumptions of “how things are done around here,” and so much more.

Another metaphor for viewing orgs is systems theory. This pair of glasses reveals the connectedness that each part of the org has to the whole. This holistic view notices that when action is taking place in one part of the system, the whole system is affected. These glasses reveal patterns that take place over time and also recognize the parts and players of organizations that can be invisible to other metaphors.

So where does the adventure come in? The adventure awakens by the looking for hidden (and not so hidden) treasures that can be found in each organization. Each org has a unique dna, history, culture, etc. that is complex and full of mystery. Each org runs by a set of theories/metaphors that is both conscious and unconscious. By using metaphor as a tool to help identify current org ways as well as desired outcomes, a rich path of discovery is opened up.

I’m reminds of the movie “National Treasure.” In the movie, Ben Gates is following clues that are supposed to lead to a huge treasure. Along the way he comes across some peculiar glasses that have multiple, adjustable  lenses, with each lens a different color. To be able to see the whole map and find the treasure, Ben had to view the map through the glasses…adjusting which lenses he looked through as each lens showed only a portion of the full map. In the same way, to fully see the complex dance of any org, we will need multiple pairs of glasses/metaphors/theories to see the complex levels and layers of that org.

So what do you think of organizational theory now? What about metaphors? Are you curious to learn more? If you start looking for them, you’ll find them in the most interesting places. Let me know what you discover!

P.S. How many metaphors were used in this post? What are some more metaphors that represent the way we view organizations?