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?

Kaoma, Zambia

Kaoma, Zambia

Some people would call it “flying by the seat of your pants.” In Africa, I think its just the way it is. It was around 1993 and Lorraine and I had just spent two days at the Luampa Mission Hospital compound in Zambia, Africa. We were now heading back to the rest of our group in the capital city of Lusaka. It was literally a long, straight road from Kaoma (the nearest town to the mission hospital) to the capital, and supposedly a bus making this 6-8 hour trip was coming through Kaoma that morning. Our host took us to the bus stop in time for the bus…or so we thought. After asking around to confirm the bus schedule, there did not seem to be anyone in the area confident that the bus was actually coming that morning, or that day. As Lorraine and I stood there not quite sure what to do and our host ready to leave us to our own devices, a yellow, full-sized school bus pulled up in front of where we stood. The school bus was pulling a large lawry truck behind it. Several men got out of the bus and seemed to be adjusting the connection between the bus and the truck and adding fuel to the bus. I say “seemed” because I noticed the activity from a distance but was more concerned that our host was about to leave us and we had no confirmed way back to Lusaka.

But where I saw distraction, our host saw opportunity. She quickly walked up to the men and asked where they were going. They were going to Lusaka. Would they be willing to take us as passengers? They said yes. Somewhere in the interchange I became aware of our other travel companion, a Zambian doctor leaving his employ at the mission hospital in search of better wages as a doctor in the mines. He was to be our escort.

Our host informed us that the bus and truck were being taken to Lusaka by these men from Zimbabwe and that we were welcome to ride with them. I must say I was trepidatious of the thought of riding with these unknown men and yet it appeared that this was the way for us to take. We said goodbye to our host, greeted our new hosts, and boarded the bus with our travel bags.

We ended up sitting in the middle of the empty bus, the three of us in our own chosen seats, while four of the men sat in the front of the bus, three of them talkatively grouped around the driver, and the other three packed into the cab of the lawry truck we were pulling. As we started on the trip, it was fun to watch the men in the lawry through the windows in the back of the bus. They had the challenging role of steering the truck as the bus moved forward. They also seemed to be having a blast in the process as they kept laughing as we started moving forward, the lawry bumping along sometimes like a bucking bronco.

I see now that it was at this point in our journey that we entered into an open and spacious experience. We settled into our day long ride which ended up consisting of casual talk, interesting views of the countryside, and passage through a guarded checkpoint to a national park. We stopped twice that I can remember. Once to exchange empty coke bottles at a road side shop and once to eat on the side of the road. Wow – what a meal! We were invited to partake of the precooked food brought out from covered plastic bowls. It was the same authentic fare I had been experiencing during my stay in Zambia – Nshima and chunks of cooked beef eaten with our hands. My favorites! A bottle of fizzy coca cola topped the meal off.

Lorraine and I also took this opportunity to relieve ourselves by swishing through the five foot reeds that were along the side of the road to where we could no longer see the bus or anyone else. We figured if we couldn’t see them then they probably couldn’t see us!

Looking back at this snapshot in time, it is interesting to note that even though the doctor was to be our escort as we traveled, our escorts actually turned out to be the seven men from Zimbabwe. The four of them before us and the three of them behind us. We were surrounded…and it was good. They were like angels escorting us to our destination in a spacious bus, with food service and privacy to pee. What more could you ask for on the road to Lusaka?!

By the way, about two hours after we started the trip, a bus about half the length of the school bus and literally jam packed with people passed us on its way to Kaoma. Lorraine and I both saw it and looked at each other in amazement…just think, we might have still been waiting for that exact bus to arrive in Kaoma. I imagined what it would have been like to be packed in like sardines on the road to Lusaka…

Thank God for yellow buses and men like angels!