Paul E. Plsek & Associates
Using discussion of an analogous system as a way
to help people get common and creative insights into the operation of the CAS they are in.
Metaphor is a tool of language in which one thing
is said to be something else (or to be like something else). Exploration of the
similarities and differences between the two things gives a group a way of thinking and a
way of seeing a situation that can bring creative insight about ways to move forward. For
example, we might say: "We want our HMO clinic teams to function as well as the NASA
space shuttle team" and then explore the implications of this statement.
The predominant metaphors in use in organizations today
are those of a machine and a military operation. If an organization is a machine, then we
just need to specify the parts well, and make sure each part does its part. If an
organization is a military operation, then command, control, and communication needs to be
hierarchical, survival is key, and sacrificial heroes are desired (although no one really
wants to be one themselves). Most of today's organizational artifacts-job descriptions,
organization charts, root-cause analysis, "turf battles," and so on-emerge from
these largely unexpressed and undiscussed metaphors.
The basic problem with
these metaphors when applied to a CAS is that they ignore interaction effects among the
agents, or worse, simply assume that these interactions can be tightly controlled through
better (read: more) specification. While there are many situations in health care where
the machine and military metaphors are useful-for example, a "code blue team" or
a surgical process-there are also many situations where these metaphors are grossly
When we use the tool of metaphor in a CAS we are
seeking to make explicit the metaphors that guide interactions within the system, and we
are seeking new metaphors that can provide fresh insight into the dynamics of the system.
Gareth Morgan suggests a
number of generic metaphors that we can use to create dialogue and shared meaning within
groups. Several of Morgan's generic metaphors are described in the attachment. A
facilitator can introduce these metaphors and challenge the group to extract key themes
that can then be applied to the real-world CAS with which the group is concerned.
Before using this aide: What metaphors
is the group unconsciously using in its current approach?
After using this aide: How will the group
transform its new insight into action? What plan do we have for keeping the new metaphor
alive so that we don't slip back into the old metaphor?
There are several examples in the Tales of
Complexity section that illustrate the use of metaphor to help provide new insight into
common organizational issues. In addition to the Tales cited in the margin, see also the
various books and articles described in the Bibliography.
Some of Gareth Morgan's Generic Metaphors
The eight metaphors described below are just a few of
the literally infinite number of useful metaphors. They are described here to pique your
interest and imagination. The best metaphors are those that emerge during discourse with
others within a CAS.
Holograms (or Fractals).
A hologram is a three-dimensional photograph; you've
seen them in shops or on credit cards. An interesting property of a hologram is that if
you cut it into pieces, each piece displays the entire picture! Similarly, look at a tree.
The branching structure of the tree is basically the same from the trunk all the way out
to the ends of the limbs. Whether you look at the tree as a whole, or break off a branch
and study it alone, the number and style of branches at a branch-point is a characteristic
feature of the type of tree you are looking at. This property of a unit of structure that
is replicated at various levels is a harmonious, self-organizing feature of nature.
We can use this metaphor in exploring more harmonious
organizational structures by focusing on the need to build an organizational
"kernel" and then replicate this at all levels of the organization. For example,
imagine a leadership "kernel" consisting of a trio of a physician, nurse, and
administrator who accept collective accountability for the success of whatever they are
charged to oversee. Once we understand this "kernel," the hologram or fractal
metaphor suggests that we should establish such leadership trios at all levels of the
organization. If there is a level at which these three have a separate, not collectively
accountable structure, there may be dys-harmony in the CAS.
Example of a provocative question for a group:
"Team" is an over-used and under-defined word
in current organizational jargon. Everyone is forming teams; everyone knows they need to
be a good "team player" in order to be successful. But there are many, diverse
images of a good team and how it operates. Successful team behavior is very different when
one is on a basketball team (where fluid flow is valued), versus a baseball team (where
roles are very clearly defined), versus a community theater group (where all roles are
important but some get more visibility than others), versus the NASA space shuttle team
(where technical expertise and detailed planning are key). In general, it is not a good
assumption to image that everyone in a CAS has the same mental picture of how they should
interact on a "team." Explicit discussion is very valuable.
Example of a provocative question for a group:
Copyright © 2001, Paul E. Plsek