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Book Summary:

Images of Organization

Gareth Morgan

ABSTRACT - In this revised management classic, Gareth Morgan, contributes to our understanding of organizations by suggesting that it is vital to view organizations through multiple metaphors or images. In several updated chapters (4 and 8) he explores the major contributions chaos and complexity theory are making to a deeper appreciation of the nature of change in organizations and develops practical steps leaders can take to tap these new insights.

Chapter 1 - INTRODUCTION: On the nature of metaphor and its role in understanding organization and management
  • "Effective managers and professional in all walks of life have to become skilled in the art of "reading" the situations they are attempting to organize or manage... Skilled leaders and managers develop the knack of reading situations with various scenarios in mind and of forging actions that seem appropriate to the understandings thus obtained. They have a capacity to remain open and flexible, suspending immediate judgments whenever possible, until a more comprehensive view of the situation emerges. They are aware that new insights often arise as one approaches situations from "new angles" and that a wide and varied reading can create a wide and varied range of possibilities."

  • "This book explores and develops the art of reading and understanding organizational life. It is based on a very simple premise: that all theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that lead us to see, understand, and manage organizations in distinctive yet partial ways....The use of metaphor implies a way of thinking and a way of seeing that pervade how we understand our world generally."

  • "We use metaphor whenever we attempt to understand one element of an experience in terms of another. Thus, metaphor proceeds through implicit or explicit assertions that A is (or is like) B. When we say "the man is a lion," we use the image of a lion to draw attention to the lion-like aspects of the man. The metaphor frames our understanding of the man in a distinctive yet partial way. One of the interesting aspects of metaphor is that it always produces this kind of one-sided insight. In highlighting certain interpretations it tends to force others into a background role... Another interesting feature rests in the fact that metaphor always creates distortions.... The man is a lion. He is brave, strong, and ferocious. But he is not covered inn fur and does not have four legs, sharp teeth, and a tail!"

  • "When we approach metaphor in this way we see that our simple premise that all theory is metaphor has far-reaching consequences. We have to accept that any theory or perspective that we bring to the study of organization and management, while capable of creating valuable insights, is also incomplete, and potentially misleading....Metaphor is inherently paradoxical. It can create powerful insights that also become distortions, as the way of seeing created through a metaphor becomes a way of not seeing."

  • "One of the most basic problems of modern management is that the mechanical way of thinking is so ingrained in our everyday conceptions of organization that it is often difficult to organize in any other way."

Chapter 2 - MECHANIZATION TAKES COMMAND: Organizations as Machines
  • "Set goals and objectives and go for them. Organize rationally, efficiently, and clearly. Specify every detail so that everyone will be sure of the jobs that they have to perform. Plan, organize, and control, control, control. These and other similar ideas are often ingrained in our way of thinking about organization and in the way we evaluate organizational practice. For many people, it is almost second nature to organize by setting up a structure of clearly defined activities linked by clear lines of communication, coordination, and control."

  • "The strengths and limitations of the machine as a metaphor for organization are reflected in the strengths and limitations of mechanistic organization in practice."

  • "The strengths can be stated very simply. Mechanistic approaches to organization work well only under conditions where machines work well: (a) when there is a straightforward task to perform; (b) when the environment is stable enough to ensure that the products produced will be appropriate ones; (c) when one wishes to produce exactly the same product time and again; (d) when precision is at a premium; and (e) when the human "machine" parts are compliant and behave as they have been designed to do."

  • "Some organizations have had spectacular success using the mechanistic model because these conditions are fulfilled....McDonald’s and many firms in the fast-food industry provide the best examples...Surgical wards, aircraft maintenance departments, finance offices, courier firms, and other organizations where precision, safety, and clear accountability are at a premium are also often able to implement mechanistic approaches successfully, at least in certain aspects of their operations."

  • "However, despite these successes, mechanistic approaches to organization often have severe limitations. In particular they (a) can create organizational forms that have great difficulty in adapting to changing circumstances; (b) can result in mindless and unquestioning bureaucracy; (c) can have unanticipated and undesirable consequences as the interests of those working in the organization take precedence over the goals the organization was designed to achieve; (d) can have dehumanizing effects upon employees, especially those at the lower levels of the organizational hierarchy."

  • "Mechanistically structured organizations have great difficulty adapting to changing circumstances because they are designed to achieve predetermined goals; they are not designed for innovation."

  • "Changing circumstances call for different kinds of action and response. Flexibility and capacities for creative action become more important than narrow efficiency. It becomes more important to do the right thing in a way that is timely and "good enough" than to do the wrong thing well or the right thing late."

  • "The hierarchical organization of jobs builds on the idea that control must be exercised over the different parts of the organization (to ensure that they are doing what they are designed to do), rather than being build into to parts themselves…Much of the apathy, carelessness, and lack of pride so often encountered in the modern workplace is thus not coincidental: it is fostered by the mechanistic approach."

  • "A final set of problems relate to human consequences. The mechanistic approach to organization tends to limit rather than mobilize the development of human capacities, molding human beings to fit the requirements of mechanical organizations rather than building the organization around their strengths and potentials. Both employees and organizations lose from this arrangement. Employees lose opportunities for personal growth, often spending hours a say on work they neither value nor enjoy, and organizations lose the creative and intelligent contributions that most employees are capable of making, given the right opportunities."

  • "Mechanistic approaches to organization have proved incredibly popular, partly because of their efficiency in the performance of tasks that can be successfully routinized partly because they offer managers the promise of tight control over people and their activities. In stable times, the approach worked from a managerial point of view. But with the increasing pace of social and economic change, the limitations have become more and more obvious."

Chapter 4 - LEARNING AND SELF-ORGANIZATION: Organizations as Brains
  • Images of the brain - "More recently, the brain has been compared with a holographic system...When it comes to brain functioning it seems that there is no center of point of control. The brain seems to store and process data in many parts simultaneously. Pattern and order emerge from the process; it is not imposed....But the holographic explanation can go too far in that it underplays the fact that despite the distributed character there is also a strong measure of system specialization. The brain, it seems, is both holographic and specialized!

  • "Single-loop learning rests in an ability to detect and correct error in relation to a given set of operating norms. Double-loop learning depends on being able to take a "double look" at the situation by questioning the relevance of operating norms."

  • "...many organizations have become proficient at single-loop learning, developing an ability to scan the environment, set objectives, and monitor the general performance of the system in relation to these objectives...However, the ability to achieve proficiency at double-loop learning often proves more elusive. Although some organizations have been successful in institutionalizing system that review and challenge basic paradigm and operating norms, many fail to do so. This failure is especially true of bureaucratized organizations, whose fundamental organizing principles often operate in a way that actually obstructs the learning process."

  • Guidelines For Learning Organizations

    1. Scanning and anticipating environmental change - "Learning organizations have to develop skills and mind-sets that embrace environmental change as the norm. They have to be able to detect "early warning" signals that give clues to shifting trends and patterns....They must embrace the creation of insight and knowledge."

    2. Challenging operating norms and assumptions - "To learn and change, organizational members must be skilled in understanding the assumptions, frameworks, and norms guiding current activity and be able to challenge and change them when necessary....For successful double-loop learning to occur, organizations must develop cultures that support change and risk taking. They have to embrace the idea that in rapidly changing circumstances with high degrees of uncertainty, problems and error are inevitable. They have to promote an openness that encourages dialogue and the expression of conflicting points of view. They have to recognize that legitimate error, which arises from the uncertainty and lack of control in a situation, can be used as a resource for new learning. They have to recognize that genuine learning is usually action based and thus must find ways of helping to create experiments and probes so that they learn through doing in a productive way. All this, of course, can raise high levels of anxiety in an organization. In particular, it is difficult for managers who want to be "on top of the facts" and "in control" to ride the kind of creative chaos on which innovation thrives. Yet this is precisely the competence that double-loop learning requires."

    3. Encouraging "emergent" organization - "As has been shown, a "top-down" approach to management, especially one focusing on control through clearly defined targets, encourages single-loop learning but discourages the double-loop thinking that is so important for an organization to evolve. This creates interesting paradoxes for management, for how can one manage in a coherent way without setting clear goals and objectives? The answer derived from cybernetics is that behavior of intelligent systems requires a sense of vision, norms, values, limits, or "reference points" that are to guide behavior. Otherwise, complete randomness will prevail. But these "reference points" must be defined in a way that creates a space in which many possible actions and behaviors can emerge including those that can question the limits being imposed! Targets tend to create straitjackets. Cybernetic points of reference create space in which learning and innovation can occur."

  • Organizations as holographic brains (or "designs" that facilitate learning) - "The metaphor of a hologram invites us to think of systems where qualities of the whole are enfolded in all the parts so that the system has an ability to self-organize and regenerate itself on a continuos basis... there are several key principles that can help create contexts in which holographic self-organization can flourish."

    1. Build the "whole" into all the "parts" - Four ways to accomplish a) Corporate DNA - "The visions, values, and sense of purpose that bind an organization together can be used as a way of helping every individual understand and absorb the mission and challenge of the whole enterprise...To create brain-like capacities for self-organization, however, it is vital that the cultural codes uniting an organization foster an open and evolving approach to the future." b) Networked intelligence - "Information systems that can be accessed from multiple points of view create a potential for individuals throughout an enterprise to become full participants in an evolving system of organizational memory and intelligence." c) Holographic structure - "A third way of building "the whole" into "the parts" rests in the design of organizational structures that can grow large while staying small... Consider, for example, the case of Magna International, an auto parts manufacturer that has grown at a rapid rate....The Magna philosophy is encoded in a simple set of business principles and the rule that operating factories must remain on a small s cale to avoid becoming impersonal. Thus, once an enterprise reaches a size in the region of 200 people, the only way it can grow is by spinning off another unit...The process has a "fractal" quality in that the same basic pattern reproduces itself over and over again." D) Holistic teams and diversified roles - "A fourth way of building "the whole" into "the parts" rests in how work tasks are designed. Under old mechanistic principles work processes were usually fragmented into narrow and highly specialized jobs, linked through some means of coordination...The holographic approach to job design moves in exactly the opposite direction by defining work holistically. The basic unit of design is a work team that is made responsible for a complete business process…Within the team, roles or jobs are then broadly defined with individuals being trained in multiple skills so that they are interchangeable and can function in a flexible, organic way."

    2. The importance of "redundancy" - "Any system with an ability to self-organize must have a degree of redundancy: a kind of excess capacity that can create room for innovation and development to occur. Without redundancy, systems are fixed and completely static....Parallel processing and sharing information can be a source of creativity, shared understanding, trust, and commitment...shared decision-making (ringi) contains massive redundancy. It is however, very effective in exploring issues from multiple perspectives and in testing the robustness of emerging decisions and actions. The process offers a wonderful example of how intelligent action can emerge from "multiple drafts."...The second design method incorporates a redundancy of functions. Instead of spare parts being added to a system, extra functions are added to each of the operating parts, so that each part is able to engage in a range of functions. This is the principle guiding the self-organizing work groups...Members acquire multiple skills so that they are able to perform each other’s jobs and substitute as the need arises."

    3. Requisite variety - Clearly, it is impossible to give everybody all possible information about everything. It is impossible for people to become skilled in all possible tasks and activities. So where does one draw the line? The principle of requisite variety...suggests that the internal diversity of any self-regulating system must match the variety and complexity of its environment if it is to deal with the challenges posed by that environment...The principle of requisite variety if not just an abstract concepts. It is vital management principle. If a team of unit is unable to recognize, absorb, and deal with the variations in its environment, it is unlikely to evolve and survive. The principle suggests that when variety and redundancy are built at a local level - at the point of interaction with the environment rather than at several stages removed, as happens under hierarchical design - evolutionary capacities are enhanced. Individuals, teams, and other units are empowered to find innovations around local issues and problems that resonate with their needs. This also provides a resource for innovation within the broader organization, as the variety and innovation thus experienced is shared and used as a resource for further learning."

    4. Minimum specs - "The three principles discussed above create a capacity to evolve. But systems also need freedom to evolve. This is where the principle of "minimum critical specifications" ....comes into play. The central idea here is that if a system is to have the freedom to self-organize it must possess a certain degree of "space" or autonomy that allows appropriate innovation to occur...The principle of minimum specs suggests that managers should define no more than is absolutely necessary to launch a particular initiative or activity on its way. They have to avoid the role of "grand designer" in favor of one that focuses on facilitation, orchestration, and boundary management, creating "enabling conditions" that allow a system to find its own form...The challenge is to avoid the anarchy and the completely free flow that arises when there are no parameters or guidelines, on the one hand, and over-centralization, on the other."

  • "The metaphor (brain) invites us to rethink key management principles in a way that lays the foundation for a completely new theory of management. Consider, for example, how an understanding of the functioning of the brain challenges traditional assumptions about the importance of strong central leadership and control; about the wisdom of setting clear goals and objectives; about the role of hierarchy; and about the concept of organizational design; and the wisdom of trying to develop and impose systems from the top down."

  • "...in developing the importance of the brain as a way of creating capacities for learning and self-organization there is a danger of overlooking important conflicts that can arise between learning and self-organization, on the one hand, and the realities of power and control, on the other. Any move away from hierarchically controlled structures toward more flexible, emergent patterns has major implications for the distribution of power and control within an organization, as the increase in autonomy granted to self-organizing units undermines the ability of those with ultimate power to keep a firm hand on day-to-day activities and developments. Moreover, the process of learning requires a degree of openness and self-criticism that is foreign to traditional modes of management. Both of these factors tend to generate resistance from the status quo. Managers are often reluctant to trust self-organizing processes among their staff and truly "let go." Many early experiments in self-organizing work designs encountered this problem, and many still do. There is such a strong belief that order means clear structure and hierarchical control that any alternative seems to be a jump in the direction of anarchy and chaos. As has been suggested, successful self-organizing systems always require a degree of hierarchical ordering. But this hierarchy must be allowed to emerge and change as different elements of the system take a lead in making their various contributions. In such systems, hierarchy and control have an emergent quality; they cannot be pre-designed and imposed."

Chapter 8 - UNFOLDING LOGICS OF CHANGE: Organization as Flux and Transformation
  • "Although it is common to draw a clear distinction between the two (organization and environment), it seems systemically wiser to view organization and environment as elements of the same interconnected pattern. In evolution, it is pattern that evolves." In recent years major insights on how this occurs have emerged from two related lines of development: the theory of chaos and self-organization on the one hand and complexity theory on the other. Using physical experiments and computer simulations as metaphors for understanding what happens in nature, they contribute important elements to a holistic theory of change."

  • Complex nonlinear systems like ecologies or organizations are characterized by multiple systems of interaction that are both ordered and chaotic. Because of this internal complexity, random disturbances can produce unpredictable events and relationships that reverberate throughout a system, creating novel patterns of change. The amazing thing, however, is that despite all the unpredictability, coherent order always emerges out of the randomness and surface chaos."

  • "Whether we are examining the flocking of birds, the changing relationships between predators and prey...the hive behavior of bees, or the way in which organizations and social systems get transformed over time, it seems that we can detect common processes of spontaneous self-organization. If a system has a sufficient degree of internal complexity, randomness and diversity and instability becomes resources for change. New order is a natural outcome."

  • "Complex systems seem to have a natural tendency to get caught in tensions....falling under the influence of different attractors that ultimately define the contexts in which detailed system behaviors unfold....Create a context defined by a few simple points of reference that are equivalent to the "minimum specs"...and random fluctuations will self-organize into a coherent form. Chaos theorists have noted that complex systems can fall under the influence of different types of attractors. Some pull a system into states of equilibrium or near equilibrium, for example, as a result of negative feedback loops that counteract destabilizing fluctuations. Other attractors have a tendency to flip a system into completely new configurations...this illustrates how a system can be drawn under the influence of different sets of reference points that in effect define competing contexts. The detailed behavior depends on which context dominates."

  • "In explaining how systems can transform themselves in this way, chaos theorists have become particularly interested in understanding what happens when a system is "pushed" far from equilibrium toward an "edge of chaos" situation. Here, it encounters "bifurcation points" that are rather like "forks in the road" leading to different futures. At such points the energy within the system can self-organize through unpredictable leaps into different system states....Bifurcation points and associated "attractors" always exist as latent potentials within any complex nonlinear system. They signal potentials for self-organization and the evolution of new form. However, the path of system evolution is completely unpredictable, because, given the complexity and non-linearity, seemingly insignificant changes can unfold to create large effects.

  • "Quantum and qualitative change, incrementally!"

  • Managing In The Midst Of Complexity - "These insights have enormous implications for modern management, giving rise to at least five key ideas for guiding the management of change. In a nutshell, they suggest that it is important to:

    1. Rethink what we mean by organization, especially the nature of hierarchy and control

    2. Learn the art of managing and changing contexts

    3. Learn how to use small changes to create large effects

    4. Live with continuous transformation and emergent order as a natural state of affairs

    5. Be open to new metaphors that can facilitate processes of self-organization."

  • Rethinking organization - "Instead of seeing these qualities (order and organization) as states that can be externally imposed on a situation through hierarchical means, or through predetermined logic that we bring to the design of bridges or buildings, managers are invited to view them as emergent properties. New order emerges in any complex system that, because of internal and external fluctuations is pushed into "edge of chaos" situations. Order is natural! It is emergent and free! But most interesting of all, its precise nature can never be planned or predetermined."

  • The art of managing and changing "context" - A second extremely important implication of a chaos-complexity perspective rests in the idea that the fundamental role of managers is to shape and create "contexts" in which appropriate forms of self-organization can occur. As has been noted, the implicit rules, reference points, or "minimum specs" that define an "attractor" create a context in which a system can acquire detailed empirical form...The focus on attractor patterns thus creates a powerful perspective for the management of stability and the management of change, suggesting that transformational change ultimately involves the creation of "new contexts" that can break the hold of dominant attractor patterns in favor of new ones...New contexts can be created by generating new understandings of a situation, or by engaging in new actions. New understandings can transform the autopoietic processes of self-reference through which a system produces and reproduces its basic sense of identity. This can be achieved by exposing the system to new information about itself or its environment and by encouraging...double-loop learning....New context can also be created by engaging in new actions that help to push the system into a new state more directly. Experiments, prototypes, changes in rewards, changes in key personnel...can by themselves embody powerful messages that catalyze other changes in the context as the system adjusts itself to the new reality. While new understandings can create a heightened sense of the need for change, and a direction in which an organization may feel it needs to go, new actions help to get it there. The conventional way of thinking about organizational change puts these in a sequential order. But from a chaos perspective they often need to be reversed. New action can catalyze new understandings."

  • Using small changes to create large effects - A third major implication of the chaos-complexity perspective, and one that brings a great deal of pragmatism to the task of managing and changing contexts, rests in the idea that in "edge of chaos" situations, small but critical changes at critical times can trigger major transforming effects...it follows that any person wishing to change the context in which they are operating should search for "doable" high-leverage initiatives that can trigger a transition from one attractor to another. Chaos theory also gives clear indications of where they should look for these initiatives. As will be recalled, the tensions between competing attractors generate "bifurcation points" leading to different paths of future development. Most often these manifest themselves as paradoxes or tensions between the status quo and alternative future states...The chaos manager must recognize these "forks in the road" and create a context supporting the new line of development by finding interventions that transcend the paradoxes or make them irrelevant For examples, by creating a successful prototype, or by getting key opinion leaders behind the initiative, he or she may be able to create the crucial time and space in which success can be demonstrated, publicized and made irreversible. The challenge of managing complex systems often seems completely overwhelming. The complexity defies comprehensive analysis, and it is often difficult to know where to intervene. The above principles encourage us to cut through this complexity and focus on a few key principles that offer the promise of achieving quantum change incrementally! In much of the management literature quantum change and incremental change are seen as opposites. Quantum change is seen as being produced through large initiatives. Incremental change is viewed as the route to marginal improvements. While this is true under conditions of linearity, in complex nonlinear systems small incremental changes can produce large quantum effects. If people focus on finding high-leverage initiatives within their sphere of influence that have the capacity to shift the context, potential for major change can be unleashed. There are at least two ways in which this potential can unfold. First, small changes may in themselves catalyze a major change, because the change itself proves pivotal....Second, small changes can also create a critical mass effect. Though small and insignificant in themselves, together they build an overwhelming force."

  • Living with emergence as a natural state of affairs - "In complex systems no one is ever in a position to control or design system operations in a comprehensive way. Form emerges. It cannot be imposed, and there are no end states. At best, would-be managers have to be content with an ability to nudge and push a system in a desired direction by shaping critical parameters that can influence the course of system evolution....Successful experiments can go a long way in creating a foothold on a new reality. In particular, they offer important insights on the feedback loops and defensive routines that sustain a dominant attractor pattern and what can be done to help a new one emerge....The chaos manager must also develop a heightened awareness of the importance of "boundary management." As noted earlier, new experiments often get neutralized by the status quo. It is thus vital that the chaos manager become skilled in the art of managing boundaries: building them when it is necessary to shield an initiative from the forces of the old attractor, and breaking them when the initiative is strong enough to survive on its own."

  • Being open to new metaphors that can facilitate self-organization - "New images and metaphors of the manager’s role are often needed...to cope with the ambiguity, paradox, pressures, and uncertainties that the absence of fixed states and clear end points entails...The research on chaos and complexity is full of resonant images based on the behavior of termite colonies, beehives, and other processes that illustrate the nature of self-organizing systems. They provide a valuable resource for carrying organization and management theory into a new domain."

  • Managing paradox - "In our discussion of chaos theory, mention was made of how systems that are moving away from the influence of a dominant attractor pattern towards a potential new configuration encounter "bifurcation points" or "forks in the road," at which energies for change either dissipate and dissolve in a way that allows the old attractor to reassert itself or shift the system into a new form. An understanding of the dialectical nature of change offers important insights on the process, suggesting that the "fork in the road" usually arises around key paradoxes or contradictions that block the way to a new future. The successful management of change requires skill in dealing with these contradictory tensions....Potential new futures always create oppositions with the status quo. This dialectical principle gets played out in many forms:

    • Innovate ----------------------------Avoid mistakes

    • Think long term--------------------Deliver results now

    • Cut costs----------------------------Increase morale

    • Reduce staff-------------------------Improve teamwork

    • Be flexible---------------------------Respect the rules

    • Collaborate--------------------------Compete

    • Decentralize-------------------------Retain control

  • The first step in the successful management of paradox rests in recognizing that both dimensions of the contradictions that accompany change usually have merit. The second vital step....rests in finding ways of creating contexts that can mobilize and retain desirable qualities of both sides while minimizing the negative dimensions. All the skills of managing in the midst of complexity, discussed earlier..., are relevant here. To the extent that the paradoxes created by change remain unaddressed, they become the stalemating context.

  • "The whole idea that change is an emergent phenomenon offers a powerful mind-set for managing change. It encourages us to gain a reflective understanding of the logic driving the flux around us and to nudge and shape the logic wherever we can. Yet it also requires us to recognize that we can never be "in control." The message is that, even though our actions shape and are shaped by change, we are just part of an evolving pattern. The challenge, of course, is to cope with this paradox: By recognizing that even though we cannot exert unilateral power of control over any complex system, we can act through the power and control that we actually do have. Using the image popularized by chaos theorists, the invitation is to recognize that although we may be no more than "butterflies" in terms of our power on the overall system we can have enormous effects, especially when we use our insights about system dynamics and the nature of change to determine how and where to intervene. And, of course, the more butterflies the better!"

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