Sunday, August 30, 2020

Appropriate metaphors for organization progress

“We are on an upward spiral; while it does look like we are going around in circles most of the time, we are actually making progress”, said the business leader. “Well, the upward displacement is so small as compared to the total distance traveled and this does create a lot of inefficiency and human suffering”, replied the Organization Development Manager (see OD Managers as Court Jesters for an earlier interaction between the business leader and the OD Manager).

Metaphors are highly useful tools for thinking. Metaphors facilitate the understanding of one  domain (typically, an abstract one) by relating it to another more familiar domain (typically a more concrete one). They are so much a part of our lives and thinking that often we are not fully conscious of the metaphors we use. By examining the metaphors we use, we can a learn a lot about ourselves, about our values and assumptions!

So, let’s look at the appropriate metaphors for organization progress. The simplest is a linear one. Organization is supposed to move from point A to point B within a stipulated period of time. In a fast changing environment, a linear metaphor for progress might not be appropriate. That is when non-linear metaphors become more appropriate for organization progress. However, they can also be so easily misused to create an 'illusion' or even a 'convenient collective delusion' of progress.

This can be dangerous, as the apparent ‘progress’ allows the leaders to sweep the inefficiencies and the human costs created by the repeated changes in direction under the carpet. Sometimes, the degree of flux in the business environment is overestimated and it is used as an excuse for poor strategic planning and inefficiencies in the organization's response to changes in the environment. 

While a fast U-turn looks like a 'decisive' response, it is not necessarily the most efficient one. It is also the most significant source of (hidden) 'waste' in organizations and of human suffering (e.g. arising from a feeling of Sisyphus-like meaninglessness when one's work output gets discarded again and again and from the repeated cycles of hiring and firing that also create 'survivor syndrome'). 

Since the valuation or share price of the company is often more about speculation regarding future of the company than about current performance of the company, the investors or board also might not have too much of an incentive to intervene. Hence, this can go on for a long time!

One interesting variation of this is that of  ‘vision that is always in the future’. It works something like this. In 2020, a company sets up a 2025 Vision. Around 2023 or 2024 the same company replaces the 2025 vision with a 2030 Vision.  Once this 2030 vision is in place, the 2025 vision is discarded and no one is any longer bothered about seeing if the company achieves the 2025 vision (or about holding anyone accountable for the failure to do). Hence, 'future becomes a great place to hide' the lack of progress in working towards the Vision!

Any comments/ideas?

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