How Metaphors Can Help You Better Manage Your Organization

Best Practices : Article

“No need to worry, sir. I’ve got this team running like a well-oiled machine.”

One of my favorite supervisors many years ago used this metaphor frequently to describe his team’s efforts.

As a cog in that “machine,” I appreciated the fact that every task was laid out for me and the rest of the team, and that everyone knew that the person in front and behind him or her was going to produce quality work for the next person to build on. In short, everything and everyone worked perfectly together.

As a metaphor, Gareth Morgan notes that operating like a well-oiled machine works well to describe many organizations; however, it’s not the only one that is viable. Organizations can also be described as organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, and several others concurrently at any given time.

The benefit of these metaphors is that they can help us to understand and deal with organizational problems as well as explain why an organization acts in a certain way.

Well-oiled machines operate precisely but are slow to change as circumstances require. Organisms are living, breathing things, and as open systems they adapt more readily to change, while all organizations experience politics in one form or another on a daily basis.

In terms of decision-making, without acknowledging and understanding the operational leadership of your organization, decisions can be made without sufficient data, which could lead to results that won’t be what you expect.

Instead, you will likely to find yourself responding to circumstances quite different from what you expected. Like JFK after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, you could be saying “How could we be so stupid?”

JFK’s problem was that his well-oiled machine was mired in the psychic prison of groupthink, where any information or opinion contrary to the one held by those in power was disregarded. Those who disagreed with, or provided alternatives, to the agreed-upon action (or inaction) had obviously not consumed their daily dose of the Bandwagon Kool-Aid.

So, what’s the answer? Serve Kool-Aid at all meetings and in the cafeteria? No, of course not.

The answer is simple – train yourself and your staff to look at issues from multiple perspectives, not just the bottom line. Look at your organization and determine what metaphors apply at this particular moment in time.

Are you running like a well-oiled machine?

Do you see the organization as an organism that requires partnerships both within and without your environment to survive?

Do you listen to off-the-wall alternatives, or are you mired in groupthink?

While each of these metaphors helps us look at our own organization from various perspectives, it also broadens our view of the world around us and opens the possibility for continued innovation and success.


Dawn Gannon is a Senior Manager of Client Services at Virtual; she primarily works with the Academy for Eating Disorders. Before founding her own consulting firm in 2013, she served as a respected project management and administrative operations professional in the military, higher education, and women’s healthcare fields for over 30 years. She is a Certified Association Executive and holds an MBA. Dawn is based in Virtual’s Reston office.


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