Metaphors and paradigms - Change Management

Metaphors and paradigms

In Making Sense of Change Management (Cameron and Green, 2004) we drew upon Morgan’s (1986) book, Images of Organization to suggest that we can view organizations in four different ways – and those different ways can lead us towards a greater understanding of organizational dynamics and what might or might not work when it comes to trying to change the organization:

  1. organizations as machines;
  2. organizations as political systems;
  3. organizations as organisms; and
  4. organizations as flux and transformation.

Metaphors and paradigms

Organizations as machines

This metaphor reflects upon the idea that an organization functions like a machine – if all the parts are properly constructed and connected and force applied in the right place and right direction then the machine will start to move and continue to move until it needs repair or replacement or encounters resistance. It feeds into the notion that it is possible to design a perfect well-oiled machine and to plan a change that will take the organization from state A to state B in clearly defined stages with the likelihood of success as long as everyone does what’s in the plan. You can see this as the ideal metaphor for a simple project management approach to change where everything not only can be put onto a Gantt chart but everything and everyone will perform as if it really were a piece of machinery.

Of course the organization as a machine metaphor has its place because many products and services rely on clear, predictable, reliable and compliant processes:

Organizations as political systems

This metaphor suggests that everyone who inhabits an organizational space is in the midst not only of a human system but one where there are competing forces and pulls on scarce resources and where different players have different degrees of power. It is the awareness and management of these forces and these players that allow work to be achieved. There is an understanding of who is an enabler and who is a disabler; who stands to gain and who stands to lose; who is supporting you and who might be against you.

Organizations as organisms

This metaphor posits that organizations are not discrete singular entities but are composed of a number of internal sub systems operating in an external environment and there are flows and interaction throughout. It is an open systems approach as defined by Von Bertalanffy (1968). Operating with in this metaphor an organization would be organizing itself around the changing environment – the more turbulence in the environment the greater the need for adaptability.

Organizations as flux and transformation

Entering into the metaphor of flux and transformation can be a disconcerting experience. We are moving into a world where we need to review our understanding of what an organization actually is. Rather than a machine or a social system of power bases, or an organism that interacts symbiotically with the environment, it is a place that has form and movement but events which cannot be predictable.

So we can see quite early on that when approaching change it may be that you are operating with in one particular metaphor and you will attempt to enact change through that particular lens, regardless of the circumstances prevailing at the time. Or it may be that the organization is operating with in one particular metaphor and will only accommodate one way of thinking about change and what needs to be done.

Paradigms of change

deCaluwé and Vermaak (2004) have categorized approaches to change in a some what different way. Reviewing the literature they have identified five different ways in which we can conceptualize what happens when we want to make change interventions . They have given colours to each of these approaches. Some of them relate to the four organizational models and indeed to the three-ball model of outputs, interests, and emotions and culture that we met in the introduction.

Blue – change through design – is most often the one we see occurring in organizations. It is the project management approach to change and involves careful planning and detailed analysis before the change happens. It links quite well with the machine metaphor of organizations and leading outcomes in the three-ball model. It is very much about the rational way to enact change. If we have done the initial analysis well enough and can plan the steps and stages comprehensively enough then the inputs that we make will produce the outputs that we want.

Yellow – change through addressing interests – addresses the political aspect of organizations, recognizing that there are winners and losers in all change situations and that directly addressing the different wants and needs of the various stakeholders is a necessary element in getting positive movement forward in the driving forces for change and a useful way of attending to those forces that are restraining or against the change. This is most closely aligned to the political metaphor and also leading interests in the three-ball model.

Red – change through people – recognizes that change in an organization is predominately done through people, and for the outcome of any change initiative to be successful it will not only need to have addressed the concerns of the organization’s people but to have engaged with them in order for new attitudes, skills and behaviours to have been acquired or learnt and certainly demonstrated.

Red – change through people

White – change through emergence – is about creating the conditions for change to occur without specifying the exact nature of the changes. Drawing on the flux and transformation metaphor it suggests that we cannot logically and rationally design, plan and manage change in a linear way. What is required is an enabling environment, people to make sense of what is happening, and to spot where the organizational energy is and take steps to removing hindrances and obstacles. Perhaps requiring a leap of faith, this approach is based around the belief that systems will self-organize and, even in the midst of chaos, order and evolution will occur.

Green – change through learning – is concerned with change happening as a direct result of learning. Here we are talking about individual and team learning and also the concept of the learning organization. The key focus is on creating the environment necessary for individuals and teams to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to step into the new state and also how collectively the organization can embed any new knowledge for sustained performance. This also covers the single-loop and double-loop learning of Argyris and ways in which the organization can monitor and evaluate itself through out the changes.

Implications and different roles of leaders and change agents

Entering into a change process when operating with in one of the four change metaphors or five paradigms has implications for how you construct your change process and what sort of role you need to play.

Using the machine metaphor or the ‘change through design’ paradigm will entail a rigorous project management approach with a leadership style that is one of architect and grand designer. The terrain is about efficiency and effectiveness of project planning processes and their well-oiled implementation. It’s about an unambiguous mapping out of the plan to get from A to B and the careful planning, managing, monitoring and controlling of this process.

The political metaphor and ‘change through addressing interests’ will require a greater focus on managing stakeholders, the informal organization and ensuring that key players are brought on board, and potential winners are motivated enough and potential losers’ needs are managed. The terrain for the change agent with in this paradigm is all about power and the harnessing of it. The change agents themselves have to have perceived power as well as requiring powerful sponsors.

The organism metaphor requires the change agent to be monitoring the environment and taking the pulse of the organization. A key focus will be to create an enabling environment where people can learn to become responsive to the environment and the changes that are needed. It is also necessary to be aware of the process in order for responses, reactions and adaptations to be factored in as the change proceeds.

The flux and transformation metaphor and the ‘change through emergence’ paradigm recognize that change cannot be explicitly managed, but rather needs to emerge. The tensions, the conflicts and the hot spots with in the organization and those on the boundary are where the change agent is focused. Once again the role is one of enabling emergence rather than directing and controlling it. The concepts of setting parameters, acting as a container and reminding people of core values are critical to this process.

The ‘change through learning’ paradigm draws on the key ideas from the organizational development movement originating in the 1960s, and the writers and researchers of the learning organization. Coaching, training and group and team facilitation are all ways of providing opportunities for learning to take place.

The ‘change through people’ paradigm is situated between the learning paradigm and the interest paradigm. It recognizes the need to include, involve and engage with all stakeholders, but principally managers and staff in order to create solutions that address the important issues. Given that change happens through people, winning the hearts and minds of the people is clearly a key factor in this. Affiliative and democratic management styles, human resource management and a collaborative culture are strong indicators of change agents operating with in this paradigm.

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