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A Fit Organisation? Really?

A Fit Organisation? Really?

The clue is in the word. Organisation. From organ. Meaning an arrangement of specialist parts (i.e. heart, liver, kidney) that interact to keep a larger body (you) alive, well and productive. Yes, the etymology of organisation is from the human body, just one example of the many metaphors organisational and management research has borrowed from the natural sciences and technological innovation to try and conceptually explain how organisations work. 

Looking at the trends in current organisational design, it seems we have not moved too far from the original body metaphor. Organisations must be lean, agile and flexible. They must carry no flab, being an optimised combination of bone, sinew and muscle capable at making the organisation look hot (hey, great bod!), quick and strong. They must be able to nimbly leap from one opportunity to the other, never missing a step or stumbling, landing with such ease that their complicating maneuvering looks stunning simple to the outside observer. They must be able to quickly twist themselves into all manner of shapes to adapt to the task at hand. We're talking peak-era, Thelma and Louise shirt-off Brad Pitt merged with Nadia Comaneci, topped off with a little Zlata.  

Now, it's not to say that these concepts are bad or wrong, but if they are anything like organisational metaphors of the past, they will come replete with built-in blind spots and risks that a further investigation of the metaphor will reveal. For example:

Leanness: Whilst leanness is far healthier than obesity, it too carries inherent health risks. A too lean body leads to decreased performance, the increased risk of fractures and illness, loss of reproductive function, dehydration and starvation. Organs can get damaged, weird growths can occur. You might even die. Ultimately, some fat is good for you. It's even helpfully called essential body fat. Is there any reason to think that organisations will be immune to similar side effects, risking all kinds of challenges to their longevity if they trim off too much fat?

Agility: Agility comes with youth. Ask any old tennis player stretching for the ball he can't quite reach. Yes, it does give an innate advantage in some areas, but it blurs or misses others. The agile performer doesn't need to think so much about strategy or tactics, as he can rely on his speed and strength to compete. However, he can lose his advantage when he comes up against somebody with wells of tactical experience to draw upon. That's why the world's leading tennis players employ past greats as coaches to give them minor strategic and tactical advantages. At that level, agility is not enough to win in itself. Why should it necessarily be enough for the organisation? 

Flexibility: Extreme flexibility is often referred to as hypermobility or double-jointedness. It means the body is more susceptible to injury and parts of the body can easily dislocate. Studies on contortionists found they all suffered from disc degeneration, disc bulges, osteophytes and limbus fractures. To prevent injury, contortionists are trained to only hold each contorted position briefly, if at all. Are flexible organisations risking the same, stretching everywhere but being unable to remain long enough in a stable position to properly succeed? 

Note these are just observations and questions. Although I have studied the development and subsequent degeneration of previous powerful organisational metaphors (i.e. the organisation as a culture or a machine) and the mechanisms of metaphor creation and embedding, I have not thought about currently trendy metaphors in great detail. I do not claim these are good questions or that I have any answers. What I do know is organisational history teaches us one thing: without proper reflection organisational metaphors eat themselves (and often the organisation with them). So, please reflect on your organisational concepts and language just in case things are getting pushed too far. 

Irony | Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Changing the Model for Playing Tennis in Australia

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Saturday, 17 August 2019

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

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