Dialling up and dialling down. Finely tuned processes. Levers, targets, inputs and outputs.
If you’re in the business world you’ve probably heard these metaphors repeatedly in the course of your work week. Mechanical language dominates organizational life. (We’re not immune from this at Domain7; occasionally a team member will take mild exception at being called a “resource” at a planning meeting.)
This type of language is largely contained to our professional lives. We would never refer to life’s other routine tasks as “processes,” or our family’s weekly scheduling as “resourcing.” Where does this use of detached metaphors in professional life come from?
In his book Holocracy, Brian Roberston argues that much of our current thinking regarding modern organizations can be traced back to an industrial era paradigm that matured early in the 1900s. The oft-vilified Frederic Taylor is widely believed to have contributed to this as well, with his work on scientific management. Over the decades it’s become so ingrained in organizational discourse that — apart from the odd parody of office life — we almost don’t notice it.
Several months ago, I attended a panel discussion on leadership in complex environments hosted by Fielding University. One of the panelists, Dr. Alice MacGillivray, advocated for use of more organic metaphors, such as gardens or ecosystems. Though it wasn’t the first time I’d heard this sentiment, her talk resonated with me and I’ve been mulling over the merits of the idea ever since.
Before I share a few of the benefits that I see in incorporating more organic metaphors into our organizational vocabulary, I’d like to discuss the idea that this is “simply language”: that the words and imagery we use when we speak about our companies is irrelevant to how they actually operate. Fred Kofman dealt with this criticism beautifully when he wrote “language can serve as a medium through which we create new understandings and new realities as we begin to talk about them. In fact, we don’t talk about what we see; we see only what we can talk about.”
Perhaps expanding our language will not only influence how we see things, but may, in fact, allow us to see and create entirely new things within our organizations, teams, and colleagues.