Organizational Culture: Metaphor
The metaphors we use when speaking about our organizations provide a rich source of information about organizational attitudes and beliefs. They are also a potent way for those attitudes and beliefs to perpetuate themselves and build organizational culture. Long-standing metaphors can function as emotional anchors: As they are passed on to new members, they help to maintain the sense of “how things are around here,” for better or worse. Some theorists and practitioners of organization change believe that we can use metaphor as a powerful point of influence, recreating or reframing less functional imagery so that it aligns with the values and direction of a changing organization.
Here’s a small-scale, but piquant example. Some years ago, consultant Marty Castleberg was involved in a change initiative at Harley-Davidson. During that process, he met with members of a product-testing division whose windowless, grimy workspace was across the street from Harley’s newly renovated headquarters. The product testers performed the last step in the production process and were not involved in corporate planning or decisions. Castleberg writes that his first meeting with them was notable for its atmosphere of sullenness, resentment, and constant griping. A critical point in that meeting came when one of the men said, “Around here we suck the hind titter,” a metaphor comparing the group to orphaned calves who are forced to sneak behind cows nursing their own offspring. The orphans get whatever nourishment they can from the rear udders, until the cow discovers them and kicks them away. Castleberg reflected the metaphor back to the group, asking them to look at what it revealed about their image of themselves as a group. From that moment, he says, “. . . they talked about reality differently,” and eventually the group reframed their image of themselves. Castleberg doesn’t tell us exactly what happened next, but he tells us that this work contributed to a significant change in the group’s fortunes. Both their physical environment and their emotional environment improved immensely once they chose to let go of the “hind titter” metaphor.
Sometimes it may be helpful to introduce an entirely new structural metaphor into an organization, which can lead to new ways of looking at old issues. For instance, most work organizations, including orchestral ones, still retain the conventional structural metaphors of the corporate world, with strongly vertical images of pyramids and ladders. Such metaphors are not a very good fit for orchestra organizations and tend to reinforce the idea that one group is permanently on the bottom. In 1997, the Oregon Symphony began a change initiative with the help of professor Saul Eisen of Sonoma State University. At Eisen’s suggestion, the Oregon Symphony adopted a “starfish” metaphor to represent the structure and relationships in an orchestra organization. With its implications of interconnectedness between equally important parts, the starfish became a concrete symbol of the Oregon Symphony’s emerging core values. The metaphor also dramatized the vital importance of communication: If a starfish’s central nerve ring (or the organization’s communication system) is severed, its arms will react independently and it won’t be able to function at all. (For more about the Oregon Symphony’s culture change work, please see the references and links below.)
We can even use metaphor as a compelling image for the change process itself. For the past five years, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has engaged in a change process called Hoshin. Developed in Japan, Hoshin is a highly structured planning process with clearly defined techniques. But it is also a grand metaphor. The word “hoshin” literally means “shining compass needle.” This is a rich image, with implications of journeying together toward a desired destination, guided by a navigating instrument that is brilliantly visible to all. In the October 2000 issue of Harmony (available as a PDF on this website), a cross-constituency group from the PSO reported on their experience with the Hoshin process. There was evident consensus that the PSO’s culture is improving, with higher levels of trust, cooperation, and optimism. As volunteer leader Linda Sparrow said, “Hoshin has become much more than a planning technique for the Pittsburgh Symphony. It has also become synonymous with our culture.” (To learn of the PSO’s initial journey with Hoshin, please see the references and links below.)
In all of the above cases, organizations have moved toward positive culture change by rethinking or replacing older, less functional metaphors and creating new imagery. But what about approaching culture change from the other direction? What about looking for existing metaphors that are constructive and finding ways of expanding their scope? For that matter, why not search for all the most positive aspects of an organization’s culture and make plans to develop and perpetuate them?
Eisen, Saul. 2000. Cultural Change in the Pittsburgh Symphony Organization: A Roundtable Discussion. 2000. Harmony 11, 24.
Healing the Starfish. Harmony 11, 10.
M. Castleberg. 1999. Kick-starting Cultural Exploration at Harley-Davidson. In P. Senge et al, eds.The Dance of Change: The Challenge of Maintaining Momentum in Learning Organizations. New York: Doubleday.
Gideon Toeplitz. 1998. Hoshin and the Pittsburgh Symphony.Harmony 7, October, 1.
Frederick Zenone. October 2000. The Oregon Symphony: A Journey of Transformation. Harmony 11: 1.