Altering our images

May 27, 2011

Radical visions of organisational change in government are foundering; and whilst the lessons in each case are different, from Inverclyde Councils Future Operating Model, to Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction and even to the Lansley healthcare reforms, we are seeing major challenge to bolder, more certain visions of change.

I would not be so glib to present a singular theory of why the waters have become more choppy – the circumstances are too complex – but as I think about these cases for change, I find myself searching for an old book which profoundly affected the way I look at the world. Gareth Morgan’s ‘Images of Organisations’ is a classic management text crammed with rich imagery that that feeds our understanding of all organisations and systems. It is profoundly not polemical, avoiding the trap of squeezing the reader into the proverbial five (bullet) point action plan. Reading Morgan was a personal development breakthrough (there have been many, not all successful..). As a young local government officer with a zero tolerance of ‘old’ local government, Morgan helped me to see Councils through new lenses. More importantly, I began to see that my vision of a Council was hitherto as a ‘machine’ designed for optimal efficiency and that this image, or metaphor, was hugely limiting. Morgan opened my eyes to more ways of seeing organisations and systems, including as brains, as cultures, as political systems, as organisms, as instruments of domination and even sometimes as psychic prisons in which it becomes impossible to function at a level of reality or objectivity.

Professionally, I have kept this text close to my thinking as I advise my clients on new models and ways of effecting change. A crucial practical lesson is that one single way of looking at form of organisation is liable to be imperfect – instead we should use different metaphors to enrich our understanding of what we have organisationally and what we want to change. More crucial still is a recognition that other people will use their toolkit of imagery and metaphor in different ways. In considering, for example, service option appraisals, my priority is to ensure there is a shared set of metaphors/understandings in place. Without that collective understanding, no end of technical and numerical analysis is enough to make the case for change.

By heart and instinct I want radical change in local government to succeed. I believe in shaking up the old orders, in third and private sector involvement, in contestment and in community ownership. And I desperately want to see some of the new models work. But Morgan helped me see the didactic, ‘target operating model’ is perhaps not the best. Whether architecting Council reforms, championing social enterprise or even changing a health care system, we need to see in multiple metaphors, and recognise that others do as well.

Alex Khaldi is a Director at iMPOWER. To contact him to discuss this blog or any aspect of our work, please e-mail or call 0776 413 2182

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