Andrew Day
02 February, 2021


This was the question posed to us recently by a sceptical senior leader about to embark on an organisation design process for their organisation. On further questioning she intimated that in previous organisations she had always been told what her structure was going to be after a quick decision by the CEO, based on advice from the HR Director and external consultants. The notion of participating in designing the whole organisation seemed to him to be an abdication of her manager’s responsibility, overly time-consuming and an unfair request, given the difficult choices that would have to be made. The metaphor of the plaster represented the pain that she felt would undoubtedly be involved, and the idea that the job was best done quickly (by her manager) and without too much deliberation.

We know that many organisation design practitioners have heard a version of this question numerous times. As organisation development practitioners it seems important to examine our assumptions and our advocacy when we hear such a question. I suggest that we would both need to consider the framing of the question and think about the answer to the question.

Let’s consider the metaphor first…

If we accept the offered notion (inherent in this metaphor) that the process of organisation design is painful and designed to enable a wound to heal then of course we would want to remove it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Indeed, research (Furyk et al, 2009) on the removal of plasters at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, suggests that there is a lower perception of pain involved if processes are ripped off than when more time is taken. In the research there were a number of factors which affected responses which included: participants’ culture; previous pain events; beliefs; mood; and ability to cope. While these factors seem relevant to the question in hand, I remain instinctively suspicious of the fit of the plaster metaphor to organisation design.

However, we know that metaphors used are artificial and imperfect constructs which shape the way we think and act. Charteris-Black (2016) described how the metaphor of containers was used by right-wingers in the narrative of stronger immigration control in the 2005 UK election. If you accept the idea that the UK is a container, you are obliged to entertain the notion that there are boundaries to the container which need to be protected and that the container could be swamped or walls broken by external penetration.

George Lakoff at the University Of California, Berkeley, argues that “every thought you have is physical”. The author of “Don’t think of an Elephant!”, he argues that even if we disagree with a metaphor, by challenging it we only reinforce the neural connections holding this thinking in place. Better to challenge with an alternative and more helpful metaphor.

So…if challenging a metaphor is unhelpful, then we have a choice as OD practitioners to accept the frame we are offered or to change it. Accept the (faulty) metaphor we are served and we are condemned to defeat or, or at the very least, a struggle to persuade.

What would be a good alternative metaphor?

In our previous research report on Transformation (2018) we set out a number of metaphors that are commonly used (and misused too) in organisations. Perhaps “renovation” is a better metaphor to respond to the plaster frame. After all, imagine the pain if you came home after a weekend away and someone had reshaped your house without your very clear input? That would hurt!

Now…back to answering the question about whether it is better to rip off the org design plaster…

Engaging others in the organisation design process can sometimes be perceived as difficult or unhelpful

We know that radical participation in the process of organisation design elicits very strong reactions. Some people love it; but others seem to hate it, for a few reasons:

> time taken to engage can be perceived as taking too long

> burden of making a decision that affects you and others

> defence against accountability in case the wrong design is chosen

> they have a view that re-design is “someone else’s” job; “it’s above my pay grade”

> they have previously seen experts come in and do a good job and have a view that such work is best done by outsiders

> it is easier for some staff members and leaders to create a power imbalance to let someone else structure their organisation (their managers or delegated management consultants) for them to later rail against or defer to. This thinking goes back to outdated scientific management notions of the need for distinct groups of “thinkers” and “doers”.

However, we believe that participation in the re-design process is a good thing

We believe in the power of supported participation in the process of organisation design for the following reasons:

> team members are more likely to accept the outcome if involved in shaping the solution

> there is more chance of a solution that will work in practice

> quicker adoption through better understanding when finally implemented

> this enhances a culture which sees responsibility and solutions as co-created and jointly held by all participants in the organisation – leaders and staff members

Interested in this frame? Get in touch!

References

Charteris-Black, J. (2006). Britain as a container: Immigration metaphors in the 2005 election campaign. Discourse & Society, 17(5), 563–581. doi:10.1177/0957926506066345

Jeremy S Furyk, Carl J O’Kane, Peter J Aitken, Colin J Banks and David A Kault. Fast versus slow bandaid removal: a randomised trial. Med J Aust 2009; 191 (11): 682-683. || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2009.tb03379.x; Published online: 7 December 2009

Lakoff, G. (2004) Don’t think of an elephant!: Know your values and frame the debate, White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green Publishing Co

The Metalogue Transformation Report (2018) https://metalogue.co.uk/Metalogue-Report-on-Transformation-Dec-2018.pdf

Finally, a thanks to organisers and attendees at the European Organisation Design Forum 2020 Conference for prompting, encouraging and contributing to my thinking on this subject. https://www.eodf.eu/

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