Metaphors for Change: Finding Balance in a Polarized World, Part 2


In Part 1, I discussed the prevalence of win-lose ways of thinking and speaking and how they create polarization and conflict across the spectrum of human systems. Still, I would suggest that people are not irrevocably stuck in a given point of view. In fact as an educator I believe that anyone can learn to find value in different worldviews.

I also introduced the idea that metaphors are powerful and practical communication tools because they convey, in a single image or phrase, a whole constellation of values and beliefs. Metaphors can bring new perspectives and, in doing so, open up new ways of thinking and acting in the world.

To illustrate, I explored two classic metaphors that inform our understanding of the organization, one of the most crucial forms of collective human behavior. Together they exemplify the central tension between mechanistic and humanistic approaches to organizational change. Both of these worldviews are remarkably resilient, and both have persisted side by side in our collective imagination:

The machine metaphor: Rooted in Newtonian physics, which places all authority in rational thought and science, this metaphor assumes that organizations are machines, that people are a part of those machines, and that change can be predicted, planned, quantified, and controlled. The machine metaphor has deep historical roots, dating back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century and coming to fruition with the scientific management movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To this day it remains the predominant metaphor for organizations.  

The equilibrium metaphor: At the core of this worldview is the belief that organizations are human systems and that change is a social process. Inspired by a series of research studies in the early 20th century, Kurt Lewin and other behavioral scientists developed new methods for planned change that were based on humanistic and social psychology. Central to Lewin’s argument is that change occurs in three stages – unfreeze, change, and refreeze. The objective: a return to stasis, or equilibrium. From this work emerged the humanistic field of organization development (OD).

Here, in Part 2, I pick up the thread, describing two other metaphors for organizations that emerged in the past few decades. As you’ll see, these approaches bring new insights; but they also echo archetypal polarities from the past. 

Although the machine and equilibrium metaphors appeared before my time, both had a strong presence in my early training and practitioner experience. Now, as the story continues, I enter the scene as a budding practitioner . . .

The Systems Metaphor: The Resurgence of the Rational

In the second half of the 20th century, a series of tectonic changes swept away the Enlightenment’s certainty of progress and any remaining illusion of stasis. As an American baby boomer, I had a front-row seat to these revolutionary social, economic, and technological events, starting with the metamorphic 1960s and ending with Y2K and a world transformed by globalization.  

By the late 1970s, when I began my career, the field of organization development had matured. After several decades of practice, OD now offered a proven set of alternative methods, built on the premise that “the true involvement of those responsible for doing the actual work” produces better ideas, solutions, and business performance (Marshak, 2005, p. 22). Of course traditional management practices still enjoyed great popularity. But by providing a stark alternative, OD’s participatory methods had permanently altered the ideology and practice of organizational change.  

At the same time, new approaches were beginning to emerge that would recast our understanding of organizations in ways that were both a leap forward and a reinforcement of the rational principles of the machine metaphor. Two are of particular note.  

First, management discourse began to change midcentury with the advent of computers, operations research, and general systems theory. As a new worldview emerged, practitioners began to see management as a kind of systems analysis and organizations as entities that could be directed and controlled by expert managers. Then, too, the focus began to shift from theories of human motivation to a search for universal principles that would enable “managers to plan, forecast, and act more effectively” (Barley & Kunda, 1992, p. 379).  

Jay Galbraith’s (1995) well-known star model exemplifies this era of systems thinking and resurgent rationalism. The framework suggests that organizations must continually adapt to their external environment and that change can be planned and controlled by orchestrating five key internal factors: strategy, structure, processes, rewards, and people.

Second, as globalization began to heat up in the 1980s, so did calls for business profitability and performance. In this new world of hypercompetition and relentless cost cutting, says noted scholar Robert Marshak, OD’s humanistic principles began to seem “too touchy-feely” – ill-suited to the “nitty-gritty” realities of the day (2005, p. 25). Whereas OD had placed great value on the “enlightened and empowered self,” the growth imperative now took precedence over individual needs (p. 24).

This rethinking of priorities, argues Marshak, created an opening for management consulting and accounting firms looking to enter the market. Rooted in economics and business, these companies offered an array of new services, including downsizing and process improvement, that applied principles of engineering and that seemed more aligned to a global economy. Over time, the approach expanded and developed into the field of change management.

Although they are often conflated, OD and change management have distinctly different ideological foundations. As Marshak explains, OD is predicated on the belief that social and organizational gain drive human development. In contrast, although change management may utilize OD tools (for example, participatory methods to encourage buy-in), its core purpose is to enhance business and shareholder value, or, as Marshak says, “engineering organizations for economic gain” (2005, p. 22). 

All of this fits neatly into my professional history. By the time I entered financial services in the early 1990s, change management had become the dominant corporate approach to change. OD, I was told, was passé; in its place had emerged a multitude of strategies for planning and controlling change. Among them were a number of systems models, each claiming to reveal the critical levers of change. They included Galbraith’s star model (1995) as well as Beer’s 6 steps (Eisenstat, Spector, & Beers, 1990), McKinsey’s 7-S framework (Peters & Waterman, 1982), Ulrich’s 7-step “pilot’s checklist” (Becker, Huselid, & Ulrich, 2001), and Kotter’s 8 steps (1995). I confess I loved them all, and to this day I remain a bit of a change-model junkie. Still, looking back, I’m struck by how quickly I jettisoned OD principles, how eagerly I deployed each new model of change, and how casually I lost sight of the living, breathing people being asked to make all this change.

But, of course, new worldviews were again on the horizon.  

The Organic Metaphor: The Elegance of Nature

There’s no question that 21st-century organizations have benefited from advances inspired by the systems metaphor. Among those benefits is an array of human resource practices, including talent, change, and performance management; succession planning; and organizational design. But without a counterview, this faith in management and planning tends to foster the belief that employees are “automatons” who respond robotically to change (Barley & Kunda, 1992, p. 380). The term human capital, first popularized in the 1990s, is a good example of this sort of dehumanizing thinking.

Why does it matter? Let’s take employee engagement as an example. In recent years we’ve learned how to measure engagement and quantify its relationship to performance and profitability. And yet, because engagement is highly correlated with compassion, empathy, and other human needs, our organizations are still plagued by rampant disengagement. We can name the drivers of engagement, but we can’t “manage” people into feeling engaged. For that we have to turn to other worldviews and strategies.

Within this context, the organic metaphor is emerging as a rich source of innovation for organizational change. This metaphor rests on two complementary schools of thought.

The first comes from “new sciences” like quantum mechanics and complexity theory, which upended Newtonian physics and introduced new thinking about change in natural systems. In the 1990s various writers began to apply that thinking to organizations. Meg Wheatley (1992), for example, was inspired by dissipation, a term used in chemistry to describe how disequilibrium stimulates change, allowing a system to “re-emerge in a form better suited to the demands of the present environment” (p. 19). Wheatley argued that “disorder can be a source of order” within organizations if one recognizes that “fluctuations, disturbances, [and] imbalances” are not to be feared but embraced as sources of creativity and growth (p. 20).

Since then a new framework for change has developed, built on the foundation of complexity theory. One important concept is the complex adaptive system (CAS), defined by scholars Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey as “a neural-like [network] of interacting, interdependent agents” (2007, p. 299). When applied to human systems, a CAS is like a jazz ensemble whose members are continually adapting as they balance control and improvisation, listen and learn from one another, and interact with their external “audience.” From this standpoint, change occurs through a process of self-organization that is unpredictable and emergent. It manifests as patterns and structures that can be fostered and shaped but not controlled. Effective change comes about by enabling the organization’s inherent capacity to evolve in response to a constantly shifting environment. (For more on this extensive body of work, see the March 2016 and July 2016 issues of this newsletter.)

Earth’s natural systems are the second source of inspiration for the organic metaphor. This perspective has deep roots in indigenous wisdom, which long predates Western thought. As aboriginal scholar Grace Ouellette explains, the “interconnectedness of all things and their dependence upon each other for survival” are central to indigenous traditions (2002, p. 47). Contrary to the modern notion that nature can be controlled and exploited, the organic worldview asserts that human societies are an integral part of Earth’s ecosystem and are guided by nature’s laws.

In her recent book, Kathleen Allen applies these ancient principles to organizational life. Organizations, argues Allen, are “not inert objects” (2018, p. 11); they are living systems endowed with an innate ability to evolve and improve. Further, nature is replete with lessons that teach organizations how to become “generous ecologies,” which, like old-growth forests, “develop mutually-beneficial relationships” that make them resilient and adaptive (p. 22). Again, self-organization is fundamental. As Allen explains, nature is a “vast interconnected web” that depends on local species to constantly evolve and “keep the larger ecosystem in dynamic balance” (pp. 123 and 125). Similarly, generous organizations depend on workers’ local knowledge and trust their ability to self-organize and make on-the-ground decisions about their own work.

The organic metaphor is no more a panacea than any other worldview. What it does is bring a much-needed balance of perspective to the systems metaphor. From a practical point of view, organizations benefit from an expanded set of tools that enable self-organization and emergent change. Equally important, by seeing organization as living human systems, previously taboo topics – including emotions, meaning, conflict, and connection – can now be discussed and recognized as an integral part of the rich fabric of organizational life.

Transcendence, Agency, and Agility of Mind 

The great pioneer of operations research, Russell Ackoff (1981), was fond of describing a set of ill-defined, interrelated, disorderly problems as a “mess.” Today, few would argue that organizations face an unprecedented number of messes that force them to operate at warp speed and in a state of perpetual uncertainty.

How can these metaphors help?

At the very least, they bring to light the worldviews that guide our daily actions and decisions . Becoming aware of our predisposed beliefs and assumptions is a liberating first step.

Second, they seem to oscillate over time between the poles of powerful archetypal dualities: machinelike versus humanistic, rational versus emotional, static versus emergent. Typically, human beings turn competing worldviews into an argument over which side is right. By revealing the fuller breadth of perspectives, these metaphors provide a broader context and the possibility of hearing and absorbing opposing points of view.

Third, when we let go of polarized thinking, we begin to see that each metaphor is unique. In other words, while it may contain echoes from the past, each metaphor incorporates and improves on the previous one, a cycle of development that will continue into the future. This also means that earlier metaphors are present in later ones, providing a rich archive of possibilities and choices.

Finally, it is one thing to see a worldview and quite another to transcend it. As the brilliant thinker Donella Meadows once said, the ability to rise above one’s worldview is the ultimate “leverage point” for change. “In fact,” she noted, anyone who has entertained the notion that “there is no certainty in any worldview … for a moment or for a lifetime … has found it to be the basis for radical empowerment” (1999, p. 19).

Radical empowerment. We could also call it agency: having the agility of mind to see multiple possibilities, to choose one’s thinking, and to take effective action, all in service of a better organization, a better society, a better world.


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