Monday, May 22, 2006

2006 MAY | METAPHOR IN FULL BLOOM: Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Organizing, and Spider Plants

Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Organizing, and Spider Plants
All theories of organisation and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no 'correct theory' for structuring everything we do. - Gareth Morgan
Everyone is familiar with the basic plant metaphor for organization. Even non-Master Gardeners and non-Master Organizers - of which there is no such thing as the latter and this writer is neither - get the idea that you start with dirt then add seed, water and light. However, the trick seems to be optimizing quantity and quality at every step of the process from selection of dirt and seed to providing water and light.

Then comes protection from weeds, pests, and varmints. This must continue regularly and consistently with diligence and vigilance. Otherwise, your hard work can, and probably will, disappear with surprising speed.

Learning opportunities abound year-in and year-out. Whether one is growing a single flower in one's apartment, a garden in their yard, or a large farm feeding many people, if you do not learn then you will fail. This is a basic element of sustainable agriculture and sustainable organizing. This is what Peter Senge calls, "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization".

Of course, the idea of "learning" would lead us to a brain metaphor for organization, but, this is the "plant metaphor" column. However, the root concept is parallel structure and process. Brains are massively parallel neural networks. Parallel processing is the opposite of serial processing in terms of information processing. Instead of one processor handling one piece of information at a time - serially - many processors are networked and coordinated so that they all participate in processing the stream of information nearly simultaneously. The top-level processors delegate processing out to the network then receive the results. This is the architecture of the most powerful supercomputers -Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP). Applying this to organizing people, we get Parallel Distributed Democracy (PDD) - if 2 heads are better than 1, then 10 heads are better than 2; 5,000 are better than 10; 62,000 are better than 5,000; etc..

The spider plant models this very nicely. Gareth Morgan uses the spider plant metaphor to describe the most advanced highly effective organization. It's built from simple, easily reproduced building blocks.  Morgan calls it an, "example of an organizational style ideal for conditions requiring flexibility, innovation and change." He has 6 models of organization which people can use to fix their position in their organization. They range from "Model 1 - the classical bureaucracy", to "Model 6" which "often operates on 'spider plant principles,' discussed in Chapter 2", of his book, "Images of Organization".

Morgan is a leader in communicating the role of metaphor in our lives. Two other communication leaders are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In their book, "Metaphors we live by", they suggest that, "in all aspects of life ... we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor."

Leadership is about communication. When organizations are led by people who cultivate a culture which nurtures clarity, then functional sustained action is made much easier. Morgan's Spider Plant model facilitates development of small, decentralized, grassroots, entrepreneurial organizations.

WEB-LINKS to Navigational Aids for Sustainable Organizing:



IMAGINIZATION: New Mindsets for Seeing, Organizing, Managing


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