Models of organisation

How do the assumptions we make limit or help us?

Organisations differ in many ways, but most organisations, in most sectors, have similar problems.  Some common examples follow:

Managers spend a large amount of time doing work that those who report to them should be doing – and no-one has any time to think and plan

Parts of the organisation operate in ‘silos’ and act in a way that actively creates problems for, even sabotages, other parts of the organisation

Despite a lot of effort, team-building sessions and perfectly amicable relationships senior teams find it extremely difficult to work constructively and productively together

Each of these problems could be addressed by taking particular actions to fix them.  But they may also raise a more fundamental question, that of how we think about the organisation.

If you were to make a list of all the things your organisation actually does, with no attempt to order it, I imagine you could produce a very long list indeed.  And it would probably have a ragged, messy, confusing and (apparently) rather random character.  Reality is like this – we cannot manage it ‘in the raw’.  To deal with it we organise what we do so that it hangs together and makes sense.  This is a practical activity – but (and this is the crucial bit) we first model it in the mind.

This is a characteristic human activity.  Reality is too much to deal with in all its diversity, individuality and peculiarity so we develop concepts that help us to manage it.  At the most basic level language has this function.  I am confronted by a wondrous, green object that is, in fact, a remarkable, unique phenomenon – but I cannot live my life responding to it in that way.  So I adopt the shared convention that we call it a tree, mentally align it with other ‘trees’ and move on.

When it comes to organisational life we have a whole set of concepts, a mental model, of what the organisation is and how it works, or should work.  In particular organisations, these models are usually, to some degree shared.  This is both necessary and inevitable.  We cannot operate otherwise.  But, from time to time, it is well worth reviewing our mental models and asking ourselves what they are and how well they are serving us.

Part of the point here is that our mental models are usually held unconsciously .  We are not aware of them as our interpretative framework.  They have been constructed by experience, by conditioning in particular organisations, by examples set for us by influential individuals and so forth. But over time most of us have a tendency to confuse our model with reality.  Perhaps the most useful and effective way of addressing problems is to re-frame them by changing the lens, the model, through which we view them.  Sustainable problem solving begins with changing the way we see the organisation, and, consequently, the way we see the problem.

For example, earlier I talked about the common problem that one part of the organisation does not cooperate with another.  If our mental model of the organisation is that we proceed by dividing up activity either functionally or geographically so that our people work on only part of the total process, are valued for their specialist skills and only have limited sight of the whole we can hardly be surprised that they are unconcerned about, or even feel that they are in competition with, other parts of the organisation.  Instead of working on ways to manage the handover points with better processes, we might do better to change the working assumptions or even the basic organisational design.

Over the years organisational studies has identified a number of models that serve to describe how organisations can or should work.  These all have different implications for how we manage our organisations and how we both view and solve problems.  All organisations have influenced or been influenced by these ideas. Stafford Beer remarked that these models ‘are not so much more or less true as more or less useful’.  What is your model and how useful are you finding it?

I’ll leave you with that thought and in my next blog or blogs I’ll say something about the models around, and how the problems I set out look in the light of those models and the one I prefer!

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