Cattle, Slaves and Automobiles: Driving Dangerously With Management Clichés

Cattle Drive

Texas Cattle Drive

Language is rooted in metaphor. In their popular book, Metaphors We Live By (1982) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed the pervasive role that our embodied experience plays in our understanding of how the world works, or might work. We excel at grasping how one abstract object or experience is like another, more concrete one. Thus happy is ‘up’ as in “I feel up”, while sad is ‘down’. Sometimes the meaning has to be determined by context. When I say, “It’s all downhill from here,” it means that things are going to either get worse or get easier. Whatever the case, this perspective suggests that our minds are primarily analogical rather than analytical and that we think in frames before we think in facts. It’s the frames that determine which facts matter and what they mean.

This use of metaphor is particularly important when it comes to understanding cause-and-effect in complex systems i.e. interactions where causality is non-linear. If one wants to understand anyone’s view of causality in an organization look at the metaphors they use. The dominant frame in Anglo-American management theory and practice is that of the engineer, the manager as a lone, detached observer looking at a complicated machine whose workings are understandable, at least in principle. Objectivity and scientific rationality, prediction and control are the order of the day and the role of the manager is that of an actor/agent in a knowable world, rationally calculating (predominantly) his options and issuing crisp, actionable instructions backed up by sanctions and incentives. The mind of the manager is idealized as factual and forensic, rather like that of the hyper-logical Mr. Spock in Star Trek. I will call this view the ‘Cartesian Framework’ in honour of the debt it owes the French rationalist philosopher René Descartes, but it could also be called ‘Newtonian’ for its dependence on classical physics.

The Cartesian Framework has been an essential, sometimes invaluable perspective in management, but it should not be the only one. It is becoming dated, both by events and advances in our understanding. It needs to be supplemented by other points of view. Its hegemony must be challenged and its use limited. For this to happen, however, we must first become aware of how pervasive it is. Hence this selection of seven of the most egregiously overused management clichés that should be employed more carefully and used a lot less often:

  • Align as in ‘align your organization with your strategy’. I can align books on a shelf and, with training and practice, I can align a rifle with a target, but I have no clue how to align an organization with a strategy. ‘Align’ is what philosopher Gilbert Ryle would call an ‘achievement’ verb, that is, it reflects an accomplishment, like ‘win the race’. It doesn’t tell you how to do it. Anyway what does ‘align’ mean in this context? Is it really desirable? It seems to me that a lot of innovation takes place when organizations are not completely ‘aligned’ with strategy. Too much alignment may result in stifling conformity. Where else does emergent strategy come from but ‘misalignment’?
  • Buy-in as in ‘How do we get our people to buy-in to the plan?’ The metaphor suggests that we are dealing with the logic of utility and an economic transaction, an exchange of some kind: ‘Do this for me and I’ll do this for you.’ Sometimes this is the case, but ‘buy-in’ is often used when managers are really looking for commitment and only mercenaries buy and sell commitment. An economic metaphor makes the whole process sound simpler than it is. Commitment to a cause should engage the logics of identity – ‘we do this because of who we are and what we believe in’. That takes exploration and discovery. Worse still, ‘buy-in’ emphasizes extrinsic rewards, which we know can suppress the intrinsic ones that are so critical to innovation.
  • Blueprint as in ‘Strategy is the blueprint for the organization’. The Cartesian Framework often relies on structural or machine analogies – complicated objects that can be designed in detail in advance by architects and engineers. This vastly overstates our ability to design and control human organizations and suppresses notions of co-creation and organic concepts of cultivation, emergence, natural growth, development and adaptation. Roadmap carries similar connotations of control. After all, you can only create a roadmap if there are roads, which means that others have been there before you. Maps always have a scale and emphasize some features of the landscape at the expense of others, depending on their purpose. Who picks those and how?
  • Choice as in ‘rational choice’ often exaggerates the degree of control that managers have over organizations and implies that managerial life is a series of either/or moments of decision between clear options. Sometimes there are critical choices to be made but they rarely present themselves in a clear way. As Chester Barnard pointed out decades ago, managerial life is mainly about knowing when not to make decisions, “The fine art of executive decision consists in not deciding questions that are not now pertinent, in not deciding prematurely, in not making decisions that cannot be made effective, and in not making decisions that others should make.”
  • Dashboards evoke images of organizations as automobiles or aircraft, complicated vehicles driven by drivers and pilots by reference to checklists and instrument panels that supply key information and allow control via switches, levers and buttons. This privileges the role of centralized direction and sleights the benefits of distributed control. Worse still, these mechanical metaphors are rarely pushed hard enough to highlight the importance of experience and the seat-of-the-pants feelings that in practice allow experts to drive such vehicles to their limits without paying much attention to the dashboard. If human organizations really were like these vehicles presumably one day we will be able to replace the pilots with algorithms. Does anybody want to work for an algorithm?
  • Drivers, as in ‘profit-drivers’. ‘Drivers’ suggests a push model of cause-and-effect with passive, reactive entities responding to external forces that move or ‘motivate’ them. Drivers drive automobiles; cattle and slaves are driven with whips. Free people (and profits) are not driven, they are drawn; they are challenged, supported and enabled. Profits in a firm are an outcome of complex processes with myriad factors that interact in complex ways. Like the performance of a top symphony orchestra, multiple elements, each brilliant in their own right, have to work together seamlessly to deliver a superior performance. Conductors, like top executives are highly visible, and we may lionize their performances. Switch the analogy from a symphony to a jazz ensemble, however, and an alternative view of a superior performance emerges; one with neither conductor nor score.
  • Rational as in ‘be rational!’ The roots of the word are in the Latin ratio, meaning reckoning or calculation. Scientific rationality that follows the laws of logic and probability is widely accepted as the gold standard for thought. It carries norms of efficiency, consistency and control – technical efficiency and the achievement of goals with least effort. Deviations from it are described as ‘biases’; to be told one is ‘irrational’ is usually taken as an insult. The evidence is overwhelming, however, that humankind has not evolved to be rational in this scientific sense. Cartesians argue that this is a flaw. Others contend that we evolved to make fast ‘good enough’ decisions under pressure of time and pervasive uncertainty. They add that the unit of survival in evolution is the group, not the individual and what might look like a flaw at the individual level may actually be adaptive in a collective context, where cooperation is essential. Thus there may be several kinds of rationality: economic, legal, political and so on. These may even conflict with each other: what’s good for the economy may not necessarily be good for the community. George Lakoff makes the case for a “higher rationality”, “a mode of thought that takes into account the understanding of the view of mind that comes from cognitive science and neuroscience — a rationality that talks about frame-based and metaphorical thought explicitly….”

Without Metaphor You Are Not Safe Anywhere

All metaphors, like all models, are wrong, but many are useful. We need, however, a far greater sensitivity to metaphors and the powerful, often hidden role that they play in our thought and action. This is the task of the arts and poetry in particular. In his essay, Education by Poetry, Robert Frost writes, “What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe with science; you are not safe in history.” One might add that without a firm grasp of metaphor you are not safe in management either.

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