Leadership Skills: Making Sense with Central Organizing Metaphors

RP cake

Responsibility Process™ sheet cake at MJN

When I mention “organizing,” do you envision org charts, roles, and processes?

Or might you think of empowered people making sense of opportunities to interpret clear purpose, vision, and values into results?

Dee Hock, CEO Emeritus VISA International said, “Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.” 

Many leaders see organizing as an issue of dividing wholes into parts like departments and roles. However many enlightened leaders I admire think of organizing as “sense-making.” That means allowing and supporting people to think holistically about goals and constraints, and to choose and pursue the most likely paths to success.

Neither image of organizing is wrong

The two images focus on different aspects of organizing. One focuses on “differentiation” (separating the goals and work into parts), while the other focuses on “integration” (integrating the parts). Both are important.

Clear purpose, vision, and values provide what I call central organizing metaphors — a powerful idea rooted in the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, etc.) that everyone understands and that anyone can use to frame and inform a choice or decision.

W.L. Gore’s “waterline” principle is a fine example: It says that any employee can take a risk that might punch a hole above the metaphorical waterline of their collective “boat” (i.e., work and goals). However if the decision could punch a hole below the waterline, the associate must realize that and invite others who would be affected by the decision to unite around a joint decision.

When people share such central organizing metaphors they can quickly understand each other’s intentions and reasons for taking action. It is easier to support one another as well as talk about and resolve differences and tensions.

Another good central organizing metaphor

OH-DOT printed whiteboards

April Garner and Jessica Soroky, Ohio DOT show printed whiteboards for collaborative workspaces.

One that I’ve helped many leaders learn, adopt and master is the Responsibility Process. It supports individuals, teams, and leaders in a powerful framework for learning when things go wrong — and things go wrong all the time.

Fans of the Responsibility Process send me unsolicited stories and pictures, two of those images accompany this post.

Question: Do your team members regularly use and celebrate central organizing metaphors that make their work more meaningful, fun, effective, and alive?

Get Started With This Week’s 5-Minute Stretch

What central organizing metaphor is at work in your organization? How effective is it? What might be even more effective?

Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

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