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17 May 2023

“A Rumpelstiltskin Organization: Metaphors on Metaphors” [Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) #26]

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Original post can be found here:

This article is titled “A Rumpelstiltskin Organization: Metaphors on Metaphors in Field Research” by Kenwyn Smith and Valerie Simmons, and it makes me giggle a bit when Microsoft, Medium and other spellcheck systems tell me that ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ is not a word and no replacements exist for it, yet it continues to give it the red dotted underline treatment. This article comes out of the Administrative Science Quarterly Volume 28, 1983, pp. 377–392. So, this might be tricky for some readers to get as there will be an academic journal paywall. For those military readers and those able to visit their local library (or on campus), ask a librarian and they usually can get you a PDF. The link for it is here:

Now, onto the commentary and why I like this article for explaining organizational theory, reflective practice, social paradigms, and design to security organizations and others. This article is a fascinating case study on how organizations form, and how metaphors and narratives can be powerful tools for explanation on what is working, and what is dysfunctional. Often, when you want an organization to contemplate disfunction or failures within an organizational culture, it helps to provide an example that does not trigger institutional defenses. For military populations, I shy away from offering case studies of military units and look for something like this. The same goes for government agencies, law enforcement, para-rescue, industry, or academia… if you offer NASA a case study of organizational failure using the shuttle disasters, you may start off on shaky ground. Offering them something from the military will lower those defenses, and you can place that NASA shuttle study with a military aviation unit to cause the same conditions for learning.

This article uses a playful fairytale metaphoric device to explore how a special education facility for children with significant mental or emotional challenges was established with the best of intentions. Leaders sought active roles in forming a new organization that might sidestep the previous problems and bitter experiences of the faculty, leaders, and educators. Instead, the sidestep took them right into a dysfunctional adventure where the senior leader would ultimately be removed, significant goals were entirely missed, the organization swung from failure to failure with little or no cohesion in policy or vision, and ultimately the social, cultural, and interpersonal attempts across the organization to avoid such a tragedy ended up generating what bounced to the beat of the tale of an evil, cunning creature who would trick and take advantage of humans in need. Interested? If so- you will want to secure a copy of the article and consider the following points I raise for how one might apply these concepts toward an organization desiring better introspection, reflective practice, sense making, and organizational change.

Smith and Simmons cover what is a design facilitation for the establishment of a new educational facility for special needs children. They introduce metaphors and how one can develop a systemic metaphoric device or narrative where the entire system (the whole being more than the sum of the parts) gets deeper understanding via a powerful metaphor which is the mythical story of Rumpelstiltskin. This differs from a systematic metaphor, which would only explain one part of the organization. Need a quick study on complexity theory and systemic-systematic? Try here:

The authors do not offer an example within their article for systemic versus systematic, but multiple military authors (Keegan, Bousquet, Builder) discuss leadership styles based on context, culture, values- there are heroic leaders, managers, anti-heroes, and ‘post-heroic’ leaders in the nuclear age. Each of those metaphors address one part of the whole, just as one Marvel superhero story comprises just one of many mythological stories spanning the Marvel Universe. The authors suggest the systematic quality is a ‘meta-metaphor.’

On p. 384, there is a great explanation of how we form identities, meaning, and our belief systems of an organization through metaphoric construction. By doing so and claiming what our organization is, we also declare in parallel what we say we are not. If there is ambiguity here, this plagues the organization. Or, if two or more organizations overlap into what our organization says it exists for (form, function, or purpose), we again see conflict and confusion. Consider if an organization states “we are everything our nation needs us to be”- that organization simultaneously implies that “we are not the thing our nation doesn’t need us to be within that everything.” In some unit identities, this could get problematic. In others, there might be redundancies or even turf wars of identity with competitors.

On p. 391, the writers provide some excellent implications on this, with “conflicts of interest are a legitimate by-product of all organizing… Hence, no matter what images of unity are creative, mechanisms for approaching, exploring, and resolving conflicts must be built and maintained. Does this work effectively in your own organization? We like to imagine (like in a fairy tale) that a scientific feel to how we label things, map out our organization, or publish scientific-sounding policy and strategies might put us in some superior position devoid of bias. This is just an illusion, but one that many organizations including the Department of Defense readily embrace. Standardization, uniformity, risk-reduction, prediction, control, order, and conformity work… until they don’t. We tend to realize this not before we fall off the cliff into the briar patch, but often once we are hopelessly tangled within it. At that point, any direction out might work, but coherence and organizational synthesis are long gone. Failure teaches only those willing to listen beyond what their institution insists they close their minds off concerning.

One last thought at the bottom of p. 391, and something I have seen in military design teams that fall into a logic trap with innovation. Sometimes, they do mirror the “same equals bad, different equals good”- which is not a recipe for perpetual innovation, improvisation and novelty. It instead breeds a disruptive, antagonistic style of upsetting every apple cart without any deep, systemic appreciation of whether that particular apple cart is useful in some applications, but not in others. For instance, SWOT analysis is wonderful in military contexts where kinetic targeting is being considered with clear, objective, limited and physical considerations. For more on how militaries abuse reductionist, Newtonian, and wildly oversimplified models such as SWOT, DIME, CARVER, and myriad others (look for doctrinal acronyms and nice geometric bins to drop word salad within):

Can a weapon system destroy a bridge, and if that bridge is destroyed, does that prevent an adversary from maneuvering to a particular location the bridge exists for? When a military uses SWOT for village leader engagements, or on assessing whether local security organizations can influence the local economic and political conditions- that is where SWOT falls apart. Replacing everything in the institutional kit bag with new things need not produce a better organization- it may just usher in a new form of disfunction that replaces the older disfunction. Again, this seems to be why the authors invest so much into the meta-metaphor and how myths can systemically be useful (in certain cases involving people, language, ideas, beliefs, culture, history, power) in explaining why we do things a certain way.

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