Ceci n’est pas une organisation (or why change programmes aren’t working)

This is a famous painting by Renee Magritte of a pipe, that carries the legend ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe).

Well, it’s not, it’s a painting of a pipe. In fact, it’s a painting of a thing we call ‘a pipe’. The thing is what we put tobacco in and smoke, which is different to how we represent that thing.

You can’t smoke the picture. You can’t smoke the word ‘pipe’. You can only smoke the real thing.

Magritte called this picture ‘The tyranny of images’. 

To me it explains what goes wrong in many organisations and why efforts to change structures and cultures so often fail.

We’ve been very clever over the years in creating ways of thinking about organisations. It started with the humble organisation chart, invented in 1854 but not widely adopted until the 1930s and 40s. In the 1960s, the term ‘organogram’ arrived and since then we’ve found many different ways to represent organisational structures. We’ve found ways to map processes and information flows, people distributions, skills sets, competences and all sorts of things.

We’ve abstracted the shit out of the organisation to try and get a better understanding of the complexity of it all.

That’s absolutely fine (and very lucrative for consultancy firms) but it has caused the problem we have today.

It what you might call ‘The tyranny of org charts’.

We’ve come to believe that the org chart (and all the other abstract representations) are the organisation and that if we can make changes to them, then we are making changes to the organisation.

OK, I accept that’s a big simplification and, of course, change programmes have large elements focused on the people. However, the point remains that we see the change happening to the ‘org chart’ first and then we deal with the consequences for the actual people involved.

Only that’s not the real world. In the real world, there are lots of complicated human being with messy relationships and life situations, none of which are captured in our abstractions. They have lots of knowledge and skills and talents that are, at best, only imperfectly captured. They interact and respond in unpredictable and complex ways. And in amongst all the chaos is where things really happen, where stuff gets done, where change happens.

You can change your org charts all you like but it won’t change the people. You can roll out as much culture change as you want but it won’t impact behaviours more than temporarily if you don’t connect deeply with people.

You have to start in the chaos, with the messy business of human beings and their relationships, values and beliefs. Because that IS the organisation.

This is not an organisation.

From an image by S.s.kulkarni9090 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0