Virtual Learning Resource Centre

Images of Organization

Book cover

by Gareth Morgan, Sage Publications Inc., 1997


Shows how managers can use different metaphors to "read" their organisation and shape situations. The metaphors include organisations as machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, "psychic prisons", flux and transformation, and instruments of domination. A methodology, supported by a case study, is provided for generating and integrating insights from different metaphors and developing a course of action.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in August 2005)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)


We are often told that we should not mix our metaphors but here is an author who delights in doing just that. Gareth Morgan, a professor at York University (Toronto), suggests how we can use a range of different and powerful metaphors to "read" and understand organisational life. This is a key managerial competence. Too often, managers look at the situations they are managing from a single, fixed point of view. Considering them instead from a number of angles, using a number of metaphors, could broaden their perceptions and consequent actions.

Among the metaphors Morgan explores to illustrate the behaviour of organisations are machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems and "psychic prisons". At one level the book is a history of the development of organisation theory showing how it has moved from mechanistic notions of organisation to more fluid, human and emergent concepts. As such, it is a fascinating read in its own right.

Beyond this, however, the book has a highly practical purpose to show how managers can blend the insights of different metaphors to create powerful perspectives on what is happening in their organisations and what could be done to improve effectiveness.

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Organisations as machines

This first metaphor sees organisations as machines, made up of interlocking parts that each play a clearly defined role in the functioning of the whole. While sometimes very effective, it can also have unfortunate results. Institutions are often expected to act with mechanical precision and organisational life is routinised with clockwork precision (e.g. factories, insurance companies, banks, and fast-food restaurants).

It was during the industrial revolution that concepts of organisation first became mechanised. Later, classical management theorists presented management as a process of planning, organisation, command, co-ordination and control. This became the basis for many modern management techniques which emphasise rational planning and control. Organisations are seen as patterns of precisely defined jobs organised in a hierarchical manner through precisely defined lines of command.

Efficient though it may seem to subordinate individuals to the general interest as perceived at the top, the machine metaphor largely disregards the fact that we are dealing with people, not inanimate cogs and wheels.

Frederick Taylor pioneered "scientific management". This shifted responsibility for the organisation of work from the worker to the manager. Managers did the thinking and workers parked their brains at the factory gate. Scientific methods were used to determine the most efficient way of doing work. Detailed observation and measurement of even the most routine work was instituted to establish optimum performance methods. Taylorism still hasn’t disappeared in many manufacturing firms, retailers, offices and fast-food chains. While Taylorism undoubtedly helped to make major improvements in productivity, it also resulted in serious human problems; workers were seen as no more than interchangeable "hands", like the robots that now often replace them.

Strengths and limitations of the machine metaphor. Mechanistic approaches to organisation work well only under conditions where machines work well. That is there is a straightforward task to perform; we wish to produce exactly the same product again and again; precision is at a premium and the human "machine" parts are compliant and behave as the designers of the system expect.

Aircraft maintenance departments and finance offices where precision, safety and accountability are vital are examples of where the metaphor works.

The downsides of the mechanistic approach include the difficulty of adapting to changing circumstances because everything is predetermined, and the tendency toward a mindless and unquestioning bureaucracy. Maintaining the organisation become more important than the purposes the organisation was set up to achieve. There is also a tendency to dehumanise employees, especially at the lower levels.

The mechanical way of thinking is still ingrained in the way that people view organisations.

[Some management thinkers believe that hierarchies, whether we like them or not, are here to stay and that the challenge is to make them more human places in which to work. See the summary of Top Down by Harold Levant.]

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Organisations as organisms

The image of organisations as organisms reflects the natural world and focuses on understanding their relationship with their environment and how they adapt to changing circumstances. Three approaches are involved:

The "open systems" approach – organisations, like organisms, are "open" to their environment and must achieve appropriate relations with it if they are to survive. Environment and system are mutually dependent. An organisation consists of interrelated subsystems – "wholes within wholes". The internal regulatory mechanisms of a system must be as diverse as the environment with which it is trying to deal if the organisation is not to atrophy.

Contingency theory – as open systems, organisations are about achieving a good fit between internal needs and particular environments with which they are dealing. .

The population-ecology view – environments "select" organisations – through natural selection they determine which organisations succeed and which fail, "selecting" the most robust competitors through elimination of the weaker ones. This suggests that organisations have to be ready to change in response to their environment.

Many biologists now believe that it is the whole ecosystem that evolves. Evolution is always evolution of a pattern of relationships embracing organisms and their environments. It is the pattern, not just the separate parts, that evolves. It is the "survival of the fitting", not just the survival of the fittest. Collaboration, rather than competition, is therefore emphasised.

Strengths and limitations. The value of the "organisms" metaphor lies in the emphasis on seeing organisations as based on ongoing processes, rather than on collections of parts; on survival as the key aim; and on innovation as an essential function. On the other hand, this approach tends to belittle the value of conflict and can overlook the more abstract strengths, such as visions, ideas, norms and beliefs

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Organisations as brains

Seeing organisations as living brains draws attention to the importance of information processing, learning, and intelligence.

Organisations as information processing brains. Organisations are information systems, communication systems and decision-making systems, which can absorb, relate and distribute information, where individual humans have to settle for "good enough" decisions and the information on which they are based. Organisations are "institutionalised brains" that fragment, routinise and bound the decision-making process to make it manageable. Networked computing now affords humans a wide capacity for handling far more decision making material than ever before.

Creating learning organisations. A critical feature of a true learning organisation is its capacity for "double-loop learning" as well as "single-loop learning". The distinction is as follows:

  • Single-loop learning is the ability to detect and correct error in relation to a given set of operating norms.
  • Double-loop learning depends on being able to take a "double look" at the situation by questioning the relevance of the operating norms. This kind of self-questioning underpins systems that are able to learn and self-organise. So, for example, a house thermostat is able to learn in the sense of being able to detect and correct deviations from pre-determined norms, but it is unable to question the appropriateness of the norms.

Many organisations are proficient at single-loop learning and keeping the organisation "on course" through budgets and other management controls. They are not so good, however, at double-loop learning – i.e. reviewing and challenging their basic paradigms and operating norms. Single-loop learning systems may actually keep an organisation on the wrong course.

Also, when people feel threatened they often engage in "defensive routines" to protect themselves. They find ways of obscuring or burying problems that will put them in a bad light and of deflecting attention elsewhere. Defensive routines can become part of an organisation’s culture, generating "groupthink" that prevents people from addressing key aspects of their reality.

A learning organisation must develop the ability to scan and anticipate change in the wider environment to detect significant deviations, and even break down the barriers separating it from its environment (e.g. its customers) to engage and experience the environment as fully as possible. It must develop an ability to question, challenge and change operating norms and assumptions – this involves the art of framing and reframing and depends on developing a culture that supports change and risk-taking.

It also means allowing an appropriate strategic direction and pattern of organisation to emerge. A "top-down" approach to management focusing on control through clearly-defined targets only encourages single-loop learning.

Encouraging "emergent" organisation goes against the traditional view of management as requiring strong direction, leadership and control. Rather than strictly-defined goals and objectives which create straitjackets, intelligent systems require "reference points" such as vision and values to guide their behaviour – these create space in which learning and innovation can occur. (The Japanese management approach is said to typify the latter as opposed to Western management which favours goals and targets.)

Organisations as holographic brains. In a hologram, the qualities of the whole are enfolded in all the parts so the system has an ability to self-organise and regenerate itself on a continuous basis. The human brain is able to reorganise itself when specific parts are injured or removed. Organisations designed to have such an ability would have memories that are organised and accessed in a highly decentralised way, would be capable of processing massive amounts of information and shaping it for different purposes, and would be comfortable with managing many different points of view. They would be able to grow, develop, and change their personalities along with changing experiences.

This is not an impossible ideal. New technology makes it possible to distribute memory and intelligence that can be accessed at many points. Individuals throughout the organisation can become full participants. Vision, values and culture are the corporate DNA that binds the organisation together.

Strengths and limitations of the brain metaphor. The brain metaphor helps us understand how to create learning organisations and about how information technology can be used to support the process. It also invites us to challenge traditional assumptions about the importance of strong leadership, clear goals, and hierarchy. Leadership needs to be diffused rather than centralised. Goals, objectives and targets must be used in a way that avoids single-loop learning. Hierarchy, design and strategic development must be approached as self-organising, emergent phenomena.

On the other hand, the brain metaphor overlooks the realities of power and control. Any move away from hierarchically-controlled structures towards more flexible, emergent patterns undermines the ability of those with ultimate power to keep a firm hand on day-to-day activities. Managers are often unable to trust their people and "let go". Application of the brain metaphor requires both a "power shift" and a "mind shift".

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Organisations as cultures

Viewing organisations as cultures focuses on the values, ideas, beliefs, norms, rituals and other patterns of shared meaning that guide organisational life. One of the major ideas explored here is the way in which organisations can be seen as "socially constructed realities".

Creating organisational reality. Culture is a process of reality construction that allows people to see and understand particular events, actions, or situations in distinctive ways. These patterns of understanding help us to cope with the situation being encountered and also provide a basis for making our own behaviour sensible and meaningful.

Karl Weick described the process which we shape and structure our realities as a process of "enactment". This emphasises the proactive role we unconsciously play in creating our world. We must understand culture as an ongoing, proactive process of reality construction. Culture is an active, living phenomenon through which people jointly create and recreate the worlds in which they live. Organisations are socially constructed realities that are as much in the minds of their members as they are in concrete structures, rules and relations.

The culture metaphor shows that the challenge of creating new forms of organisation and management is very much a challenge of cultural change – transforming the mind-sets, visions, paradigms, images, metaphors, beliefs and shared meanings that sustain existing business realities and of creating a language and code of behaviour through which the desired new reality can be lived on a daily basis.

The creation of a new corporate culture is not just about inventing new slogans or acquiring a new leader; it is about inventing a new way of life. It involves the creation of shared systems of meaning that are accepted, internalised and acted on at every level of the organisation. Culture has a holographic quality – characteristics of the whole must be encoded in all the parts, or the parts fail to express and act on the character of the whole. The best teams, and the free-flowing organisations that have discarded bureaucratic forms of management, constantly reflect this quality. They are organised through core meanings that people own and share. Organisationally, shared meanings provide alternatives to control through external procedures and rules.

The formation of a group or the process of becoming a leader ultimately hinges on an ability to create a shared sense of reality. Cohesive groups are those that arise around shared understandings; fragmented groups are characterised by multiple realities.

Strengths and limitations of the culture metaphor. The culture shows how organisation shows that the fundamental task facing leaders and managers rests in creating systems of shared meaning that can mobilise the efforts of people in pursuit of desired aims and objectives. This involves a major reframing of their roles. The culture metaphor says that you are what you are seen and experienced as being, not what your job title or job description says you are.

We see too that the relations between an organisation and its environment are also socially constructed. Organisations choose and structure their environment through a host of "interpretative decisions" that are extensions of corporate culture. In other words, our environments are extensions of ourselves.

Although the culture metaphor recognises the truly human nature of organisations and the need to build organisations around people rather than techniques, we have to remember that culture is self-organising and is always evolving. There is more to culture than meets the eye and our understanding of it will always be fragmented and superficial. Managers can influence the way that people experience the culture by being aware of the symbolic consequences of their actions and by attempting to foster desired values. But they can never be fully in control of culture.

There is also an important power dimension to organisations that the culture metaphor does not always highlight.

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Organisations as political systems

Politics is often seen as a dirty word in organisations but it may be an essential aspect of organisational life.

Organisational politics arise when people think differently and want to act differently; this creates a tension that must be resolved through political means. In contrast with the view that organisations are integrated rational enterprises pursuing a common goal, through the political metaphor we see organisations as loose networks of people with divergent interests who gather together for the sake of expediency (making a living, developing a career, pursuing a goal, etc.)

Organisations are made up of coalitions which arise when groups of individuals get together to cooperate in relation to specific issues to advance specific values and ideologies. The organisation as a coalition of diverse stakeholders is a coalition with multiple goals.

Conflict arises whenever interests collide, and will always be present. The organisational hierarchy is both a system of cooperation reflecting a rational subdivision of tasks, and a career ladder. The fact that there are fewer jobs at the top than at the bottom ensures the kind of competitive struggle on which organisational politics thrive.

The pluralist organisation is one in which different groups bargain and compete for a share in the balance of power; a negotiated order that creates unity out of diversity. The "pluralist manager" has to find ways to maintain just the right level of conflict when attempting to satisfy others’ concerns. He or she can choose from five different styles depending on the extent to which they want to engage in assertive or cooperative behaviour. These include avoiding; compromise; competition; accommodation (giving way); and collaboration. Successful pluralist management depends on an ability to read developing situations and to analyse interest, understand conflicts and explore power relations so that situations can be brought under a measure of control.

Strengths and limitations of the political metaphor. The political metaphor helps us accept the reality of politics as an inevitable feature of organisational life and recognise its constructive role in the creation of social order. It explodes the myth of organisational rationality and shows that rationality is always political. Managers use the organisation as a "legitimising umbrella" under which to pursue a variety of task, career and extramural interests.

The political metaphor should be used with caution, however. If we understand organisations as political systems, there is a danger that we will be more likely to behave politically, seeing politics and hidden agendas everywhere. This breeds mistrust and reduces the scope for genuine openness and collaboration.

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Organisations as psychic prisons

Organisations can also be seen as "psychic prisons" where people become trapped by their own ideas and beliefs or by the unconscious mind; by constructions of reality that give an imperfect grasp on the world. The metaphor helps us understand why people and organisations find it so difficult to change. It shows how organisations are shaped not just by their environments but also by the unconscious concerns of their members and the unconscious forces shaping the societies in which they exist.

Sexuality, immortality and teddy bears. From a Freudian perspective, these unconscious factors might include repressed sexuality (Morgan sees bureaucracy as particularly anal). Or, they might include the way that people’s fear of death leads them to identify with organisations to find meaning and permanence and achieve immortality. We might also see the structure, process and culture of organisations in terms of the unconscious defense mechanisms developed by their members to cope with individual and collective anxiety. Groups often regress to childhood patterns of behaviour to protect themselves from uncomfortable aspects of the real world.

According to another theory, an organisation may even serve as a grown-up’s "teddy bear". Children’s favourite toys are "transitional objects" which are critical in developing distinctions between the "me" and the "not me" and help them develop relations with the outside world. The relationship with such objects continues throughout life with toys being replaced by other objects and experiences (valued possessions, skills, dreams, etc) that mediate relations with one’s world to maintain a sense of identity. Sometimes these may become a fetish or a fixation that we are unable to relinquish; adult development becomes stuck, making it difficult for us to move.

These notions give us a powerful perspective on the role of the unconscious in the dynamics of change. Many organisational arrangements serve as transitional phenomena. They play a critical role in defining the nature and identity of organisations and their members and in shaping attitudes that can block creativity, innovation and change. Particular aspects of organisational structure or corporate culture may assume special significance and be preserved even in the face of great pressure to change. When they are challenged, people’s basic identities are challenged and the fear of loss may generate a reaction out of all proportion to the importance of the issue.

The theory of "transitional phenomena" suggests that change will occur spontaneously only when people are prepared to relinquish what they hold dear in order to acquire something new or when they can find ways of carrying what they value in the old into the new. The change agent must help the group relinquish what they hold dear before they can move on. Selling or imposing a change package rarely works. If the change agent tries to bypass or suppress what is valued, it will resurface later.

Organisation, shadow and archetype. Some final perspectives on the role of the unconscious come from Jung who suggested that the human psyche is part of a "collective unconscious" that transcends space and time. He emphasised the role of "archetypes" (literally "original patterns") in linking the individual to the collective unconscious. These are recurring themes of thought and experience that have universal significance and help people make sense of their experience and create patterns of meaning. They are universal and timeless and are found in the dreams, myths and ideas of primitive, ancient and modern man. They give people a sense of place in their own lives and in history and help them make sense of who and where they are in the grand order of things. The unconscious significance of much organisational behaviour can be understood in terms of the great themes that have shaped history. Even though we use the latest electronic technology to manage our affairs, we do so in ancient ways. We are all primitives at heart.

Jung also used the term "shadow" to describe unrecognised drives and desires, the other side of the conscious ego, a submerged opposite that at the same time strives for completeness with the ego. Full self-development rests on a person’s ability to recognise the rival elements in their personality and to deal with the contradictions in a unified way; neurosis results from an inability to recognise and deal with the repressed shadow. Thus, in the shadow of organisation we find all the repressed opposites of rationality struggling to surface. These irrational qualities are always looking for a way to modify their rational other side and may account for much of the unofficial politicking in organisations.

Strengths and limitations of the psychic prison metaphor. The psychic prison metaphor is very powerful in helping us see that change initiatives often attack unconscious psychological defences. It also shows that we have over-rationalised our understanding of organisation – rationality is often irrationality in disguise. Traditional concerns for rational control need to be tempered by a comfort in dealing with uncertainty, flux and change as a norm.

On the other hand, the psychic prison metaphor ignores the realities of power and the force of vested interests sustaining the status quo.

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Organisation as flux and transformation

If we think of organisation as flux and transformation, as a whirlpool in a river, how might we think about managing change in that context?

Autopoiesis. Traditional organisation theory suggests that change originates in the environment presenting challenges to which the organisation must respond. The theory of "autopoiesis", originally developed in the biological sciences (and which means literally "self-production"), challenges the validity of distinctions drawn between a system and its environment. It argues that all living systems are closed loops; they are "self-referential" systems that strive to create themselves in their own image.

The aim of such systems is ultimately to produce themselves; their own organisation and identity is their most important product. They maintain their identity by engaging in "circular patterns of interaction" whereby change in one element of the system combines with changes elsewhere, setting up continuous patterns of interaction that are always "self-referential". The system interacts with its environment in a way that facilitates its own self-production; i.e. its environment is really part of itself.

The system’s pattern has to be understood as a whole and as possessing a logic of its own; it cannot be understood as a network of separate parts. The bee as an organism is a chain of self-referring physiological processes with their own circular organisation and lives within a society of bees where relations are also circular. The relationship between the society of bees and the wider ecology is also circular. The bee system is linked with botanical, insect, animal, agricultural and other human systems. All these change systems are self-referential and turn back on each other; a change in any one element can transform all the others.

The theory helps us see that organisations are always attempting to achieve a form of self-referential closure in relation to their environments. They interact with projections of themselves and much of strategy-making is really a projection of the organisation’s sense of identity and concerns. The theory also encourages organisations to remember they are always more than themselves. We need to redefine boundaries to embrace customers, competitors, and other parts of "the environment".

Chaos and complexity. Chaos and complexity theory suggest that complex systems like ecologies or organisations are characterised by multiple systems of interaction that are both ordered and chaotic. Because of this internal complexity, random disturbances can produce unpredictable events and relationships that reverberate throughout a system, creating novel patterns of change. (This is the famous image of the butterfly flapping its wings in Peking and eventually affecting weather patterns in the Gulf of Mexico.) Despite all the unpredictability, coherent order always emerges out of the randomness and surface chaos.

Complex systems fall under the influence of different types of "attractors" that ultimately define competing contexts. The detailed behaviour of the system depends on which context dominates. Some attractors pull a system into equilibrium, others may "flip" it into a completely new configuration. When a system is "pushed" far from its equilibrium toward an "edge of chaos" situation, it encounters "bifurcation points" (like forks in the road) leading to different futures. At such points the energy within the system can self-organise through unpredictable steps into different system states. If the old dominant attractor can dissipate the energy and instability, potential changes get dissolved and the system reverts to a variation of its former state. If a new set of influences gain the upper hand, it can "attract" the energies to a new configuration.

Bifurcation points and associated "attractors" are always latent potentials in any complex system. They signal potentials for self-organisation and the evolution of new forms, but system evolution is unpredictable because, given the complexity and non-linearity, seemingly insignificant changes can unfold to create large effects. Incremental changes that seem insignificant can precipitate major discontinuities.

We need to rethink what we mean by organisation – order is emergent but it cannot be planned or predetermined. The fundamental role of managers is to shape and create "contexts" that can break the hold of dominant attractor patterns (embedded in organisational structure, culture or mind-sets) in favour of new ones. We need to learn how to use small changes to create large effects – change agents should search for manageable, high-leverage initiatives that can trigger a transition from one attractor to another. It also means living with continuous transformation and emergent order as a natural state of affairs.

Mutual causality. The theories of autopoiesis, chaos and complexity encourage us to understand change in terms of loops rather than lines and replace the idea of mechanical causality – that A causes B – with the idea of mutual causality – that A and B may be co-defined as a consequence of belonging to the same set of circular relations. Situations are defined by many interacting forces; no single factor is the cause. We recognise that it is not possible to exert unilateral control over any set of variables as interventions will reverberate throughout the whole system. Instead of thinking about problems mechanistically and trying to manipulate linear "causes" and "effects", it encourages us to develop a mindset and skills that focus on recognising and changing patterns.

Managing paradox. Many organisational problems hinge on the effective management of paradox. The "forks in the road" usually arise around key paradoxes or contradictions that block the way to a new future. Innovation and development always rest on a process of "creative destruction" – innovations create the basis for their own destruction; successes become weaknesses. If we want to sustain competitive advantage, we must be prepared to innovate in ways that undermine current success, so new innovations can emerge. We have to reframe key tensions in a positive way to create new paths of development. (Just as the Japanese opened up a whole new line of development by showing that it is possible to reduce costs by improving quality.)

[For a manager’s perspective on managing paradox, see the summary of The Paradox of Control in Organisations by Philip Streatfield.]

Strengths and limitations of the flux metaphor. The flux metaphor helps us understand and manage change at a higher level. Instead of responding to discrete events as novel happenings, we think more in terms of influencing the processes that produce them. While the metaphor gives us a powerful mind-set for managing change, we must recognise that we can never be "in control". Even though our actions shape and are shaped by change, we are just part of an evolving pattern. However, although we are no more than "butterflies", we can have enormous effects if we use our insights about system dynamics and the nature of change to know where and how to intervene.

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Implications for practice

The final part of the book shows how we can integrate the insights of the different metaphors to improve our understanding of key aspects of organisational life.

Metaphors reveal the complexity of organisation. Each provides useful insights but they also have limitations and can distort. Any given metaphor can be highly persuasive but, taken to an extreme, can block our ability to gain an overall view.

The challenge facing managers is to become accomplished in the art of using metaphor to find appropriate ways of seeing, understanding and shaping the situations with which they have to deal. While different metaphors produce distinctive insights with their own pattern of strengths and limitations, the challenge is to integrate the insights to obtain an understanding and develop an appropriate action strategy.

We have to safeguard against the tendency to seize on a particular point of view; we must remain open to as many possibilities as we can. We then have to find ways to integrate the insights to suit our purposes. The process involves two stages:

  1. A diagnostic reading where we strive to gain as comprehensive an understanding as possible. Here we use the metaphors as different lenses through which to look at the organisation. They provide a "radar" that draws our attention to key features of a situation.
  2. A critical evaluation that integrates the key insights. This involves creating a "storyline" that brings the insights together in a meaningful way, prioritises them in terms of a "dominant frame" (a metaphor) and "supporting frames" (other metaphors), and implies a course of action.

The processes are actually intertwined but the distinction warns us of jumping into an evaluative mode too quickly. An openness to multiple interpretations can create a much broader range of insight and action opportunities. We have to learn to keep open, reflective and evolving as we search for meaningful insights. By being open to the frames and concepts generated by different metaphors we can be sensitive to the different dimensions of a situation. We can be aware of when "politics", "culture" or "domination" or other frames "call our attention" and say in effect "take account of this point of view".

To help readers put the ideas into practice, a case study of a small firm ("Multicom") shows how to mobilise the insights from the metaphors to diagnose and understand key aspects of a particular situation.

Using metaphors thus encourages us to think and act in new ways. It extends our horizons of insight and creates new possibilities for action. As Morgan says, if managers can gain comfort in dealing with different viewpoints, they truly do have an opportunity to shape how situations unfold.

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