Using metaphors for organization development, capacity building, and change can create multiple paths for you and your team to make decisions and solve problems. 

  • Do you see your business as “war”? Then the idea of killing and defeating becomes part of your rhetoric and approach.
  • Do you see your business as “healing”? Then the idea of others being sick and making people better become part of your rhetoric and approach. 
  • Do you see your life as a “battle”? Then you are winning or losing, and other people are your comrades or enemies. 
  • Do you see your life as a “river or journey”? Then flow, and exploration and unexpected things are part of your rhetoric and approach. 

Business metaphors often return to McGregor’s theory x and theory y of managers’ perceptions of workers. 

Dragonfly and constraints on change

Recently in a group forum, the metaphor of endoskeleton and exoskeleton as a scaffold or framework for complexity and change within organizations was asked. Someone asked, “When thinking about the complexity of work and organization design, is the concept of an exoskeleton (constraint, governing, control) and endoskeleton (enabling, resilient, coupling) useful? I feel it is a little oversimplified, and I am working through my thoughts.” Below is my response. 

 Endoskeleton Exoskeleton and Complexity of the work
  1. Like an insect with exoskeletons (a rigid external covering for the body in some invertebrate animals, especially arthropods, providing both support and protection). 
  2. And animals with endoskeletons (an internal skeleton, such as the bony or cartilaginous skeleton of vertebrates).

Both exoskeleton and endoskeleton have constraining, governing, controlling, enabling, resilient, coupling, properties, just different environmental approaches and opportunities. 

With an exoskeleton, the insect growth or capacity constraint is that exoskeleton. When growth happens, the exoskeleton must shed, and the insect is vulnerable for some time and must hide or retreat as the exoskeleton rebuilds. 

The animal growth or capacity constraint is held to the internal strength or resilience to carry weight or size with endoskeletons. Growth happens until the endoskeleton cannot keep or maintain the strain.

When I am working with organizations, I tend to look at capacity as how much work can happen within the organization at the current time. When the organization feels under or over its capacity (weak IT systems, management problems, short-staffed, fallen behind in the market, disruption), it is like a weight lifter on steroids. It has gotten so big that the ligaments and bones (endoskeleton) cannot hold up the outside, and problems will happen, so we need to build up the inside (endoskeleton) or cut back on the muscles. 

With the exoskeleton concept — the organization is internally ready to mature or pupate and has to prepare. Capacity is available, OR the environment has signaled (like insects pupating) that change is ready, the exoskeleton is prepared to shed. When shedding happens, the organization quietly prepares to emerge something different, and the new or different exoskeleton develops. Yet, the vulnerable period from shedding the exoskeleton to developing the protection leaves the organization open to predation, sickness, and possibly getting squished. They must make plans or have a hideout and sufficient resources to survive while creating the new growth phase. 

Governing, Robust, Containing (Complicated)? Enabling, Resilient, Coupling (Complex)? This last bit, in particular, feels over-simplified.” 

Yes – it is oversimplified, which may be for thinking and heuristics. 

My flow of thinking on this: 

Exoskeleton = Governing Containing (complicated) … maybe? or Exoskeleton = enabling constraints the frame where emergence happens within the environment. Any cynefin domain (clear, complicated, complex, chaos, A/C) has some governing constraints restricting the qua-decision or challenge. When we remove the exoskeleton, the boundaries are eliminated, and so is the challenge or need for progress. 

Endoskeleton = Enabling, resilient, coupling (complex) … maybe? and endoskeleton still contains and governs how large or how much weight (capacity, opportunity, sight) can happen within the challenge and domain. 

With organizational scaffolds, whether internal or external, the concept is helpful to create language and metaphors to see the domain and best (different) approaches that will work to either support emergence or compliance based on the need.