Sunday, June 27, 2010

Clockwork or Snakepit?

In a classic essay (later included in his book Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay, New York University 1990), Howard Schwartz distinguishes between two views of organization - clockwork or snakepit (extract). John Darwin later introduced a third view, which he called rainforest Working the Boundaries, (Social Issues, October 2001).


  • Everyone knows what the organization is all about, and is concerned solely with carrying out its mission
  • People are basically happy in their work
  • Level of anxiety is low
  • People interact and cooperate without friction. Mutual support.
  • Management problems are easily solved with proper skills and correct techniques.


  • Everything is always falling apart. Your first concern is to make sure it doesn’t fall on you.
  • Nobody really knows what is going on. But everyone wants to know, because there is danger in not knowing.
  • Anxiety and stress are constant companions.
  • People deal with one another with little pleasure and considerable suspicion.
  • Management problems are intractable. Managers feel they’ve done well if they can make it through the day.


  • Accept unpredictability and the likelihood of emergence
  • Search for and discover patterns beneath complexity
  • Accept fuzziness (and distinguish fuzzy thinking from sloppy thinking!)
  • Identify and use both positive and negative feedback
  • Recognise the capacity for self-organisation, and the freedom that must be given to facilitate this
  • Address the need to develop the organisation’s intelligence and ability to generate knowledge
  • Recognise codependent arising: the mutually interactive creation of the organisation and its environment
  • Accept the need for disruptive action
  • Exercise what the poet John Keats called Negative Capability: the ability to be "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”

Darwin points out that it is simplistic to regard the clockwork and the snakepit as two contrasting alternatives. These can be complementary views, alternative ways of making sense of the same organization. Darwin regards either/or logic as limited, and uses fuzzy logic to argue that the clockwork, snakepit and rainforest metaphors all offer potential strengths for individuals at different times in organisations and all are limited in certain circumstances.

Darwin's characterization of three metaphors appears to play the same kind of categorical function in organizing organizational narratives as Dave Snowdon's Cynefin framework. I'm not saying they are equivalent, or that there any simple mapping between them, but merely that they are at the same logical level.

See my presentation on SenseMaking.
Cross-posted to Business Awareness blog.

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