Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. ! 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.
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history’s greatest mysteries . . . but not to Ethiopians. They know that the Ark is now enshrined in a modest Chapel surrounded by a small courtyard in Azum. The Ark is overseen by a High Priest who, it is alleged, chooses his successor on his deathbed. Very few Ethiopians have seen the Ark’s caretaker. No one, including religious leaders and the president of Ethiopia, has ever laid eyes on the Ark, though they have seen models because every Orthodox church in Ethiopia has one (Raffaele, 2007).
A reporter once approached the chapel and was able to talk brie!y to the guardian. He said, “I have heard of the Ethiopian tradition that the Ark of the Covenant is kept here . . . in this Chapel. I have also heard that you are the Guardian of the Ark. Are these things true?”
“They are true.” “But in other countries, nobody believes these stories.” “People can say what they wish. People can believe what they wish. Nevertheless, we
do possess the Ark of the Covenant and I am its Guardian. It is not a lesson. It is history.”
“But no one has seen the Ark. Don’t people need some proof that it’s really here?” “I’ve seen the Ark as did my predecessor and will my successor. The story of the Ark has
passed through generations. What other proof do we need? In the very distant past, the Ark was brought out for religious rituals at Tikrit. But we don’t do that anymore because of the turmoil and civil war around us. It is much too dangerous to have the Ark exposed.”
“Do people have memories of seeing it before, in more peaceful times?” “The Ark was always draped. Its brilliance would have blinded onlookers.” The ongoing drama surrounding the Ark creates its own kind of proof. Belief suf”ces;
facts are irrelevant. Any attempt to challenge the truth of the historical interpretation is thwarted by a dramatic explanation that reinforces the prevailing account.
Even in technical environments, a dramaturgical view of situations offers enlighten- ment. The story of the U.S. Navy’s Polaris missile system is a classic example of the role show business can play. One of its outstanding attributes was reliance on modern management techniques such as PERT (Program Evaluation Review Techniques) and PPBS (Program Planning and Budgeting Systems)—both better known by their acronyms than by their names. Specialist roles, technical divisions, management meetings, and the Special Projects Of”ce embodied the methods.
In the wake of the project’s success—on time and under budget—analysts credited the project’s innovative management approach. The admiral in charge received recognition for his leadership in bringing modern management techniques to the U.S. Navy. A team of British experts visiting the project were impressed and, upon returning home, highly recommended PERT and PPBS to their Admiralty.
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A later study by Sapolsky (1972) revealed a very different explanation for the project’s accomplishments. Management innovations were highly visible but only marginally connected to the actual work. Specialists’ activities linked loosely to other elements of the project. Plans and charts produced by the technical division received scant attention. Management meetings served as public arenas to chide poor performers and to stoke the project’s religious fervor. The Special Projects Of”ce served as an of”cial brie”ng area. Visiting dignitaries were regaled with impressive diagrams and charts almost entirely unrelated to the project’s progress. The team from the British Navy apparently surmised all this and still recommended a similar approach back home (Sapolsky, 1972).
Instead of serving intended rational purposes, modern management techniques con- tributed to a saga that built external legitimacy and support and kept critics and legislators at bay. The myth afforded breathing space for work to go forward and elevated participants’ spirits and self-con”dence. The Polaris story demonstrates the virtues of drama in engaging the attention and appreciation of both internal and external audiences: “An alchemist’s combination of whirling computers, bright-colored charts, and fast-talking public relations of”cers gave the Special Projects Of”ce a truly effective management system. It mattered not whether the parts of the system functioned, or even existed. It mattered only that certain people, for a certain period of time, believed that they did” (Sapolsky, 1972, p. 129).
Of course, not all theater has a happy conclusion. The drama in theater or on television features tragedy as well as triumph. U2’s music video “The Saints Are Coming” demon- strates the power of drama in driving home the meaning of an experience. The video, which focuses on the effects of Hurricane Katrina, opens with scenes of the storm’s traumatic aftermath: New Orleans under water, survivors trapped on roofs pleading for help, the horror of conditions at the Superdome, widespread devastation. The song lyrics plaintively call for the next act: When will aid arrive?
CNN news !ashes appeared periodically on the screen below images of the ravaged city: “U.S. Iraq Troops Redeployed to New Orleans,” “U.S. Troops Come Home to Help Katrina Victims,” “Air Force Launches Aid Drops.” With the melancholic lyrics as musical background, the video shows swarms of Black Hawk helicopters arriving to pluck victims from roofs, and larger helicopters and Harrier “ghters dropping food and medical supplies. The video fades and a large sign appears: “Not as seen on TV.”
The U2 video packs a wallop for several reasons: Bono himself is a heroic symbol on the world stage. The opening acts reveal the pathos all Americans observed initially. The “troops to the rescue” imagery conveys what everyone wanted to believe; the “nal scene transports us back to the reality viewers actually saw “rsthand on their television sets.
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During previous hurricanes, drama played quite differently. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came onstage as a heroic rescuer. The script was clear. A hurricane hits, bringing devastation and suffering. FEMA arrives with symbolic fanfare to dispense aid and hope to victims. A world audience applauds the performance. FEMA takes a bow. In New Orleans, the drama went off track. The hero missed most of the show. The audience waited for an actor who arrived too late and then muffed his lines. The world saw a once-heroic agency become a bumbling performer in a bad play.
The juxtaposed theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy capture the different dramas played out by Polaris and FEMA. Polaris staged a drama that wowed its audience and became a smash hit. FEMA blew its act. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 gave FEMA an opportunity for a comeback with a new director, a new cast, and a revised script from a skilled playwright. This time the performance received an ovation from the audience, including the governor of New Jersey and the mayor of New York City.
Theater arouses emotions and kindles our spirit or reveals our fears. It reduces bewilderment and soothes open wounds. It provides a shared basis for understanding the present and imagining a more promising tomorrow. Dramaturgical and institutional theorists have explored the role of theater in organizations, and we begin this chapter by discussing their views. We then look at structure and other organizational processes as theater.
DRAMATURGICAL AND INSTITUTIONAL THEORY Institutional theory, a fairly recent addition to the management literature, draws on ideas from earlier dramaturgical theories. We can identify two traditions (Boje, Luhman, and Cunliffe, 2003): one represented by the work of Erving Goffman (1959, 1974), who pioneered in the use of theater as a metaphor for understanding organizations, and the other by the work of Kenneth Burke (1937, 1945, 1972), who drew his inspiration from philosophy and literary criticism. Goffman approached organizations as if they were theatrical; Burke saw them as theater. Despite their differences, both theorists opened a window for seeing organizations in a new way: “Most of our organizational life is carefully scripted; we play out our scenes in organizationally approved dress codes and play the game by acceptable roles of conduct” (Boje, Luhman, and Cunliffe, 2003, p. 4).
Whereas dramaturgical theorists focus on social interaction among individuals and on internal situations, institutional scholars extend theatrical examples like Polaris and FEMA to the interface between organizations and their various publics. Scott (2014) sees the institu- tional view encompassing three schools of thought, each embedded in different literatures.
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The “rst views institutions as providing the rules of the game in which organizations are the players (North, 1989). A second view holds that “individual organizations devise distinctive characteristics over time, developing commitments that channel and constrain future behavior in the service of their basic values (Williamson 1985; Selznick, 1957).
The third view argues that structure in institutional organizations re!ects prevailing social myths and ideas in good currency about what constitutes a good organization. Contemporary organizations gain legitimacy through isomorphism—re!ecting current thinking about modern management technology. Accordingly, technical organizations plan in order to change, whereas institutionalized organizations plan instead of changing. “Plans are regarded as ends in themselves—as evidence that we are a humane and scienti”c people who have brought yet another problem under rational control” (Meyer and Rowan, 1983, p. 126).
DiMaggio and Powell agree that in some contexts organizations worry more about how innovations appear than what they add to effectiveness: “New practices become infused with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand . . . As an innovation spreads, a threshold is reached beyond which adoption provides legitimacy rather than improves performance” (1983, p. 142). Staw and Epstein (2000) present evidence that adoption of modern management techniques accentuates a company’s legitimacy and increases CEO compensation—even if the methods are not fully put into action. Perform- ance may not improve, but perceptions of innovativeness and con”dence in management still rise.
Institutional theory has been criticized for focusing more on why organizations don’t change than how they do and for attending to why organizations are irrational instead of how they might become more effective (see Peters, 2000; Scott and Davis, 2007). But the ideas provide a counterweight to traditional views of organizations as closed, rational systems (Meyer, 2008). In such views, functional demands shape social architecture. The environment serves as a source of raw materials and a market for “nished products. Ef”ciency, internal control of the means of production, and economic performance are key concerns. Exterior !uctuations and production uncertainties are buffered by rational devices such as forecasting, stockpiling, leveling peaks and valleys of supply and demand, and growth (so as to get more leverage over the environment).
Institutional theorists present a dramaturgical retake on rational imagery. Organizations, particularly those with vague goals and weak technologies, cannot seal themselves off from external events and pressures. They are constantly buffeted by larger social, political, and economic trends. The challenge is sustaining isomorphism—that is, schools need to look like schools “ought to” and churches need to look like churches “should” in order to project
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legitimacy and engender belief, support, faith, and hope among a variety of constituents. Structure and processes must re!ect widely held myths and expectations. When production and results are hard to measure, correct appearance and dramatic presentation become the principal gauge of an organization’s effectiveness.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies Hit Number 1: Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological Review, April 1983, 48, 147–160
At the top of our list of greatest hits is an article by Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter Powell that parallels our view of organization as theater. Isomorphism, as DiMaggio and Powell use the word, refers to processes that cause organizations to become more like other organizations, particularly members of the same “organizational !eld.” The authors de!ne an organizational !eld as a set of organizations that “constitute a recognized area of institutional life: key suppliers, resource and product consumers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations that produce similar services or products” (p. 148). This is similar to the concept of an organizational ecosystem, discussed in Chapter 11. As an example, think about public schools. They are like each other but unlike most other kinds of organization. They have similar buildings, classrooms, curricula, staf!ng patterns, gyms, and parent-teacher organizations. The structural frame explains these similarities as resulting from the need to align structure with goals, task, and technology. DiMaggio and Powell counter that isomorphism occurs for reasons unrelated to ef!ciency or effectiveness.
They describe three kinds of isomorphism: coercive, mimetic, and normative. Coercive isomorphism occurs when organizations become more similar in response to outside pressures or requirements. For example, MBA programs tend to have similar admission requirements, curricula, and faculty credentials because so many of them are accredited by the same body using the same standards. Mimetic isomorphism occurs when one organization simply copies another, as when a university of modest reputation adopts a set of freshman requirements borrowed from those at Harvard or Yale. To DiMaggio and Powell, imitation is particularly likely in the presence of fuzzy goals and uncertain technology. When uncertainty makes it hard to prove one approach better than another, imitation saves time and may buy legitimacy.