The canoe metaphor of organisations is a powerful thinking tool.
Models, metaphors, analogies and the like are abstractions that help us to understand and manage complexity, i.e., reality.
The canoe metaphor of organisations, as depicted in The Canoe Theory: A Secret to Building People and Profit by David Hibbard, Marhnelle Hibbard, and Jack W. Stockman is particularly useful.
As with all models and metaphors etc., if you try hard enough you can poke holes in them (no pun intended), but if you use them for the purpose and in the contexts intended, then they can be valuable tools.
The canoe metaphor of organisations is quite fitting, as in “we’re all in this together,” where integrated and coordinated effort within every organisation is required to achieve the organisational goals.
The principles of the organisational canoe metaphor are:
- We’re all in the same canoe (boat) and we succeed or fail together.
- With integrated and coordinated effort, we can take the canoe in a specific direction and to a specific destination (achieve the organisation’s goals).
- Everyone in the canoe has a role to play and is expected to paddle (contribute).
- Anyone who does not paddle, pokes holes in the canoe (undermines efforts), or does not contribute to the maintenance of the canoe needs to leave the canoe.
- The emphasis is on integrated and coordinated efforts. If your efforts are stellar but you negatively affect the performance of other crew then you must desist or get out.
- Be supportive of anyone who has difficulty paddling. Support your crewmembers.
- You have the right to be fulfilled and happy. If you are not happy in this canoe then we’ll help you find a different canoe where you might find what you are looking for.
- To earn and retain your seat in the canoe you need to paddle. If you do not want to paddle, then have the integrity to leave the canoe – don’t be a deadweight and don’t sabotage the canoe.