“Trying to get anything done here – it’s like a maze”. It’s a comment I have heard regularly over many years working in organisations. I suspect you have heard similar. We experience tangled networks of procedures, structures and processes that belie the clear circuitry of organisational charts and hierarchies. The Circumlocution Office of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend or Kafka’s The Castle offer distorted premonitions of the modern labyrinthine organisation. Both Arthur Clennam and K become enmeshed in unknowable bureaucracies where clarity is vigorously suppressed. As the shocked Junior Barnacle – interrupted in his eating of mashed potatoes and gravy – remonstrates: ‘…you mustn’t come into the place saying you want to know, you know’. Knowledge is the ultimate taboo.
The maze is a reviled place. A quick search through the Business books section on Amazon shows the metaphor deployed in not wholly positive ways: Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, The Maze of Banking: History, Theory, Crisis; Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. They suggest difficulty, challenge, prohibition. As Kociatkiewicz and Kostera observe ‘the labyrinth stands for all that is absurd, unnecessary, undesired in contemporary organizations’ (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.66).
But the maze is more subtle, more liminal than that. At heart, it represents a paradox. Think a moment of the maze designer. With pen poised over parchment, his world is that of symmetry, elegance, order, aesthetics, cohesion and logic. For the protagonist or navigator however, these experiences are alchemised into confusion, uncertainty and despair. The calculating draughtsman shapeshifts into a trembling Theseus, Harry Potter or a pursued Danny Torrance in The Shining.
But the maze is liminal in other ways. In their excellent The Neo-Generalist, Mikkelsen and Martin suggest the ‘individual at labyrinth’s centre is emblematic of personal journeys, personal narratives’ (Mikkelsen and Martin p.61). The maze is a site of transformation. Attali describes how, for pilgrims breaking their journey to Compostela at Chartres cathedral, the circular stonework labyrinth on the floor of the nave represented the winding, arduous journey from sin to salvation: ‘the perilous path of the mortal on the way to Paradise’ (p. xiv). In contrast to K’s Castle or the Circumlocution office where knowledge is either censored or feared, here the prize is self-awareness and understanding.
And for Attali, such successful navigation relies on the skills of the ancient maze explorers: ‘perseverance, unhurriedness, curiosity, playfulness, trickery, flexibility, improvisation and self-mastery’ (Attali, p.75). Mazes slow us down (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.67), they enable us to wander, to get lost, to become a nomad (Attali, p. 76). And as nomads or pilgrims, we create the time and opportunity to make sense of what is around us; to play with alternative possibilities; to resist the lure of premature solutions or the easy to find exit.
So maybe this is the narrative we should propagate in our organisations. The maze as a metaphor of hope and celebration. And, if we redeem its story, then perhaps redemption may be our own well-deserved reward.
Attali, J. (1999). The Labyrinth in Culture and Society. North Atlantic Books.
Kociatkiewicz, J. and Kostera, M. (2015) ‘Into the Labyrinth: Tales of Organisational Nomadism’, Organization Studies. 36(1), pp. 55-71
Mikkelsen, K. and Martin, R. (2016). The Neo-Generalist. LID Publishing Ltd.