New lenses for OD

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OD Seasonings - Vol 5 - nr 2 - summer 2008

Organizational Photography®
New lenses for OD, photography as an instrument of intervention

By Jaap Peters, Henk Hogeweg, Harold Janssen and Fokke Wijnstra

We learn to think about everything,
then we train our eyes to look as we think about the things
(Don Juan)

In recent years organizational photography has given us new insights inside the functioning of organizations: namely how people think and act. Organizational advisors facilitate the process in several steps; by taking photographs inside organizations, or by using photographs supplied by the client. In both cases groups will discuss the photographs by applying a variety of discussion techniques. This will enhance the utility of using organizational photography as a change enabling instrument. Digital camera’s speed up the process due to the fact that many photo’s can be made in a short time, development time is negligible, and pictures can be easily shared thereby quickening the selection process. The pictures selected by both clients and the organizational advisers will provide a basis for healthy discussion.

That’s how we do things here

Often professionals use the organization chart (the organization as a pyramid) to create a quick image of the organization. Because the organization chart shows hierarchical ordering as pivotal, one calls this the side view of the organization. Unfortunately, the organization chart does not accurately reflect the actual cohesion within an organization. Employees do not tend to form a pyramid; they are more likely to form a social network where they make agreements with one another about reality. We call this social network the top down view of the organization. This perspective views the organization as a social construct where within the actual organizing is done, hence: “that’s how we do things here”.

Feedback mechanisms play a critical role in developing this social construct. Furthermore, what is viewed as positive by the majority is stimulated, while punishing that which is deemed negative. A well known Dutch author identified this phenomenon as clotting; a process in which organizations attempt to create and maintain stability, or if you will, balance. The process of producing social constructs gives rise to self- regulating and self organizing systems where people may or may not feel at home. Forms of change, such as planned change, induce conflict within the social construction process. This is an important cause of internal destabilization, unhappiness and upheaval. One notices changes in the social construct most after mergers or when job or roles are forcibly changed. Organizational photography attempts to name the self-evident and therefore implicitly the unconscious social constructs. One could ask, what is really involved making that which is deemed unnamed and invisible actually visible? Photos do just that, because photos enable us as organizational advisors to name the conventions of implicit underlying standards and values; in addition we will find that standards are by no means homogenous, but heterogeneous in organizations. By making the unconscious conscious in this way, thought processes concerning changes emerge. Moreover, it becomes a way of stimulating the employees’ potential to reflect on their ways of organizing.

Developing photos in four steps

The writers have developed their own, different, methods of choice in applying organizational photography. In this article, we have chosen the easiest method to develop a set of photos for an organization. Assume the following: one of us, an adviser, takes the photos. Our experience tells us that if you just send off an inexperienced organizational photographer, he or she will take pictures of ‘junk’ for the most part. Examples could be canteen tables that no one has cleared, empty cake boxes from someone’s celebration, empty boxes beside the copier, empty and abandoned coffee cups, sloppily parked vehicles on the industrial premises, and damage due to uncaring use of company materials.

Why is this important?

The day-to-day irritations about not taking one’s responsibilities seriously are very clearly the success numbers of beginning photographers and we certainly should not trivialize them. They should not be the whole story though. We can solve a problem like this easily by sending out clients who have a specific theme or question in mind.

A method of discussing the photo:

    1.    Interpretation by outsiders: what do you see? Is there too much of anything? What makes you look twice, because it’s not there? What contrasts do you notice? What does it resemble and where have you seen something similar before? What are your personal impressions? What hypotheses would you like to formulate about the underlying ordering mechanisms (for instance: beauty beats functionality)?

    2.    What story do members of this organization tell to accompany this photo? Why is it the way it is? See also the photograph “About Order and Chaos’ of the lunch table after lunch has finished at the end of this article;

    3.    Which components of the story are still functional and which are not? Which visible facts are consequences of the hidden underlying mechanisms? Are these mechanisms an advantage or a disadvantage to us now?

    4.    Do we want change or are we satisfied?

Points of departure of organizational photography

Organizational photography is more than just taking a few holiday snapshots. There are guidelines and practices encapsulated by the following point of departure.

    •    Small stands for large (a small piece of cauliflower contains all the elements of the entire plant);

    •    Coincidence does not exist (what is shown in the photo is not an exception to the rule, but the rule itself);

    •    What is visible in the photo is the actual materialization of the thinking process; as created by the employees (in past and present)

    •    The client can continue to use his or her own words and language in discussing the photos and, in doing so, chooses solutions styled to that particular organization;

    •    In the discussions judgments like good or bad are to be avoided. What exists now may have been functional but could very well be ripe for reconsideration or change.

When does 1/250 of a second say enough?

Organizational photography is a means of sharing an individual experience

Colleagues recognize themselves in the photo ('I could have taken it myself') or in the explanation in the discussion afterwards. Depending upon the extent of the change envisaged, the photo can be discussed on three levels:

Level 1: What you see is what you get

In the dispatch department, we see a pallet with boxes stacked on it every which way and there are even boxes of different sizes and colours. What is our conclusion? Dispatchers stack the boxes sloppily, meaning a lot of damage takes place during transport. No wonder we get so many complaints!

Level 2: The underlying mechanisms

In this case, the same photograph led to the conclusion (which turned out to be correct) that sales-office staff reacts affirmatively to every question a client poses, meaning that they treat each client differently. Every client receives a tailor-made solution and, while this is happening, no one is keeping track of either efficiency or expenses. This led to a new discussion about standardization and about passing on the extra expenses associated with providing tailor-made solutions.

Level 3: What does the photograph say about the photographer?

What were the photographer’s aims in taking this photo? The photographer can explain his or her motivation, but participants can offer their feedback too regarding the choice of the object or photograph and the explanation given. Here we enter the realm of group dynamics, during which the leader has the responsibility to create safe surroundings conducive to reflection and introspection. Instead of looking at snapshots, deep conversations begin to take place about one’s own dilemmas, situations we could not foresee. A good photo turns out to be ambiguous in this way: Look, what you see is not what you get! There is much more.

Taking a stand

    •    The language of the image appeals to everyone and connects with the most natural way of thinking (dyslexia is a talent);

    •    You freeze things you want to have in movement when you use photos;

    •    Organizational photography contributes to the democratic process of investigation (everyone in the organization can play a part);

    •    The most important advantage of organizational photography is that it contributes to non-linear thinking about organizations;

    •    A photo without a story is nothing more than a snapshot. This is why it is so easy to flip through someone else’s holiday snaps.

    •    A good photo is ambiguous; unambiguous photos are no use. A good photo is not what it seems (Look, what you see is not what you get!).

1/250 of a second will say more than a thousand words

A Journal by Senior Organization Development Practitioners

See also:



About the Authors

The authors presented the workshop ‘New Lenses for OD” in Baltimore at the ODN Conference, 2007 and will present the same workshop during the pre-conference program at the ODN Conference 2008 in Austin.

Henk Hogeweg, MBA is appreciated by his clients for his motivating and stimulating leadership of teams. “With Henk always something special happens.”

Recurring themes in his projects are change, strategy, business processes that are running poorly and mergers & acquisition integrations. Henk has been guest lecturer on chaos and complexity, strategy, economics and general management at Webster University, Free University Amsterdam (VU), Polytechnic College Utrecht and The Hague Business College. Henk has a Master in Business Administration (General Management) from Webster University in Leiden, The Netherlands. He is co-author of the book “Introduction in Chaos thinking”, co-founder of the Foundation, board member of the Vanwoodman Foundation of Knowledge Productivity and writes book reviews for Mainpress Publishers in Schiedam, The Netherlands. Since 2006 Henk has been a member of the Organization Development Network. You can contact Henk at:

Harold Janssen takes a firm stand on the behaviour of ‘learned helplessness’ that results from the military based way we structure our organizations. As organizational activist, he challenges the dominant logic and facilitates change based on the Rhineland tradition.

Harold is co-founder of DeLimes Organizational Development established in the Netherlands. Harold has a background in chemical technology, science journalism and psychology and has been an entrepreneur since 1987. He founded and led several consultancy businesses that worked for Dutch-based multinationals and ministries as well as smaller companies and non-profit organizations on national and global issues. Harold is an invited speaker on the differences between the Anglo-Saxon and the Rhineland way of organizing and on how that helps us to build organizations that actually facilitate the quality of life in the 21st century. You can reach him at:

Fokke Wijnstra, MS’s experience originates from over 25 years in IT system integration, service and training companies such as BSO/Origin, Digital, Global Knowledge (VP Europe Nordic countries) and The Vision Web (co-founder). Most of the positions included end-responsibility for a number of subsidiaries. Last decennium Fokke let emerge the company Finext into a highly successful network organization with amazing results. Finext is based on complexity and Rhineland paradigms. Fokke earned his MS in Electronics at the Twente University of Technology. He is an invited speaker on organizations, innovation and motivation. You can reach him at: