System Archetypes? LO6207

Alan Mossman (
24 Mar 96 17:59:42 EST

I am a member of a group looking at the applications of the "system

What follows grew out of a discussion we had at a meeting just before

Archetype or Ideal Type ?

I started thinking on the way home - what does ARCHETYPE mean ? I checked
in the dictionary:

Archetypes =original pattern or model, prototype (Chambers)
1. prototype, original pattern from which copies are made
2. an assumed ideal pattern . . . (SOED)

I checked in the fieldbook p. 121. "first of its kind". They were
developed as a classification tool to "help catalogue the most commonly
seen behaviours."

So it seems to me they are misnamed. Prototypes come before the real
thing. What Senge describes are abstractions of the real thing.

I wonder if these are not more accurately labelled "ideal types" in the
Weberian sense. Weberian ideal types as I recall were explicity not
descriptions of the real world, they are simplified concepts of designed
to illustrate one particular dimension of something that happens in the
real world. Weber recognised that reality was indeed more complex and
often contained elements of more than one ideal type.

Prejudice, Pre-conceptions and Archetypes

I now wonder whether in seeking system archetypes we are not leading
ourselves a merry dance - good sport for the time of year perhaps, but not
necessarily good consulting.

If I am right about systems archetypes could it be dangerous to go looking
for them ? I believe it could be.

Why ? Because it increases the tendency to go looking for something which
fits one of these pre-conceptions - if this is the approach taken it
reduces the understanding of the system. If we choose to interact using
an archetypal concept of the system rather than our map (=concept) of the
system as we and our clients see it our predictive power will be reduced,
our actions could be dangerous.

I believe that it is important to look at and understand the system(s)
that are in play in an organisation. This means understanding the
actuality of the system (not how it compares to x or y archetype, nor
assuming that it is z archetype because it has a number of common
features). We owe it to our clients to observe their systems warts and
all and to work with those systems warts and all. That means leaving
pre-conceived archetypes (or anything else) at home or in the office.

In the above quote from the Fieldbook, Kleiner indicates
1. That the intention in developing the archetypes is to classify some
systems that have already been identified
2. Some behaviours (less common systems) cannot be represented by the

We all abhor prejudice. I wonder if going on an archetype hunt (c.f.
sussing out what system(s) are in play) is an example of prejudiced
consulting. Once you know what systems are in play why would you want to
attach a label to it that, at best, only fits where it touches ?

Archetypes can be valuable pedagogic tools

They may help develop our (and maybe later our client's) ability to talk
about and map the subtleties and distinctions in organisational systems.
They develop a vocabulary and a set of symbols. Once these are mastered,
we no longer need the archetypes. Isn't actuality miles (forgive
metricism) more interesting ?

With the aid of the vocabulary, we may be able more easily to pull back
from the detail of the stories, and back again from the patterns and
shapes to see the system as it is and understand the mental maps, the ways
of thinking which hold the system(s) in place.

Enough of me.

Does this bear any relation to your interests in archetypes ?
Do you agree, disagree, feel indifferent ?

How do you use the archetypes ?



Alan Mossman e-mail 100733, The Change Business Ltd voice (+44) 01453 765611 19 Whitehall Stroud GL5 1HA England fax (+44) 01453 752261

Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <> -or- <>