The Helix of Change: A Visual Metaphor

AuthorGeorge Kassinis, Alexia Panayiotou
Publication Date01 Jun 2017
The Helix of Change: A Visual Metaphor
Department of Businessand Public Administration, University of Cyprus, Nicosia, Cyprus
Although discourse encompassesverbal as well as visual representations, the visualmode of meaning construction
remains largely unaddressed in discussions of organizational change, despite recent calls for a visual turnin
organization studies. To this end, our study adds a visual meaning-making perspective to the literature on
organizational change through an empirical, longitudinal study of a Boston-based start-up that radically altered
the music industry. By employing a bottom-up viewof organizing, we documentchange as it happens on the ground
and proposea new visual metaphor for understanding changea helix. This visual metaphor adds a helpfulimage to
the current literature of change as process, which is often bound by static, noun-oriented language. It also has the
potential to effectively depict the stability-change paradox in a way thatmoves us beyond either/or ways of thinking,
talking and planning.
The discourse perspective has a long tradition in
organization studies (Phillips and Oswick, 2012), with
discourse regarded as a central if not the central
component of organizing for at least the last thirty years
(Fairhurst and Putnam, 2014). In studies oforganizational
change, discourse theorists posit language at the center of
sensemaking and question the dualistic construction of
change and stability(Tsoukas, 2005; Maguire and Hardy,
2013), while several researchers argue that framing the
terms as a duality(Farjoun, 2010), paradox(Lewis,
2000) or contradiction(Putnam et al., 2016) can better
depict the relationship between the two terms. In this
on-going discussion on how to best portray change
processes linguistically and thereby conceptually, Weick
and Quinn (1999) proposed that a shift in vocabulary
was necessary from changeto changing’–as this
would better capture the dynamic, incessant, fluid and
continuous nature of change. Consistent with a wider
perspective in organization studies calling for the study
of organizing as a verbrather than organizations as a noun
or what Czarniawska (2008) characterizes as the move
from organizationto organizing’–researchers of
change argue that language has become an intellectual
straight-jacket, potentially limiting our understanding of
complex organizational phenomena.
Interestingly, although researchers acknowledge that
discourse encompasses verbal as well as visual
representations (e.g., Phillips et al., 2004; Cornelissen
et al., 2011), the visual mode of meaning construction
remains largely unaddressed in the aforementioned
discussions and under-explored in organization research
(Meyer et al., 2013). In fact, scholars like Bell et al.
(2014) advocatefor a visual turnin organization studies,
inviting us to takeimages seriously as a legitimate wayof
meaning-making, while Meyer et al. (2013) argue that
many topics of interest cannot be accessed by studying
language alone. Indeed, Strangleman (2004) aptly notes
that visuality remains something of a blind spotin our
field, at the same time that cognitive research shows that
visual thinking shapes our understandings and mental
models of reality, as well as guides our choices and
decisions (Carroll, 1996).
To this end, our study seeks to add a visual meaning-
making perspective to the discussion of organizational
change through a new visual metaphor. As Kövecses
(2002; 2006) andLakoff and Johnson (1980) show, visual
metaphors serve as powerful meaning-making tools by
connecting complex processes to a more concrete
conceptualization, with the potential to shape peoples
thoughts and actions. Based on our findings in a twelve-
year ethnographic study of a Boston-based start-up that
radically altered the music industry, we propose that a
useful visualin making sense of change is a spiral,or more
Correspondence: Alexia Panayiotou Department of Business and Public
Administration, University of Cyprus. PO Box 20537, 1678 Nicosia,
European Management Review, Vol. 14, 143163, (2017)
DOI: 10.1111/emre.12096
©2016 European Academy of Management
accurately, a 3-dimensional helix. Namely, by tracing the
tensions and paradoxes in the founding and running of
Sonicbids (, we find that the helix
captures four crucial aspects of our empirical findings:
(1) the firm grappled repeatedly with the same
organizational questions even if these were answered
differently at various temporal points, signaling both a
continuous change process and a repetitive pattern; (2)
the tensions arising from these questions prompted a
decision by the company, but the very same decision that
was taken to relievea tension giving a sense of stability
was the same one that sparkedchangeand the one that
created yet a new tension; (3) tensions occurred
continuously and interrelatedly at three different levels
the individual, the firm and the industry while change
occurred at the intersection of these levels; (4) change is
neither linear nor one-directional but rather a curvilinear
process(Clegget al., 2002). In this incessant, paradoxical
relationship then between changeand stability,we
locate an interesting pattern: the question-decision dyads
form a series of interconnected, dynamic cycles (or
phasesas we call them) which resemble a continuously
moving spiral, or, to emphasize the 3-D aspect of our
visual, a helix.
This visual, borrowed from biology (Watson and
Crick, 1953) and developmental psychology (Kegan,
1982), but also prompted by previous visual repre-
sentations in organizational work (e.g., Andriopoulos
and Lewis, 2009 Jarzabkow ski et al., 2013; Lewis and
Smith, 2014), adds a helpful image to the current
literature of change as process (Langley and Tsoukas,
2010; Thomas et al., 2011), which is often bound by
static, noun-oriented language (Langley et al., 2013). It
also has the potential to effectively depict the stability-
change paradox (Luscher and Lewis, 2008) which is
characteristic of entrepreneurial start-ups in particular
(Jarzabkowski et al., 2013) and addressed in this study
in a way that moves us beyond either/or ways of
thinking, talking and planning about organizational
change. From a managerial standpoint, the proposition
can aid executives to envision change in ways that are
more helpful than the dominant perspective in much of
the practitioner-oriented literature which portrays change
as an opportunity for senior managers, but disruptive
and intrusive for many employees(Strebel, 1996), or
as an event that one must survive(Augustine, 1997)
since it incites resistance(Duck, 1993) and requires
balance(Strebel, 1996).
We begin by accessing the theoretical frameworks we
use, including a discussion of the need to move towards
more visually-oriented research. Then, we move to
describe our methods and empirical setting. We end with
a summary of our findings and an explication of our
resulting visual proposition, as well as its contribution to
the study and pra ctice of change.
Theoretical content
A discourse perspective means, firstof all, that we cannot
understand human behavi or unless we grasp the
meanings informing it Meaning understood to be not
just in the mind, in the way people think (but also) in the
way people act(Tsoukas, 2005: 98). Speech can be
considered action(Austin, 1975) since, even whensaying
and doing are relatively distinct, they still represent a
functionally indissoluble unit(Tsoukas, 2005: 98).
Paying attentionthen to how organizational members talk
about change is an inseparable aspect of understanding
taking an active stance to how change is discursively
constructed and thus achieved. From this point of view,
organizational change is the process of constructing and
sharing new meanings and interpre tations of
organizational activities (Morgan and Sturdy, 2000).
According to Tsoukas and Chia (2002: 570), change is
the reweaving of actorswebs of beliefs and habits of
action as a result of new experiences obtained through
interaction. This is the primary definition of change
guiding our study as we seek to explore the micro-
interactions or micro-foundations of change through
narrating emergent actions and activities by which
collective endeavors unfold(Van de Ven and Poole,
2005: 1387). In this context, we also adopt a process
perspective (Langley and Tsoukas, 2010) which sees
change as an endemic feature of organizations, natural
and ongoing rather than a set of distinct, episodic events
put forth by a dualist view (Thomas et al., 2011).
We acknowledge that in this discursive process,
stability is often constructed as antithetical to change and
by implication separate (Poole and Van de Ven, 1989).
According to Farjoun (2010: 202), researchers and
practitioners have often maintained that stability and
change and the practices, processes and forms that
support them, are largely incompatible and mutually
exclusive. Yet simultaneously, the literature implicitly
recognizes that stability and change jointly contribute to
organizational effectiveness (Feldman and Pentland,
2003; Nasim and Sushil, 2011; Klarner and Raisch,
2013). In fact, stability often presupposes change and as
Farjoun (2010: 203) writes, stability can be both an
outcome and a medium of change. It is in this light that
many theorists have argued that the two terms are both
contradictory and mutually enabling, a paradox(Lewis,
2000; Smith and Lewis, 2011; Lewis and Smith, 2014).
Paradox is def ined as the contradictory yet interrelated
elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time
(Smith and Lewis, 2011: 382). According to Lewis
(2000: 773), adopting a paradox framework in studies of
change enables researchers to build constructs that
accommodate contr adictions, somethingthat more linear
accounts of organizing cannot do. We adopt this
framework in our study.
144 G. Kassinis and A. Panayiotou

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