Why metaphors are a powerful tool in change

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If your change initiative isn’t getting the traction you want, you may want to introduce creative metaphors as part of your change approach.

We often seek to describe an organisation in order to understand what and why something is happening. We build models, apply theories and sift through data in the quest to understand why a thing is happening. This analytical process is important because we are dealing with limited resources and decisions need to be made on where to focus energy to change. 

However, this analytical quest to find the best explanation of the ‘why,’ we can lose sight of internal stakeholders and how we can best engaging them and their emotions. So what is the alternative to getting people onboard with change? Create a story that resonates with people. This is especially true in getting them on board and enthusiastic about envisioning the future. 

The more effective we are in building emotional connections, the better the engagement and thus successful transformation. 

Metaphors are a powerful way to inspire an audience because they help simplify complexity. Everyone has a different perspective on what is happening in an organisation. Metaphors capture a common understanding of high level aspirations. They help people zoom out, see the bigger picture and evoke quality conversations and creative exploration.

We’ve worked with hundreds of clients on change initiatives in the last decade. Change programs that used metaphors and storytelling to get the message across are ones that are most easily remembered years later. These programs were the ones that won prizes and continued to change behaviour long after the project scope had ended for us.

Here are a few key ingredients to successfully applying metaphors to your change initiative:

Finding a metaphor for change

Sometimes organisations already have existing metaphors that work – keep these and work with them. When stuff needs to change start brainstorming new ones to fit the needs. 

Here are a few of the common metaphors we have seen;

Organisations as machines or factories

Characterised by efficiency and dividing segments up into discrete parts that can be influenced independently with predictable outcomes. Like cogs working together to perform a specific action. Apply this metaphor to a change initiative that is process driven or has very clear improvement steps. When leadership clearly has an idea of how to unroll the change.

Organisations as organisms 

Characterised by living organisms, constant adaptation and life cycles. This metaphor focuses on a change initiative that is highly connected and more organic in its decision making. Like a bee in a garden and how it impacts its ecosystem. Apply this metaphor to a change initiative that requires a more systematic approach to change.

Organisations as brains

Characterised by a nervous system, constant learning or being able to change the mindset with centralised knowledge. The brain metaphor can apply to a learning organisation or change that implies some sort of self awareness. For example, a large brain represents a knowledge database available to all employees. Apply this metaphor to change initiatives where individuals appreciate change focusing on a centralised improvement in knowledge or continuous improvement.

Organisations on a journey 

Characterised by changing environments, complexity, uncertainty and even chaos. When change requires adaptability to respond to from the organisation in the form of innovation or small experiments. Like an aeroplane transforming into a rocket ship to go further or a boat being upgraded to sail across rough water. Apply this metaphor when both the environment and the organisation influence each other in the change approach.

Organisation as a cultural system 

Characterised by organisations concerned with shared beliefs, norms or culture. Introducing a subculture or mini-society metaphor helps create employee bonding in a holistic way. Competition could be fierce and a shared identity is the identified solution. Like a band or sports team play together. Apply this metaphor when morale needs a boost and change is focused on strong cultural bonds.

Why metaphors work

They spark creativity and are fun

Metaphors are fun. A good metaphor that creatively explains a change program sparks curiosity and creativity. People laugh and rally around a playful metaphor hung up near the coffee corner. 

Example 1

In a project for a large insurance company we developed a large-scale poster of their financial change program based on the factory metaphor. Each department was improving the efficiency of their work. After hanging up the poster the teams went out of their way to redecorate the office to match the chosen factory metaphor. Hanging up signs and putting stickers on the floor to mimic a factory floor experience. This all happened outside of the initial scope of the project.

Metaphors improve the quality of discussions

Getting lost in technical details of a change program is a common problem. A metaphor helps by introducing a new way to talk about the essence of the change program. Detailed execution documentation is still needed but a metaphor can help to steer conversations back to a common level of understanding. 

Metaphors connect to subconscious emotions

Metaphors are everywhere in our lives. We can use them to re-frame a proposed solution into something more meaningful for the audience. The metaphor latches on to an already existing subliminal emotional connection nudging the audience to feel a certain way.

Metaphors break down silos 

They inspire people to zoom out and check out how the story is structured around their colleagues in different departments. What does their visual look like? They start building metaphorical bridges between the departments. They inspire people to break down silos.

Example 2: For an international bank we introduced a fitting journey metaphor with a super-yacht sailing towards the horizon. The change program was on a journey through rough water representing the tough competition and macro environment. Each change track had its own contribution to the journey by, for example, improving navigation (strategy), revamping the engine (IT) and updating the customer experience (account manager). What was so powerful about the metaphor was that everyone in the program could identify exactly where they were on the resulting visualisation. Colleagues could see the impact of their own work on other departments and the interdependencies in their collective success.

Metaphors work across cultures

As organisations grow internationally crossing cultural borders, understanding change levers can be challenging. Metaphors help break down silos and connect everyone to a common change story.

How can I apply a metaphor in my work

Consider these actions in applying a metaphor. 

  1. Read through the list of metaphors
  2. Identify which ones work for your change initiative
  3. Put other metaphors to the test to find out what works and what doesn’t 
  4. Take the metaphor for a test drive and pinpoint the building blocks and how they correspond to your change
  5. Dive in detail different parts of the metaphor to make sense.
  6. Visualise the metaphor and hang it on the wall
  7. Discuss, iterate and co-create further 
  8. Practice telling the story
  9. Implementing it on the work floor is how the power of the metaphor is unleashed.

Introducing a metaphor in your work can go a long way in getting your change initiative back on track ? 

Get in touch with us and let us guide your organisation through the process. 

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Oprichter, Managing Partner

Tristan Ozero

NL Tristan Ozero is one of the founding partners at Ink Strategy and has been working in changing environments for more than a decade. His passion is applying human-centered design thinking to help organizations innovate and do things differently from the start.

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