Multiple Metaphors are better than just one

by | Oct 19, 2021 | Change


My wife walked part of the ‘Salt Path‘ this weekend with three dear friends. When Sunday morning came around the kids we’re asking lots of questions about them. How were they going to get home was top of their mind. ‘Will they walk back the same way they came?’ I tried to explain that one of them had parked at the end, was picked up, and then others parked at the beginning. My words and the concept weren’t working working for my daughter. ‘It makes sense a tiny weeny bit, Dad, but not really.’ So I pulled over and resorted to stuffed animals and Tupperware. Illustrating it worked much better although Auntie Jen drove a red Tupperware pot for the rest of the day.

Metaphors and illustrations are great ways of communicating ideas or complex concepts. They help us understand and explain, but often they bring a point of view into the concept that might not be there. But it is important to remember they give us a perspective, not the whole thing.

When talking of change, many of us, including myself, will talk about ‘levers to pull’ and so on. Intentionally or unintentionally, we are referring to organisations as machines with levers and buttons to pull and push to change the outcome. This perspective may help us see new insights on how to bring about the change we seek, but is reductionistic in its nature.

If we use a different metaphor and think of an organisation as a community, a person, a market, a collection of interests, a society, an ecosystem, or something else what insights do we ‘see’ now? We can argue over what metaphor is most apt, but that is a waste of time. Our time is better spent using multiple metaphors and gleaning the different points of insight each bring. After all, no metaphor is perfect. They are all stories and illustrations to help us understand things we previously did not.

The choice is up to us.

Photo by Minkus


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