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Metaphor is the Workhorse of Change Management

By Malaika Cheney-Coker

You know the exercise, the one that elicits some internal eyerolls – “If your team/division/organization were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?” Most everyone that has taken part to any meaningful degree in organizational life has undertaken this exercise. But beyond injecting some levity, or goofiness in some eyes, into otherwise staid conversations, what if this exercise and the metaphoric thinking it stands for, could have far more powerful applications?

Metaphor, the use of an image or entity to represent the qualities of something else, is a vastly underrated power tool in change management. While metaphors are routinely used in speech, including in the day-to-day parlance of organizations (e.g. the term “power tool” in the previous sentence is metaphoric), their application is incidental rather than intentional, missing opportunities to use metaphor for change management, strategy, learning, and even program design. 

What does intentional use of metaphor look like in practice? Take the case of Umpqua bank, brought to us via Warren Berger in his book Glimmer: How design can transform your life, and maybe even the world. Under the leadership of a new chief executive, the bank, a regional chain in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, wanted to reinvent the banking experience for customers. Metaphoric thinking was foundational for the bank’s transformation, in a practice Berger, citing designer Steve McCallion, describes as the transformational metaphor. This is based on the idea that if a company thinks of itself as something other than what it is, this act of imagination changes its behavior over time. Umpqua’s chief executive thought of the bank variously as a boutique hotel, a country store and a community center, and these metaphors opened up room for thinking differently about what a bank could be.

Rather than assembly lines leading to teller windows, the banks were remade with more of a coffee shop vibe with a spacious lounge and free WIFI, a flat-screen TV and the bank’s own signature coffee. Book readings, knitting circles and special guests of all sorts were among the attractions one might find upon entering the bank. The approach paid off in customer engagement and the bank charted steady growth from $150 million in deposits up to $7 billion, according to Berger. 

So profound is metaphor’s importance for shaping organizations’ identity, that whether or not they are conscious of it, organizations’ behavior is shaped by one or more overarching metaphors. In Images of Organizations, a 500-page tome dedicated to examining how metaphors provide the very template for organizational structure and behavior, Gareth Morgan lays out some of these popular templates, including the organization as machine, as organism, as brain, as culture, or as instrument of domination. 

Thinking of an organization, even subconsciously, as a machine (a legacy of the Industrial Revolution) comes with emphasis on efficiency, chain of command, and division of labor—a template that persists to this day in modern organizations. An implicit metaphor of an organization as a brain brings about an emphasis on learning, the distribution of intelligence and the self-organizing and self-refining sophistication of the human brain, or of distributed network intelligence. The more troublesome metaphor of an organization as an instrument of domination sees bureaucracy, the formation of movements, corporations and government and other ways of managing labor as sophisticated forms of social domination and the accretion of power.  

Morgan is clear that all metaphors come with strengths and limitations. For example, the machine metaphor can work well when the environment is stable and replicable outputs are at a premium (think franchise models). Yet the monochromatic organizations it produces lack the fluidity and creativity to deal with a kaleidoscope world. The brain metaphor opens up possibilities for decentralized leadership and agile learning while being ill equipped to deal with “the realities of power and control.”

For the leader interested in using metaphor to manage transformational change processes (whether within a project or for a whole organization), some takeaways are as follows: What is important is to be conscious of the existing underlying metaphor, imaginative in identifying new ones (like Umpqua bank), and prudent, by using more than one metaphor to mitigate the risk of overreliance on one. 

At Ignited Word, we use metaphoric thinking to guide our own internal evolution, borrowing heavily from an unorthodox sort of maverick’s guide to thriving in organizations called Orbiting the Giant Hairball. Some of our guiding metaphors are thinking of an organization as a fruit-bearing tree rather than a pyramid (with rank-and-file employees uplifted towards the sun as leaves in this scenario) imagining the creative process as a sort of an orbiting around organizational rules and expectations (the hairball), and thinking of our work process as a sort of studio of approaches. We use metaphors in our thought leadership work–as in the Failure Forest or this Symbols resource  – and in virtually all our services offerings, including research. Our usage of metaphors is, and will always be imperfect, as metaphors themselves are, but we often find that they convey meaning and give our minds the space to stretch like nothing else can.

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