Metaphorical patterns of discovery

Posted on by Brandon Klein


Organizations grapple with moving forward by tying to understand the barriers and issues they have to overcome. These are usually met head-on, without a wide range of action possible. This may be because of organizational or cultural constraints, but the effect is as if they were working within a box whose sides are no longer there. If they keep doing things the same way, they will get the same results. The only difference between a groove and a grave is its depth! How do we break them out of this mindset or behavior?



Have participants read outside their field. Provide ‘crop rotation for the mind.’ Provide fresh patterns, analogues, analogies, metaphors for the work. People work for ideas (money, security, feeling a part of a team, etc.) and we want to restore the larger sense of purpose that can get lost in the middle of a big organization.

Metaphors help us to make connections to things that appear totally unrelated. Everything helps everything. It provides quantum leaps, innovation. It can help participants connect on a conceptual, intellectual or emotional level. Sometimes an alternative way of looking at a problem, such as a shift in frame of reference, can provide the key that unlocks a wider range of possibilities. This can stretch further than case studies, analytical material or ‘leading practices.’

We use metaphor on several levels. You can have an overriding metaphor or theme for an entire event. An idea may be best expressed in a metaphor. Describing the ASE to people unfamiliar with it is much easier with metaphor.

The most familiar use of metaphors is the Metaphors exercise, where we have participants read about ‘weird things’ that can shed light on their issues. Dealing with leverage? Read about how Cortez conquered the Aztecs with only 600 soldiers. Wrestling with developing a killer attitude? Sort through books on the lives of predatory animals. Having a hard time looking at the organization as a whole system? Study how rain forests, tide pools, gardens or the human body work.

When designing metaphors, remember that the application drives the metaphor. Create a list of underlying issues that the sponsor team identifies as things that are out there to be grappled with. Add to it your own observation from your dealings with the firm. The engagement team can give you some perspective on the organization as well. Use that list to then select the metaphors that best address the spectrum of issues. Presenting it that way to a sponsor team works well, too. “OK, does everyone agree that these are the things we are dealing with?” and only then do you put up the list of metaphor topics. Make sure that the readings are wide enough that it will provide the organization a way to discover hidden, unspoken or even unknown things about themselves—they will find in the readings the things they need to talk about, and it will be easier to bring them into the open in a ‘safe’ way such as a metaphors exercise.

Sometimes the metaphor emerges as a theme for the event, in which you should run with it as far and as fast as you can.

Remember, the telephone is modeled off the human ear, the idea for velcro came from burrs in a field, and advertising is the whole reason flowers exist! “Metaphors connect two different universes of meaning through some similarity the two share, in doing so, metaphors help us to understand on idea by means of another.” --Roger von Oech


“Thinking about our thinking—without any kind of instruction—can make us better problem solvers.” --Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure