Use Metaphors as a Tool to Manage Complexity at Work

Do you want to break your own preconceptions about your work? Recheck your cognitive biases? Gain insight into your team in a new way? Get out of your own head to reframe your organization in a new way?

Think in metaphors.

I first learned about metaphors from Jim Long, then the Director of Research at Herman Miller. Long had done research into organizations where he asked large corporations to describe themselves using a metaphor. People responded that they were a beehive, a circus, a theater, an emergency room. All highly descriptive, engaging metaphors. Let's take beehive as our example.

A beehive can be the best of metaphors--disciplined, hard-working and producing a sweet product that everyone wants. But it can also describe an organization where everyone works under a queen bee and where there is little room for initiative-taking and creativity. A place filled with drones.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of Happiness Hypothesis, notes--

"Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it's hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor 'life is a journey,' the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road."

One of my favorites is climbing Mount Everest. If you are climbing Everest, you'd need a mentor (your guide), have your goal within your sight (base-camp), train and practice your expertise with smaller projects (climb smaller mountains), wait for the right time (favorable climbing conditions) and have a plan for surviving unexpected events out of your control (i.e. avalanches). And beware that, if you fall, the consequences are dire, just like on Everest. I call this the CEO metaphor.

If you want to give this a try, here is a simple "how to" for using metaphors at work--

01. Listen for metaphors. We often talk in metaphors without being aware of them. Listen for them next time you're in a meeting. Make a list.

02. Try them on for size. Visualize the metaphor (you can look up images on Google images) and list its qualities. Which one rises to the top?

03. Now use that one metaphor to think differently about your work. What would you do differently? Below are some examples--

- If you work is climbing Everest, you're taking on a challenge very few people attempt, you need a guide. In business the guide could be a mentor. Do you have a mentor and how is your mentor accompanying you on the journey?

- If your work is a flying carpet, who wove it? You alone, or was it with your team?

- If your work is a high wire act, you need to fall often before you can perform at the top of your ability. What is your safety net so that you can fail without getting hurt?

- If your work is a band, you're creating music together. How do you riff with your team? Does everyone know the piece of music and when to improvise versus when to come back and play together.

- If your work is a tree, like mine, what are your seeds? What are the conditions and the tools that can help your tree to grow and give fruit?

Do you have a metaphor that you use in your work? I would love to hear from you!

Design the life and work you love, using metaphors!