When we conduct our business purely on the plane of practical necessity and utility, we miss out on a universe of human genius embodied in our imagination and creativity. We confine ourselves to what is, rather than embracing what could be – the realm of possibility.
A metaphor is an association between two seemingly unrelated things, such as a brave person and a lion, as in Richard the lion-hearted. Why use metaphors? Metaphors and other mappings are powerful creative mind-tools. Perhaps metaphor is the most powerful, as it forms the basis of many of our other creative devices such as picture, story, symbol, archetype, humour, and creative thinking.
Metaphor is also the basis of several of the cornerstones of human progress. For example, one of the attributes that distinguishes humans from other species is our ability to design, create, and use sophisticated tools. Such tools can be considered metaphoric extensions of aspects of ourselves. For example, hammers, spades, scissors, spoons, forks, and paint brushes can be seen as metaphors for our hands and arms. Transport systems such as bicycles, motorcars, and skateboards are metaphoric extensions of our legs. Telephones, microphones, intercoms, megaphones, and radio are metaphoric extensions of our hearing and speech apparatus. Spectacles, contact lenses, microscopes, telescopes, periscopes, binoculars, and opera glasses are metaphoric extensions of our eyes. Books, calculators, and computers are metaphors for our brains and minds. And mathematical and scientific models are metaphors for aspects of our world.
Metaphors are useful for making information more palatable to our minds by allowing us to organize and structure separate bits of information into meaningful, coherent, and satisfying frameworks. Often, when we complain about not understanding a concept, we are in fact searching for a meaningful metaphor – we want to know ‘what it’s like’. Seeing our problems and challenges in metaphoric terms can enable us to see creative solutions. When he developed his theory of relativity, Einstein asked what it would be like to travel on a particle of light.
Deeply ingrained metaphors are such a natural part of our thinking that we often do not notice them. For instance, most of us naturally think of the future as being ahead of us and the past as behind us. But when we consider this, we realize that we are applying a spatial metaphor (directions in space) to time. The metaphoric nature of this situation is brought home by the fact that the Aymara people of the Andes have the opposite metaphor, and consider the past to be ahead, and the future behind them.
The metaphors we use have a profound effect on how we view ourselves, our lives, our careers, and our organizations. They also influence our communication, branding, marketing, leadership, and the outcomes of our ventures. For example, a CEO who sees herself as the general of an army is likely to have a very different leadership style to one who sees herself as the conductor of an orchestra. She is also likely to build a very different kind of organization with very clients. Seth Godin, one of my favourite marketing authors, has books with titles containing powerful metaphors like: Meatball Sundae, Purple Cow, Tribes, and Idea Virus.
A few possible metaphors for a business are:
What are the metaphors that apply to your business? To discover these, examine the values you wish to embrace within the culture of your organization – possibilities are adventure, freedom, dedication, quality, fun, accuracy, and service. Then make a list of metaphors that depict these values, and choose one or two of these to use consistently and creatively in your communication with employees, customers, prospects, and other stakeholders.