The Power of Metaphors

 In Change management, Digital Transformation, General thoughts

The power of metaphors

Metaphors are efficient. They capture attention, simplify complex ideas and create common understanding. People like them because they’re sense-making bullet trains (see what I did there?), loaded with pre-programmed auto-reactions so we don’t need to think too hard.

Metaphors provide a bridge (metaphorical of course) from old concepts to new. They give us cognitive frames and are a great tool for changing behaviours. They’re a kind of halfway house (I can’t stop myself) to help us make sense of the unfamiliar. Just think of the horseless carriage, or the electric candle.


Digital metaphors

Digital came along with its fair share of metaphors. The shopping cart and trash can are a couple of good examples. Both help users understand new functionality and makes sense of unfamiliar concepts. These links provide some fascinating illustrations of this: sharing, platform, open, public sphere and the use of addiction in the digital world.

Metaphors do come with some risk though – they can make us forget to ask questions. Because many have been borrowed from the paper-based world people don’t look at them quite as closely. Let’s look at one example: data.

Data as files vs data as water

The concept of online data was introduced with language like ‘folders’, ‘files’ and ‘inboxes’. This framed it as an inanimate thing we put on a shelf – something flat and contained. However the data we put online is more fluid. And it’s never actually thrown out when we put it in the digital trash can.

A better metaphor for data might have been water, as this article suggests. Just look at how differently it makes you think. With this new frame we envisage data flowing endlessly and away from us into places with much less control. Concepts of lakes, reservoirs, overflowing, not being contained and how very easily it could be taken or polluted come to mind. See how the frame changes?

The problem with using old concepts to introduce new ideas is that we don’t peel back the layers as much with them. We look at the outer presentation layer and make a lot of assumptions.

Note of caution over – let’s move back to the power of metaphors.  


Workplace change

Everyone’s trying to make sense of a changing workplace, and metaphors help by positioning change as less scary. Here’s some advice on how to make the most of this human-centred tool.


  • Define your core story
    Most change programmes are broadcasting more than employees are interested in. Change should start with a trailer, not the whole movie. Reduce the complexity into a narrative that only holds the top-line concepts – identify a minimal set of core concepts. It’s those key concepts that you wrap the metaphors around.
  • Create a common language
    Name your key concepts (metaphors can be useful naming tools). Doing so and repeating them throughout your communications will help cement them in people’s memories. Think of it like naming holes around a crazy golf course – everyone in the organisation will work to the same course and can talk about each hole.
  • Know your employee groups
    Metaphors are positioned within generations. Do employee-persona work to find out how language will land. See my previous blog post for more.
  • Find the right terms
    Whoever’s writing your narrative will draw metaphors from their own favourites list. You need to do a bit of testing to find the ones that work across your entire employee group. Do test them, as many are already claimed and not always in a good way.
  • Be real
    Up until very recently, business-speak used dry terms like ‘silos’, ‘climbing the ladder’, ‘keeping your head above water’, ‘playing the game’ and so on. All very sterile. Today connection and authenticity are more important as a tone of voice. So make sure you use a human way of talking.
  • Be visual too
    Work with illustrators and creatives to play with your terms and bring them to life. You can convey an awful lot if you get visual too.


Learning is the metaphor for change

Digital transformation isn’t about transformation or digital – it’s about learning. It’s about the social and people change, not the tech. When I talk about change, I rarely mention the tools. Instead, I use words like ‘easier’, ‘smarter’, ‘together’, which open up the workplace to human ways of being. Remember that people learning is what makes change happen.


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