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Supporting organisations to bridge the gap between strategy and action at moments of change, making sense and shaping conversations with Big Pictures.


The power of metaphor

julian burton

Creating new metaphors

The metaphors we use at work help us to connect the words we use to the meanings we make of our experience. Metaphor in greek means “to transfer, or connect”. A good metaphor is a bridge of meaning, helping us to understanding one thing, or experience, in terms of another.  Metaphors can  influence, and sometimes limit, how we see and understand the world. Once created they can drop below our radar and become unconscious and habitual, implicit assumptions that influence our thinking and behaviour. When organisations are in crisis mode and under pressure to change, we often hear a cry of "we need to change mindsets!" Generating new metaphors can be one way of opening up new possibilities and give us new ways of seeing things.

I’ve been wondering a lot about the metaphors we use as  O.D. practitioners. For example, the metaphor Self-As-Instrument helps us to conceptualise our agency and impact in service of our clients. It works as an easy anchor point to help encompass what we want to learn to develop our skills and capabilities as O.D. practitioners. Learning to be more present, self-aware, empathic and better at deep listening when we work with clients is central to our effectiveness and the value we bring to organisations.

I'm curious about how this metaphor affects how I experience myself when working with clients. What kind of instrument am I? A spade? And microscope? A calculator? A scalpel?  A dictionary definition of instrument is something like "a mechanical implement for delicate and precise work”. I don’t normally feel like an instrument that does things to other people. My experience of the complexity and richness of face to face interactions gives me a sense that having impact or influence isn’t as simple or controllable as the instrument metaphor seems to imply.

What could a new metaphor be? 

For me this metaphor could be reinforcing a transactional rather than a relational attitude to being with others ; one of “doing-to” rather than “being-with”, which feels much more appropriate when working alongside clients. I get a sense that the underlying assumption of this metaphor defines people as things, and as discrete objects that can be “changed" in some transactional and intentional way, which is another implicit assumption worth shining a light on.

There is also a question for me of this metaphor about what it means to be a "Self". Am I an independent rational self with control over my will and identity? Or am I inextricably bound up with and entangled with others and the relationships that continuously form and reform me? It would be really interesting to explore these questions further and inhabit them as a way to help deepen our O.D. skills and capabilities. To inquire into how we see our selves and our effectiveness in more creative and less rational ways could be really useful.

What new metaphors or generative images could we create together to open up new possibilities and come to see ourselves and each other in new and more productive ways? If, as an O.D. practitioner, I shifted my thinking about my role as a “Self-As-Instrument”, what new ways of relating might I start to experience?