I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors recently. Especially those related to work and change management. Words matter, especially the words we use to plan organizational change and the words we use to describe our organizations.
In a recent article in Quartz, Sarah Todd makes the case that “village” is a better descriptor for a work group than “team” or “family.” I have a long history myself of railing against thinking of businesses as families — family dynamics are often dysfunctional, and you can’t exactly lay off your siblings (as much as you might want to).
While I’d not considered “village” as a frame before, I think it makes sense, and I notice that when I examine a current client through this lens, it helps me see each department and group as both independent and interconnected. Which is really useful.
Metaphors are also coming into play on a white paper some colleagues and I are writing now about digital transformation. The word “transformation” itself is something of a metaphor and calls to mind a complete state change. We might just as easily talk about digital enhancement or enablement. Even the word “digital” operates as a kind of metaphor since we are really talking about changing the behavior of people via technology and not the technology itself.
When planning change programs, I frequently ask clients to think about what we’re doing as evolution rather than revolution. Not only is the former a natural metaphor and therefore one more comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, but it also helps us avoid a rigid and combative mindset of the latter.
In general I try to avoid metaphors that call to mind war. Not because I have anything against the military in theory — I find it necessary, and I’ve also learned a lot from military folks like Stanley McChrystal and David Marquet. But militaristic metaphors can put focus on an enemy to be defeated rather than a change to be embodied.
What we are really trying to do with change management is to put people on a path toward continuous improvement rather than defeat an enemy. So I find natural metaphors of gardening and biological evolution both more accurate and more useful in generating the mindset needed to embrace change.
But there is one place the military metaphors have inspired me recently, and that’s in debate and the search for truth. Julia Galef has been speaking, writing, and podcasting about reasoning for the past decade — her book Scout Mindset just came out, and I can’t wait to read it.
Galef uses the military metaphors of “soldier” and “scout” (her talk at the Long Now Foundation provides a good overview) to contrast two different styles of reasoning. A soldier has a narrow focus and will do anything to win, while a scout is curious, open, and looking to take in information and find the best way forward. Galef makes a compelling case that the latter is what’s needed when we are looking for truth. It’s evocative language that I find easy to remember when I’m feeling triggered and slipping into a defensive posture.
I encourage you to notice the metaphors you use to describe things that are important to you. What other words might also work, and how might using them change how you think, change, and grow?
Here are a few things to read about change and metaphors.
Evolution Vs Revolution: The False Choice Between Continuous and Radical Change
This is a blog post of mine from last year that describes the sometimes counterintuitive relationship between two kinds of change.
Why Civilization Is Older Than We Thought
How we think about the past informs how we act in the present. This thought-provoking article demonstrates that we don’t really know how old agriculture is, nor do we know if agriculture is needed for large-scale collaborative human work, which means we don’t really know when “civilisation” began, nor do we appreciate the wide variety of forms it might take.
Neanderthals Were People, Too
Speaking of prehistory — Yuval Noah Harari made the case in his excellent book Sapiens that for much of our history we have shared the planet with other human species. This 2017 article from the NYT goes deep into what we know about our closest non-sapiens relative, Neandethals (I have ~5% neanderthal DNA according to 23 and Me). The author does some very interesting thought experiments on what it might have been like for these species to coexist for thousands of years and what we might learn from their experience.
Co-Founder of The Alignment Company
P.S.: I’d love to hear from you. Just reply to this email or ping me on LinkedIn, and let me know what you think about metaphors, prehistory, organizational change, or any other thoughts these ideas bring up for you.