February 7, 2018

Levers, blueprints and roadmaps: 3 tips to combat "dark" metaphors

For those who follow me, it’s probably become apparent that I have a love for metaphors and analogies. Because much of what I do involves introducing others to new concepts, I find them to be useful “hooks”, linking the new idea to something familiar, thereby providing a “scaffold of mind” while understanding grows.

Because of this, I have become more aware of the language we use – in fact I find myself always on the “hunt” for new and useful analogies. Unfortunately, not all metaphors are useful. There are pervasive and potentially problematic metaphors in our every day business language, and because they are so common they have largely become invisible: that's why I like to call these "dark metaphors".

Here are a few I’ve come across recently:

“We leverage the science of language, coherence, and learning architecture to drive change.”

See if you can spot them before reading further ...

Leverage … architecture … drive change …

What do all of these imply? Predictability, certainty, linearity i.e. everything that change and learning is not. This was probably (hopefully!) not what the authors intended, but it's the language we've become accustomed to using when communicating about these concepts in business.

How about this one:

“… we examine the nuts and bolts of what makes a powerful learning experience.”

Nuts & Bolts … so is a learning experience like a machine?


Looking “under the hood” to understand culture; Fireing up, fixing or fine-tuning your culture. Creating a culture change “dashboard”.

So is culture like a car that can be taken apart, fixed and tuned? Again the metaphor implies predictability and mechanistic certainty. In this case it also implies that culture can be reduced to the sum of it’s parts i.e. it’s susceptable to reductionist techniques.

Here's another one:

Having "Cultural Blueprints" or Strategy as the blueprint for the organisation. (Linked to the idea of building culture and even "building our people".)

Let’s think this through … What is a Blueprint?

According to the dictionary it’s a design plan or other technical drawing. Synonyms include: plan, design, diagram, drawing, sketch, map, layout, representation. Or something that acts as a plan, model, or template.

So again, it implies culture can be designed and constructed like a building or machine.

“The Cartesian Framework often relies on structural or machine analogies – complicated objects that can be designed in detail in advance by architects and engineers. This vastly overstates our ability to design and control human organizations and suppresses notions of co-creation and organic concepts of cultivation, emergence, natural growth, development and adaptation.  Roadmap  carries similar connotations of control. After all, you can only create a roadmap if there are roads, which means that others have been there before you. Maps always have a scale and emphasize some features of the landscape at the expense of others, depending on their purpose. Who picks those and how?”

David K Hurst

Think about ideas like human capital or human resources, or creating a talent pipeline. What does this say about how we see people?

Or what might happen when we put people into tribes or squads?  As stated in a recent post about the dangers of recipes, these metaphoric labels can have serious unintended consequences on collaboration and induction processes.

So how do we combat these dark metaphors and their unintended consequences?

  • Become more intentional about the language you use. Make sure the analogies and metaphors you use are congruent with your message and intent. If for example I say that culture emerges and evolves, but I speak about finding the levers or drivers of change, then I’m not being congruent.
  • Really think about the meaning of the metaphor. E.g. what is a blueprint or a roadmap? What does it imply about the thing I'm talking about? Is that coherent with what I intend to say?
  • Make others, especially leaders and those in communications aware of the impact of their language. What does it mean if a leader says "our people are our most valuable assets"? Was that the intent?

Language creates reality: if we want organisations that are "human friendly" places where people can bring their best and creative selves to work, we need to have a critical look at the "containing spaces" we create with the language we use, and those are enabling or disabling.

“If you don’t change people’s language, you don’t change how they think”

- Dave Snowden

5 comments on “Levers, blueprints and roadmaps: 3 tips to combat "dark" metaphors”

  1. I take your point, however, I'm not convinced enough to change my language, as you have offered no real alternatives. It's almost as if you're not convinced yourself.

    1. Oh, I am very much convinced, however, these words are so entrenched that using them has become habitual. It comes down to what we are trying to do, which in my case is move away from mechanistic language and metaphors to the language and metaphors of complex adaptive i.e. living systems. So I often use language from biology or ecology; or even metaphors from the arts. I tend to use different words and metaphors depending on the context, I think a challenge is that the new language is still emerging from academia and we need to find non-jargony words. So instead of a blueprint, one might think of the disposition of the system; instead of levers and drivers, one can think about modulators (neither of which are particularly accessible without explanation). I have written other blogs for example about using coherent instead of alignment, and on using other metaphors; you may want to have a look at those.

  2. I fully agree with the underlying message regarding language. One minor quibble: the word ‘leverage’ can either imply ‘machine metaphor’ (the word ‘lever’ clearly does) but can also mean ‘lots of effect for little effort’. I’d argue that Dana Meadows’ famous observation that ‘mindsets and paradigm offer the greatest leverage for systemic change’ doesn’t mean you go at them mechanistically.

    1. Hi Geoff - yes now that I think about it, it is useful to make a distinction between lever and leverage. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Hi Sonja, Given your love of metaphor, have you connected with the practices of Symbolic Modeling or Clean Language? This is a facilitation / coaching / change practice that helps people model their experience and desired outcomes by inquiring into the metaphors that are embedded in their words and body language. Numerous practitioners use it in individual (coaching) and organizational (Consulting) contexts. It is very appreciative and systemic in it's approach which might appeal to you and give you an additional lens / toolset for your work.

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