A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one concept is used in place of another to suggest an analogy. When we're excited about a new project, we might say that we're "revved up." Here the metaphor is a mechanical one. The metaphor is suggesting that, like a piece of rotating machinery, we're fully motivated and ready to go. People don't actually "rev up" like motors do, so the figure of speech is literally incorrect. It makes sense only in terms of an analogy.
We understand metaphors so easily that they sometimes escape our notice. For example, we use the term "ante up" in the workplace environment to denote an act of supplying an initial commitment of resources. "Ante" is a term actually taken from the world of gambling, specifically poker. I don't know about your organization, but most organizations I've worked with don't really think of their projects as gambling.
As a second example, when we gently introduce someone to an insight or idea, with the hope that they'll consider it and elaborate upon it or take some future action, we talk of "planting a seed." No physical seed is actually planted — we don't have to come back to water it, or supply nutrients or control pests. The analogy is just that.
To "get a reading" of the frequency of use of metaphors in speech in your organization, keep track of them for three days. You'll be astounded. If you rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.comsend them to me, I'll add yours (anonymously) to this list.
Because metaphors suggest analogies, they can be dangerous. The danger arises when we apply the analogy without thinking, in ways that really aren't supportable. For example, even though we talk about "revving up" people, motivating people requires much more than flipping a switch. And once people are "revved up," they can become very creative — so creative that it sometimes happens that they see even better ways to do what you might have wanted, or they might even find something wrong with the original idea. Rotating machinery hardly ever does that kind of thing. When we think about real people as if they were as simple as rotating machinery, we can go dangerously wrong — the metaphor "wags our minds" like the metaphorical tail wagging the dog.
Some metaphors come in groups — a whole set of terms that fit a single analogy. These are especially powerful, because they can become pervasive. One example is the analogy between products and people.
Few of us recognize that the term product family is a metaphor — but it is. When we hear the term "family" most of us think of our birth families. We have a set of strong ideas about what it means to belong to a human family — ideas that include love, respect, and a long life together, even if we didn't personally experience these gifts.
Some of this thinking can carry over to our organization's products, when we think of products as belonging to a family. This raises a difficulty when it's time to terminate a product. For example, if a product is under development, and market conditions change so as to make it unwise to continue development of the product, we speak of aborting it, as if it were one of our own offspring. Thinking in terms of this analogy can make it difficult to reach an obvious decision to terminate a product.
Similarly, when a product is no longer right for its market, we talk of "retiring" it, as if it were Grandpa, or a beloved racehorse. It isn't. It's a product. If the time has come to terminate it, we should. But thinking about it as a member of a "family" whose time has come to "retire" makes it much more difficult to make the termination decision. The metaphor influences our decision making.
What you can do
Keep a log of metaphors you hear in your organization. After a month or two, examine the collection for signs of powerful analogies that might be leading you and your organization astray. Look carefully for metaphors that hide features of the things you're actually talking about.
Metaphors in common use
Here's a list of metaphors in common use in today's workplaces. rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.comSend me more!
Do you sense that people in your organization might be overusing metaphors? Would your organization benefit from being a little more aware of the use (and abuse) of metaphors? I can do a 90-minute interactive talk and demonstration of the use of metaphors that will make people more aware of how to use them more carefully. And I can assess your organization's use of metaphor to determine how metaphor may be influencing thought patterns without your being aware of it.
Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.com or by telephone at (650) 787-6475, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.
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