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Leading With Operating Metaphors

I was scared and the team was concerned. I stood in front of fifty expectant and dubious faces–the newly combined sales and order processing team. Within a few months, we had to:

  • Eliminate a nasty conflict that divided the team
  • Move half the team to a combined space
  • Remove two order processing and tracking systems
  • Re-engineer the entire sales and order process
  • Double the size of the team

I knew the physics of change: to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more we tried to do the greater the resistance from the team and the organization would be. I started up my PowerPoint and hoped my unorthodox approach worked.

Prior to that day, my default as a leader would have been to meet the reaction with the force of data, logic and structure. But, with this complex group, situation, and short timeline, I knew that wouldn’t work.

After a series of sometimes tearful one-on-one meetings with team members, it became clear that the predominant operating metaphor of departmental conflict around right and wrong, us and them, would not serve our new goals.

Operating metaphors are those images we use as shortcuts in conversation. We find something in the greater world that operates in a way similar to our business or topic of discussion, and we borrow its lexicon. We can quickly recognize the operating metaphors behind words commonly used in business discussions. Above, I used a metaphor from physics, “to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

After talking with the team, it became clear that key players were working out of a warlike operating metaphor.

I needed to shift the bellicose metaphor and the resulting mental images, thoughts and feelings before I started moving desks and redesigning systems or we were in for a very rough ride.

But how to find a metaphor that would work better? And then, how to get the team to adopt it?

The first key was relevance. Both adoption and effectiveness would be driven by the relevance of the new metaphor to the team’s personal experience and to our current and future needs. The metaphor would need to be easily imagined, compelling, and give us a new sense of our shared desires, concerns and fates. Additionally, for the business, the key to relevance was to shift the focus from the fears of the individual team members to the collective needs of the client and the team in the challenging days to come.

I started by looking at the precise value creation moment of our process. Our value was created by delivering elegant holiday gifts for business people wanting to show gratitude to their key clients. With any luck these beautiful moments of graciousness would be so fast and furious they would swamp us in a huge seasonal rush as soon as we finished making our organizational changes.

To properly host these moments of graciousness at scale, we would need clean strong processes, systems, and internal culture to support our mostly female team through the weeks of 14-hour days ahead. Because the proposed changes were radical, I needed to introduce a radically different, relevant metaphor.

With these facts in mind, I set out looking for helpful new metaphors; images of connection between women, images of building a strong boat, images of ships and their crews heading into storms.

Auguste Renoir

I opened a new PowerPoint file and began building a deck like none I had created before. Rather than dive into data, logical imperatives, and project management cadences, the presentation would be full frame images of paintings that reset the imagery and the operating metaphors we would share going forward.

I focused on re-contextualizing our challenges and opportunities in terms of shared moments of graciousness with our clients (could we meet our clients in their moment of kindness if we were being mean to each other?) and in terms of our all being in one boat facing an imminent storm of seasonal demand.

Ivan Aivazovsky – Images courtesy of

By working to shift the operating metaphor before the work of “real” changes began, I pre-loaded some of the team’s emotional work. I gave them unity of purpose, clarity of focus and a shared sense of urgency. This allowed the group to start moving away from their attachment to the status quo and disconnection and start looking towards the future based on a new, unifying, empowering image before.

Out of this new metaphor we set to work immediately, in the meeting, we asked each team member to individually begin listing all of the things that could go wrong or that they could imagine could be improved. Right away, the meeting room began to buzz with nervous excitement. Our goal of using a new operating metaphor to inoculate the team against their perfectly human resistance to change seemed to be working.

The next day, we compiled the voluminous ideas they submitted, organized them and tallied duplicate concerns and suggestions which we then brought back to the team as a large, categorized list. Self-selected teams of volunteer specialists worked the list to clarify and prioritize the items. Within 36 hours, the team stood shoulder-to-shoulder facing the challenges we all shared rather than facing off in conflict.

Then, we got to work eliminating concerns and making improvements. By linking our collaborative efforts to the structure of data, logic and project management, we were able to deliver the systems and process changes to transform our work experience and results.

I am convinced that the preliminary inoculation with the new operating metaphor made all that came later much easier if not simply possible.

Are you consciously choosing the operating metaphors that lead your team?

2 thoughts on “Leading With Operating Metaphors

  1. […] Also, our schools are not businesses, students and parents are not customers. Thinking about our schools as businesses leads us to mental images, ideas, measurements and behaviors that are inappropriate. The operating metaphor for a school must be something far more nuanced and organic than a business, maybe an orchard is a better metaphor with its slow growth, many varieties of fruit, and years and years of sweet produce as a reward. More about the power of operating metaphors here. […]

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