Aristotle said: “The greatest thing by far is to have mastered the metaphor.” And the Spanish philosopher and writer Jose Ortega y Gasset added, “The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man.”
Metaphors are bridges connecting the new and the familiar. They help a skeptical audience embrace and value a new idea or concept. Why is that important? This past week we’ve been in several meetings where we discussed the use of narrative in change management. In essence it all revolves around the power of metaphors to influence skeptical or apathetic attitudes by providing a new perspective on a concept. Metaphors encourage people to see the old in a new way, or to accept the new by providing “hooks” to the familiar. As an example, trains used to be known as horseless carriages, a helpful way to describe something complete new and unfamiliar at the time.
Another great example is Kodak, when they developed the first camera it was such a different and unfamiliar concept that the best way they could think of to describe it to a skeptical audience was “a mirror with memory”. In essence they connected two familiar but unrelated things (a mirror (the lens) and memory (the film) and related it to the unknown (the camera) – thus creating a brand new metaphor.
Metaphors create powerful “mind pictures” and used correctly can influence mind sets and perceptions. The application for this in change management seems obvious. Imagine a large corporate going through an SAP implementation. Moving away from old legacy systems that are familiar but have lost their utility as the company has grown can be painful to older employees. How does one overcome their natural resistance? The answer, we believe lies partly in understanding which metaphors they use as filters to make sense of this change, and finding ways to influence or change these perceptions and beliefs by framing the change differently.
This change metaphor could then become the context for all other change initiatives, a golden narrative thread that runs through all change activities. It can permeate the language used in communication drives, stories gathered from staff during readiness assessments can inform the narrative and turn it into an organic transformational narrative. The metaphor can be used to frame the training materials etc etc. In short we believe that the use of narrative and metaphor specifically can add a lot of value to any change proces, because if the dominant narrative does not change, very little else will.