The entire Narrative Lab team, including a few others, has just arrived home after facilitating a metaphor elicitation process in Cape Town for a power utility company. It was a first time for us on a few counts.

Firstly, it was the first time we were running large group facilitation techniques with 400 people in each session. Secondly, it was a first working with so many people in just 45 minutes (there were four sessions), and thirdly, it was the first time we ran this particular process.

We had initially set out to surface a snapshot of what the safety story is in this particular organisation, but when I think about what emerged, I think we surfaced more than that. The nett result after the four sessions was that we had surfaced more than 80 unique metaphors relating to the safety culture in the company, and of that number, we found a dozen common base metaphors.

Base metaphors are those metaphors that are pervasive within an organisation’s culture and it is their frequency that gives them power. They are powerful for a few reasons.

First, they are the linguistic mechanisms through which individuals make sense of complex contexts. Second, they influence the associations people have with the topic at hand. For example, if safety is rooted in a policing metaphor (which it is in most companies) the associations people have with police will have either a limiting or enabling factor in how they respond to safety initiatives and processes.

Surfacing base metaphors is a very useful indicator for what the ‘currents’ may be within a culture. In addition to this, as a source of emergence, they can become key measures for how a culture is changing. They can also be critical leads in conducting culture research i.e. pointing you in the right directions.

The additional power in our process over the last few days was introducing visual language in the sessions. The delegates were given a range of creative supplies with which to turn their metaphors into physical symbols. We also had a cartoonist in the session who rendered the common base metaphors in a symbol landscape that summarised the four sessions.

We’ve come back convinced about the power of this process, and of how quickly it can be done with so many people. You’ll no doubt hear more about it as we reflect on the process and consider how we package it for marketing purposes.