The Wonderful World of Metaphors

3 min read

By definition a metaphor is simply “a thing that is representative or symbolic of something else.” That sounds simple enough but what often gets overlooked is the magic that happens when you attempt to represent your original idea or problem in with its often dry, prosaic wording with something more visual and emotionally compelling. All of a sudden, new doors open and ideas, angles and solutions tend to present themselves where there were seemingly none available before. It is the unassuming metaphor that works as a skeleton key to creativity and a reimagining of your concepts or ideas. Here’s why…

Metaphors are a reminder of our common humanity
At work, we can get so wrapped up in being efficient and productive that our focus narrows to the point of excluding alternate ideas and approaches to problems. This can be a good thing if the problems and solutions are clearly defined. When it comes to innovation or sticky, intractable problems however, this narrowness of focus can be detrimental. Metaphors and their accompanying emotional energy remind us that we’re not simply cogs in a corporate machine but, rather, humans looking for ways to make life better for others and, ultimately ourselves. Metaphors have the power to do that. In my workshops during the pandemic, we explored the idea of “working remotely” and used metaphors like being adrift in lifeboats, lost in the forest, in a long-distance relationship as well as many others which instantly brought humanity back into the discussion of remote workplaces. Metaphors are powerful stuff.

Metaphors work with your heart as much as your head
Much like the emphasis on productivity and efficiency that is prized in the workplace, clear “thinking” is often – and rightly – thought of as a positive trait. However, sometimes it takes clear “feeling” to unlock solutions that the intellect can’t uncover on its own. Metaphors with their rich, personal imagery and sensory cues, find a way to touch us and change our thinking to feeling which places us in a new, creative space to look for solutions or alternatives to the way things are currently done. For example, a group of airline executives decided to examine “coordinating disparate teams” through the metaphorical lens of a flock of geese flying south for the winter. That shift in perspective added the elements of survival and caring for each other along the way to an otherwise rather dry business problem making it more compelling and solutions more meaningful.

There are countless metaphors for every issue or idea
The beauty of exploring ideas and problems through their metaphorical equivalents is that there are an almost endless number metaphors for any given idea. As I mentioned above, you can look at the concept of “working remotely” using metaphors as divergent as a tray of ice cubes, foxholes in a battle and even the old TV gameshow “Hollywood Squares.” Each metaphor brings a new set of images and thoughts all of which provide a more well-rounded approach to exploring any and all ideas.

I’m assuming you’ve heard the expression that “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Well, to continue that particular meta-metaphor, the metaphor itself gives you more than just a “hammer” to explore your problems so that you’re better able to come up with new and refreshing solutions.


Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

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