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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Pigs, equities and flying barns

Ever notice how successful people are masters at using metaphors?

If marketing people want to better engage people and foster understanding, they should use more metaphors in their communications. Metaphors help us make sense of ideas, and think about concepts and points-of-view in ways that language alone cannot.

“Metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action,” explain George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. “For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life…Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

Here are some of the metaphors I’ve heard in the past two weeks while interviewing influential C-level executives as part of a research project to better understand corporate change agents.

On commitment: people need to be committed like a pig vs. a chicken. When you’re eating bacon and eggs for breakfast you know that in respect to the eggs the chicken was involved. But in respect to the bacon, the pig was comitted.

On employee talent: high-performers are like equities vs. boonds. “Equity” employees are more aggressive and drive new ideas and growth, while “bond” employees are the steady Eddies who make sure that the core business functions run day in and day out. Just like a financial portfolio, you need a mix of equities and bonds in your employees.

On being focused: "We need an arrow, not a flying barn." This from author and management consultant Alan Weiss, who explains: “This metaphor creates an immediate recognition of the need to streamline and gain aerodynamic efficiency, which is easier to deal with than pointing out that we're trying to tackle too much, we have no focus, we need to set priority, yadayadayada."

On alternative perspectives: change agents don’t look at whether a glass is half-full or half-empty or even partially shattered. They look at an urn or a pitcher. In other words, these types bring very different perspectives to business situations.

On necessary disruption: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” In other words, you may have to disrupt all kinds of people and processes within the organization to accomplish change. Yet at the end you say, “Man that was messy, but in the end we got it done and it was successful."