Change is a journey’ metaphor, by Jack Martin Leith

The most widely used metaphor of change is that of a journey from the current state of affairs (often labelled ‘as is’) to the desired state (‘to be’). The desired state is seen as a place out there in the future.

The journey will be long and arduous. Along the way, there will be roadblocks to circumvent, and milestones indicating progress towards the chosen destination. The change will be delivered by a vehicle taking the form of a change initiative.

But change is not a journey from here to there. There is no ‘here’, no ‘there’, and no ‘journey’. This is simply a metaphor.

The journey metaphor is inaccurate and dangerous.

It limits our ability to create the desired state of affairs quickly and easily; it misrepresents change as a sequence of discrete stages; and it deludes us into thinking we need a map to show us the way from the current state of affairs to the desired state.

Armed with this delusional map, we embark on what we imagine will be a long and hazardous journey. We start to foresee all sorts of obstacles that don’t actually exist. We find ourselves believing the milestones we invented are real, and get anxious when they don’t appear on the horizon.

Language is rich in metaphor, but all metaphors are fundamentally flawed as they are crude representations of reality. The map is not the territory. And in this particular case, the map is not the map and the territory is not the territory.

The journey metaphor tricks us into ignoring the possibility that the desired change might be accomplished quickly, with little effort, with existing resources and with minimal disruption.

The change-is-a-journey metaphor is embedded in our mental models and language so deeply that it’s almost impossible to talk about change without employing it. We need to use the metaphor mindfully and be alert to its limitations.

Other metaphors are available, such as these:

  • Change is like Aikido.
  • Change is like undoing a lock.
  • Change is like white water rafting.
  • Change is like the blossoming of a flower.
  • Change is like adding milk to coffee. (Source: Niels Pflaeging | Read more)
  • Change is like metamorphosis from caterpillar to pupa, and from pupa to butterfly.
  • Change is like a railway operative switching the points, so that events unfold like this rather than like that.

The metaphor of ‘change is like a kaleidoscope’

One of the most powerful metaphors is ‘change is like a kaleidoscope’.

Imagine that you are looking through the eyepiece of a kaleidoscope and seeing a colourful pattern.

With one tiny nudge of the barrel you instantly create a new pattern. It’s altogether different from the original one, and the change is irreversible—there’s no way of returning to the first pattern.

How does this metaphor translate into the real world of change? Read about Minimalist Intervention, a methodology originated by James Wilk (pdf) and his colleagues at Interchange Research.