The most widely used metaphor of change is that of a journey from the current state of affairs (a.k.a. As-is) to the desired state (a.k.a. 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.
All metaphors are flawed
Language is rich in metaphor, but all metaphors are fundamentally flawed as they are impoverished representations of reality.
“Every metaphor breaks down somewhere, or else it would not be a metaphor at all—it would be a strictly literal description! And the options available to us are limited by the very limitations built into the more-or-less arbitrarily adopted metaphor; so people tend to get stuck in their own chosen metaphors, blinded to all the possibilities obscured by the metaphor.”
James Wilk, said during a conversation with Dave Franzetta and subsequently published in Realizing Possibilities (pdf).
In the following passage, John McWhirter is talking about the metaphors used by psychotherapists in their clinical work, but his words apply equally to those engaged in organisational change.
Metaphors have a very definite structure. This is sometimes not fully appreciated. To be a metaphor it is necessary that all the components in the metaphor relate in a one-to-one basis to the problem. The ‘key’ to therapeutic metaphors is the accuracy in the ‘isomorphism’ — [i.e.] match. Less accuracy will reduce relevance and therefore the usefulness of the metaphor.
Re-Modelling Metaphors (pdf), by John McWhirter
The journey metaphor is inaccurate and potentially 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.
The journey metaphor tricks us into excluding 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 magic.
- Change is like Aikido.
- Change is like procreation.
- Change is like undoing a lock.
- Change is like curing an illness.
- Change is like the butterfly effect.
- Change is like white water rafting.
- Change is like performing a miracle.
- Change is like the blossoming of a flower.
- Change is like the hundredth monkey effect.
- Change is like flowing water that takes the path of least resistance.
- 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 the train proceeds this way rather than that way.
- Change is like swinging on a trapeze — you cannot grab the other trapeze without letting go of the one you’re holding.
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.
Bob Marshak’s four metaphors of change
Managing the Metaphors of Change is an article written by Robert J. Marshak (more recently the co-originator, with Gervase Bushe, of Dialogic Organization Development) and published in Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1993). The article is no longer available online, which is a pity as it is insightful and useful. Bob Marshak presents four metaphors of change that are commonly heard in organisations and that can set in motion the wrong course of action if caution is not exercised.
Verbal clues: Repair, tinker, adjust, fine-tune, deal with what’s broken, get the right tools.
Implied action: Fix and maintain.
Verbal clues: Add to, grow, lay a good foundation, nurture, train, get bigger, get smarter, get faster.
Implied action: Build and develop.
Verbal clues: Move forward, go from ___ to ___ , leave something behind, watch for obstacles, timetables, clear steps, milestones.
Implied action: Move and relocate.
Verbal clues: Wake up, think out of the box, create a new paradigm, see the light, break free from the past, end ___ and give birth to ___ , reinvent.
Implied action: Liberate and recreate.
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