She’s a rainmaker. He’s the life of the party. They all have bubbly personalities, but sometimes you wish they’d just chill out.
Metaphors are one of the most common figures of speech. In fact, if you had a transcript of your conversations over the past 24 hours, you’d probably find it littered with metaphors.
But did you know that they’re also useful tools for thinking? Especially when you’re trying to think in different ways and discover new possibilities, metaphors can change your perspective and open up doors you didn’t even know existed.
The Power of Metaphors in the Innovation Process
There are a number of thinking benefits that metaphors bring to your innovation strategy. Here are just a few of them:
- They’re brain-friendly. Metaphors are convenient and compact. They condense a lot of disparate information into a single message that's quite efficient. Just think about how much you communicate simply by saying that somebody has a heart of gold.
- They’re memorable. The brain finds them much "stickier" than a lot of disconnected details.
- They allow you to test for understanding. Suppose that you’ve come up with a new idea and you want to see if people are really “getting” it, particularly if you’re getting pushback. Ask them: “What would be a metaphor for what we’re talking about?” When people truly understand an idea, they can translate it into a metaphor.
- They offer clarity. An innovation strategy is often triggered by the need to solve a problem, and as we’ve discussed, you can’t fully solve a problem until you’ve accurately defined it. Metaphors are great for defining problems. Once, when we were working with a company that had a big problem with its distributors, we decided to see if they could come up with some metaphors to describe the situation. We asked, “If you were to describe the distributors as an animal, what would it be?” Well, pretty soon we were dealing with snakes, moles, and other sneaky creatures.
This exercise was highly revealing, and it immediately put something on the table that had been hard to articulate. Probing for a metaphor helped to define the problem: The distributors were missing deadlines and withholding information.
Getting Started with Metaphors
As part of your innovation strategy, try using metaphors to help people break out of their thinking confines. Here’s any easy formula to get them started. (Think of it as the Mad Libs approach to creating metaphors.)
Fill in the blanks in the following sentence:
If I were to describe _____as a _____it would be _____.
Start with a personal example. If you were to describe yourself as an animal, what would it be? If your spouse or partner were to pick an animal to describe you, would it be the same one? You can ask the same questions about your boss, your siblings, and any other person you know well.
You don’t have to share these metaphors with anyone. The point is that they’re useful tools for creative thinking.
When you’re dealing with a “blank page” and trying to think in innovative ways, metaphors give you some constraints that can ultimately be very revealing. Say you want to improve on an existing product. Describing it as an animal or a vehicle or some other non-related item often creates an aha moment about today’s situation, and it can yield interesting insights about where you might go from here.
If you're struggling to put a metaphor into words, then create a visual image. Drawing offers a simple way to access information that might escape your rational, verbal mind. Don't get hung up on your level of artistic ability. Using stick figures and rough geometric shapes is just fine.
Test it out! See if you can draw a vehicle that serves as a metaphor for your team. What would it look like? If the members are in conflict about who's in charge, for example, you might draw a car with two steering wheels, five bumpers, and a broken front end.
Now imagine the picture that clients or customers would draw of your team. Draw another picture of your team as you'd like it be in future.
Where does your mind take you? What do the metaphors reveal that you may not have consciously seen before?
Try it—you might find that jumpstarting your innovation strategy is as easy as filling in the blanks!