It can be quite revealing to tune in to the kind of imagery people use when talking.  Consider, for example, how people speak about the current economic crisis. 

Some view the economy as a complex machine, so fuel injection makes good sense to them, or lubrication to get the economic wheels going again. Others view the economy as a sick person addicted to debt, oil, special interests and government programs, in which going cold turkey makes more sense.  But of course, they don’t want to kill the patient, so some time may be needed for detoxification.  Yet others view the economy as an unruly forest or garden that grows and adapts to survival pressures; so pruning is in order at times.  And some cynics might view political economy  mostly a contact sport, in which case various metaphors spring to mind, from soccer to boxing.  Note how the role of leaders, players, strategies, regulations etc can differ markedly across sports.

Seductive simplicity

The great benefit of metaphors is that they simplify; each economic metaphor above touches on an important aspect by analogy. The downside, however, is that a strong metaphor can create a false sense of understanding.

Metaphors and analogies in general often distort our thinking in hidden ways, by drawing attention disproportionately to what fits and obscuring what doesn’t get highlighted in the analogy. As Einstein noted, “we should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  The question is whether some of your favorite metaphors for thinking about complex subjects, such as the economy, leadership, joint ventures, team work, or competition actually offer you flawed or simplistic analogies.

For example, consider the widely used product life-cycle concept in marketing.  This biological metaphor suggests that products naturally arise, grow, mature and die, just as individuals do.  So if managers wedded to this view see a product’s sales decline for several quarters in a row, they would naturally think that the product is in decline.  And once the product strategy is adjusted to reflect this presumed stage of decline, resources may be withdrawn and decline will quickly follow (as a self-fulfilling hypothesis).  Of course, if decline has truly set in, this may be the smart move so money can be spent more wisely elsewhere; why fight a losing battle?

Should products die or adapt?

Procter and Gamble as well as many other companies, however, reject the product life-cycle metaphor as unduly self-limiting. Rather than viewing the product as a single organism proceeding through its life stages, they view the product as the species itself.  So, the product must be adapted to changing circumstances to remain viable.  In the product life-cycle view, products must be allowed to die. In the “product as species” frame, attempts are made to “mutate” the product so that it better fits its market niche or, perhaps, can migrate to an segment not yet served well by competitors.  Of course, as P&G would readily admit, the downside of the evolutionary view is that managers support a doomed product for too long, and will not let it die when in fact it should.

Are you a master or prisoner of metaphors?

To avoid being imprisoned by poor metaphors, you need to do the following:

  1. Be sensitive to what metaphors and mental imagery people use; does the boss always speak in football lingo or perhaps in family terms?
  2. Don’t buy other people’s analogies hook, line and sinker (including this one) so that you don’t get framed.  Try to consider alterative metaphors.
  3. Recognize that most metaphors highlight aspects of the problem that are valid and deserving of attention (as shown above, this is the easy part)
  4. The harder challenge is to figure out where a given metaphors hides, distorts or totally misses the boat (e.g., sport metaphors assume a zero sum game which business clearly is not; and the rules in business are hardly fixed).
  5. Once you understand the pros and cons of various metaphors, select one that best highlights the issues most essential to the problem and run with it
  6. If no single metaphor can do justice to the crux of matter, try to think in multiple metaphors and integrate their complementary suggestions.

My next column will examine if stud poker is a good metaphor for new product development (as strongly suggested in the bestselling book In Search of Excellence).  If you want to test yourself, try to answer questions 3 to 6 above.