Change Implementation Techniques for Laying a Foundation for New Ways

Technique 1.45 Informal Metaphors

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. Informal metaphors are a useful way to describe a workplace and for listening to the hidden language of the office, ie finding out what happens beneath the surface of the organisation. For example,

identify the subterranean language that can bring organisational tension to the surface

can reveal how employees see change unfolding and their view of management's role in that change, ie barrier, enabler, facilitator, etc

provide an indication of the cultural temperature of the organisation

identify existing barriers such as the mental models that staff cling to and use to navigate organisational life

. Using employee metaphors can identify the direction an effective change initiative should take.

. Using this technique has identified that management and staff often speak different languages. Recently, managers have been encouraged to manage an organisation as a living system that is worth more than the sum of its individual members. Generally, the collective wisdom of the employees is not taken into account. Furthermore,

"...ask them to choose a metaphor that most closely sums up their experience of organisation life and you will almost certainly get a different story: imaginative, insightful and complex. Cognitive research shows that most people think in pictures...... walk through the corridors of any organisation and you will soon become aware of the telltale signs of well‐being or decay. Listen to what is being talked about and you will gather enough informal data to point to the way the culture is managed on a day‐to‐day basis..."

Attracta Lagan et al, 2003


. Ask employees to describe their personal experiences in the workplace by choosing an appropriate animal. For example, the choice of

elephants, buffaloes, hippos, mammoths, etc characterize large cumbersome organisations that are slow to respond to change

octopuses and snakes represent more complex (and devious) cultures

leopards, pumas and lions (male) are speedy animals that signify small, leaner but predatory organisations

female lions signify strength and aggression but also nurturing characteristics

domestic animals such as dogs, cats and horses are used to describe safe organisations and can suggest soft values with an unwillingness to make tough decisions

chameleons describe organisations where the daily life seems unpredictable, inconsistent and reactive with frequent management changes, high staff turnover or a tendency to chase the latest fads or quick fix solutions

dodos and dinosaurs describe organisations on the "way out"

. Some other more colorful animal metaphors include

dogs chasing their tails

unwieldy elephants thrashing through disappearing jungles

extinct dinosaurs

guide dogs for the blind

tired old sharks circling aimlessly

. This negative imagery can reinforce images of failure in the existing culture. On the other hand, more positive imagery such as "powerful but disciplined bear" can immediately evoke an impression of an organisation that is performing effectively and knows where it is heading

Some common metaphors include

. The "old" Queen Mary (a large and powerful ship steaming along with past successes but oblivious to change and resistant to new ideas. These are characteristics of large bureaucracies and monopolies such as utilities and engineering organisations)

. Shark tank or snake pit (rules are unclear and frequently changing, and only the politically astute survive; duty of care goes unrecognized as people either sink or swim. Individualism is strength; accountability is a weakness; winning is valued above all else. This imagery is usually associated with the financial, retail and consulting sectors)

. Octopus (multiple center of activity with lots of management styles and no clear vision. The organisation means different things to different people, and chance plays a major part in shaping quality of life. The silo mentality dominates)

. Chameleon ("do as I say, not as I do"; management is volatile and unpredictable; staff recognize the gap between the walk and the talk; on the other hand, management is blind to it)

. The lollypop lady or revolving door syndrome (organisation brings in new management teams; the latest recruits pass through like children across a pedestrian crossing; staff opt out of the change process ‐ they see it as the latest management fad and know it will pass)

. The cowboy outfit (common in low‐tech industries such as office equipment, technology products and financial products, and low‐end industrial products; a culture of "whatever it takes to get the deal done". Sales champions are glorified; formal rules are non‐existent; indiscretions are sanctioned; integrity is abandoned)

. All in the family (staff are encouraged to cooperate and share knowledge; closely‐knit group; focus on intimacy of relationships and extracurricular activities; found in service organisations)

. The sheltered workshop (poor performance management; no‐one gets fired; non‐achievers are redesignated; political machinations and personality cults abound; inadequate systems, insufficient processes and little upward communications; accountability is missing. Usually found in NGOs, not‐for‐profit organisations and some public sector areas)

. The ostrich farm (secure, stagnant organisations; little prospect of change; high technical skills; little productive output; attractive superannuation plans; non‐financial incentives; many long‐term employees. Traditionally found in research facilities, old monopolies and some former public sector utilities)

What can we learn from the metaphors

. The process allows for self‐discovery as well as collective learning, ie it identifies areas of similarity and difference in perceptions by individuals and groups within the organisation

. Using subconscious pictorial language enables the discussion of previously "undiscussables" in a non‐threatening environment, ie metaphors can equip staff with critical thinking skills by exposing existing tensions between the differing views of the situation. Furthermore, the staff members can see how others think and perceive the situation, ie validating staff perceptions

. Can facilitate connection between the staff and the corporate vision. A vision conveyed in the language of the employees' own metaphors has more potential for realisation than one based on wishful thinking

. Like play, using metaphor can trigger insights and shifts in mindsets that are difficult to generate through more conventional means

(source: Attracta Lagan et al, 2003)


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