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Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Challenge: Imaginal deficiency in management and policy making

Metaphor Project


It is intriguing to note the kinds of policy-making environment envisaged in science fiction for the distant future. But even million of years hence, there is an unfortunate similarity to the dynamics of board meetings today, just as they themselves appear to bear a strong resemblance to those in Roman times. Even in imagining such distant futures, galactic councils are envisaged as operating under some variant of Robert's Rules of Order.

1. Use of metaphors in business

In the corporate world, very extensive use is made of metaphor to communicate the essence of policies and strategies and responses to competing initiatives. Such metaphors are almost entirely based on military or sporting situations: "zapping the competition", "target audiences", "advertising ammunition", "keeping the ball in play", "scoring points", etc. Politicians have recently taken to declaring "war" on problems (cf "war on want", "war on drugs"). Such terms, and especially "mobilization", have been taken over by intergovernmental agencies, even when their aims are ostensibly and peaceful.

It is interesting to note that in the West, the favoured metaphors are derived from ball games (football, cricket, baseball, etc) and military combat. The sports call for a more mechanistic understanding. Whereas the Japanese and Chinese make use of a more non-linear, organic or poetic understanding of the sports they use as metaphors. A standard Japanese management text is concerned with the art and strategy of swordsmanship (Musashi, 1982). Note that a study has explored how the USA forces were defeated in Vietnam because of their dependence on military strategies modelled on chess in comparison to the Vietnamese strategies modelled on go.

It is appropriate to ask whether the use of richer metaphors is not a major factor in the continuing success of Japanese business strategies. Conversely the relative economic weakness of some societies may in part be due to the inappropriateness of the metaphors through which their entrepreneurial initiatives are contextualized or to their metaphoric impoverishment.

2. Initiative

One interesting example in a management context is the tendency to describe an initiative as "taking off", whether it then "flies" or "crashes", and whether it was flown "by the seat of the pants". It would be interesting to investigate whether the richness and value of this metaphor could be further developed by imbuing it with modelling dimensions. Whether as an airplane or a bird, further dimensions could be added to increase the match between the concrete actions, controlling initiatives and feedback requirements, and the way in which these are integrated within the flying metaphor. Developing such metaphors could offer a whole new approach to educating people in the art of taking initiative and entrepreneurship. Other examples include "in the field" and "cultivating" contacts.

3. Team work

The question might be asked as to whether the success of team work was determined in part by the sophistication of the metaphor through which it was perceived. A limited amount of research has been undertaken on the personality characteristics associated with the distinct roles required to build a successful team. Typically much of the earlier work focused on building crews for strategic bomber planes. The more interesting recent work on management teams has identified eight roles or functions (Belbin, 1981).

The question requiring investigation is whether managers performing such distinct roles can further increase their effectiveness by their use of more powerful metaphors, both as a personal creativity aid and as an aid to communication between members of the team. One of the advantages of such metaphors is that they can be used to encode both the positive qualities of the role and the characteristic weakness. An example of this is the "resource investigator" role involving a capacity for contacting people and exploring anything new, especially in response to a challenge. This is a well-known informal role in an army platoon during war-time (the person who can "obtain" a camera inside a prisoner of war camp.) Many metaphorical terms are used to describe it. The point is whether such metaphors used are complementary or mutually undermining.

At the community level the use of different animal totems within an Indian tribe as symbolizing a special function could provide insight of relevance to governance of contemporary society. At the international level is there any significance for governance in the relationship between the "eagle " (USA) and the "bear" (USSR)? What sort of "menagerie" or "ecosystem" is the United Nations in these terms?

4. Management styles

Although metaphors are frequently used in management, the problem remains of establishing their use to the policy-making processes of governance. At this level distinct styles of management may be active or available as opportunities.

One recent study by Charles Handy of the London Graduate School of Business Studies (The Gods of Management; who they are, how they work and why they fail, 1979) uses four Greek deities to characterize the different styles of management. The four gods (and the associated organizational styles) are: Zeus (club), Apollo (role), Athena (task) and Dionysus (existential). He notes: "Each of the four gods gives its name to a cult or philosophy of management and to an organizational culture. Each of these cultures has also got a formal, more technical name, as well as a diagrammatic picture. The names, picture and Greek God each carries its own overtones, and these overtones combine to build up the concept I am trying to convey. They also help to keep the ideas in one's memory. These names and signs and Gods do not amount to definitions, for the cultures cannot be precisely defined, only recognized when you see them... It is important to realize that each of these cultures, or ways of running things is good - for something."

As Handy stresses, the problem is to know how to choose which god for which circumstances. It is the constraints and opportunities of the process of choosing that need to be embodied in metaphor and which call for further investigation.

5. Management texts

Metaphor is much used in selling new approaches to management and policy-making. Thus the editor of the Harvard Business Review has authored a book entitled When Giants Learn to Dance (R Kanter, 1989). Another by Dudley Lynch and Paul Kordis is entitled Strategy of the Dolphin; scoring a win in a chaotic world (1988). Here management is urged to think like a "dolphin", rather than a "shark", in order to keep on top of the "carps". A reviewer in a management journal greeted it as "a welcome respite from other management books that urge us to think like samurais, Attila the Hun, or members of the Prussian General Staff."

The point to be made, however, is whether a more systematic approach is required to discover what metaphors are beneficial to management thinking under what circumstances. It may indeed be useful to think like a shark or like a carp under certain circumstances.

6. Neuro-linguistic programming

It is important to note that aspects of the work on language and metaphor of Gregory Bateson, and of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, have been developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder (students of Bateson), and their followers, into a training programme for communication and therapy known as neuro-linguistic programming. This has given rise to an extensive literature, some of it specifically oriented to achieving more successful communication in business. Institutes and courses have been created in a number of countries, with provision for assessment of the competence of practitioners. Much specific attention is devoted to the use of metaphor. The degree of effort applied to this particular approach, and the quantity of material (whether published or in the form of course material), makes it difficult to determine whether the special style of neuro-linguistic programming does not effectively obscure the possibility of other applications of metaphor which have so far failed to attract significant support.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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