Exploring Metaphors of Change Management

organization change visualization May 21, 2015

At the 2015 Association of Change Management Professionals conference, The Grove’s Gisela Wendling and David Sibbet led more than 800 participants in an hour-long general session exploring how to use metaphors to communicate about change management. David’s reflections on the experience follow.




Metaphors provided the doorway into an exciting community conversation at the recent conference of the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP). The organization challenged Gisela Wendling and me to lead a provocative and interactive hour-long general session, aimed at finding a clearer way that participants could respond to the question, “What is change management?”


Setting Up the Dialogue

Designing a session for 800 people was a challenge—metaphors provided the solution. Our strategy was to facilitate three simple conversations that were supported by a standard Grove tabletop template, customized for exploring change-management themes.

The first conversation simply asked participants to share with the people at their table when they joined the change-management field and trade stories about what it was like in that era. Everyone loves to tell stories, so this approach got both old timers and newcomers involved. Gisela facilitated pop-up sharing afterwards in the large group as I recorded the comments on my new Microsoft Surface Pro using Sketchbook Pro 3 (yes, it’s as good as using a Wacom tablet).



The second conversation launched with people being asked to identify factors, or “drivers,” that make other people either receptive or resistant to hearing about change management. The resulting ideas were added to the “Drivers” section of the templates at each table.


Speaking Metaphorically About Change Management

Finally we held the third conversation, an exploration of metaphors. After Gisela set up the assignment, I explained that humans need familiar images to connect with when looking at new situations. This is why a simple image on a slide works so well when presenting to a group. Such images serve as “doorways” into the conversation.

I then told the group about a conversation I had with a top manager at a large company regarding the possibility of designing a planning process with him. “I was explaining graphic facilitation, but the client was only moderately engaged. Then I noticed a big picture of a sailboat on the back wall of his office, so I asked him, ‘Are you a sailor?’ ‘Yes, I am’ was his quick response.”

This gave me a clue that a sailing-based metaphor would likely resonate for him. I then compared the process of graphic facilitation to setting a course while leaving flexibility for daily tacking. When using the lens of his sailing experience, he understood at a whole different level—and our conversation deepened.


Harvesting the Metaphors

The assignment at the conference was simple: Gisela asked everyone to answer the question, “Change management is like a (fill in the blank)” imagining that they were talking to an internal client with whom they wanted to have a conversation about its value. Participants were asked to put their metaphors into the circles on the template. The tables erupted in conversation for ten minutes.



Then Gisela asked people to share as David recorded the inputs and projected them onto the large screens. Cascades of laughter and insight ensued. “It’s like personal change,” began someone. A second participant didn’t use words, but made two gestures: a messy, meandering river and a circular motion. “It’s like a fairy tale,” said another. “You go through it together, you have all these rich experiences, and you live happily ever after.” Everyone exploded in laughter at the irony. “It’s like WD–40.” More laughter. “If you don’t use change management, it’s like going down a water slide without the water.” Howls. “It’s like planning for a family vacation.” ”It’s a marathon.” ”It’s like the birth of a baby—you are trying to avoid a C-section.” “It’s like climbing a mountain, and the tough part is coming back down.”


Why Metaphors Work

Human communication processes are deeply embedded in making comparisons between what we know and what we are trying to explain or understand: as in “this is like this,” and “that is like that.” When people are asked to use metaphor and images, memories of experiences that give meaning to the metaphor are released. A different mode of communication is evoked that is right-brain-focused, softer-edged, and more permissive. It invites a less analytical and more open-ended exploration.


Metaphors Will Transform Your Change Work

When you find the right metaphor for your change project, you will recognize it by the strong positive response it invokes. Once people are engaged, then you can shift to the more left-brain technical concepts involved. As you gain experience, prepare for smoother sailing in your change work.



Metaphor in Grove Storymaps®: Two sample Grove case studies highlight client organizations employing strong metaphors for change processes. One group found success with a bridge metaphor, while another needed the construction of a ramp to show the level of effort needed to take them to a higher plane.

Learn more about the Grove’s organization change services.

Workshop Opportunity: An additional 2015 session will be offered (Aug 26-28) for the Designing and Leading Change Intensive with Gisela Wendling, Ph.D. and David Sibbet. Build your capacity to design and lead organization and social change within and across organizations, as well as across sectors.

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