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Monday, 11 January 2016

Coaching - and use of metaphors

I often get asked why I use metaphors when helping others get back on track - here's my response.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes the more you talk about a problem, the more confused you become. Additionally that the more people that are involved, the more barriers and resistance to hearing different ideas there are, and how much further away the solution becomes?

The challenge when we have any problem is we get stuck in the content - the detail - and since it's the detail that we're stuck with - it's not a surprise that sometimes it's the detail that keeps us stuck.

For example how easy to get caught up in:
  • He said this 
  • Then she said that
  • and how dare she 
  • And then you never guess what happened
  • How rude
and before you know it 
  • I'm never speaking to them again
  • Unless they apologise then xxxx!?!
  • I'm just going to do what I wanted to do in the first place - stuff them! 
  • I'm just going to ignore it
Or you ask someone to tell you about the challenge, and 3 hours later you're still there. As they fill you with every detail they think you need to hear - so you can see it the same way as they do anyway!

Other often used phrases in response to solution finding can include:
  • We've always done it like this
  • If it aint broke don't fix it
  • We tried that before, and it didn't work then
  • But what will I do then 
  • I like doing it this way 
  • It won't work
  • We're not going there 
  • I don't want to talk about it
  • I'm bored about talking about it
  • No
Or other variants in the same vein that force you to defend your position and reinforcing your own point of view. Making it harder and harder to be able to stand back, get some perspective and find a solution.

The problem with trying to solve a challenge using the current logic is, therefore, that we get caught up in that logic and detail. Perhaps more importantly we strongly hold on to our judgements, beliefs and assessments about the situation, and believe them to be correct. Which means alternatives are not so easy to identify, and consensus is hard to achieve.

If a picture paints a thousand words then I like to say that a metaphor paints a thousand pictures. This may or may not be completely nor scientifically accurate but what I hope it does convey - is the richness of metaphors - and all without having to use thousands of thousands of words to describe a situation.

Try it for a moment - what do you think supplier management in organisations involves? Or put another way - once you've placed an order with a supplier how much attention do you give the supplier?

If the many procurement horror stories are anything to go by - or conversations I have on flights - then orders are placed and suppliers just expected to deliver. Until there's a problem of course!

I use gardening as a metaphor for supplier management because by doing so we can use everything non purchasing managers know about gardening, and apply it to purchasing (that's where painting a thousand pictures comes in). Which means suddenly they start realising that suppliers need pruning, weeding, mowing, watering, dead heading, composting and sometimes some time in the greenhouse!  It opens up a whole new conversation about:
  • How many suppliers are like that tree whose roots are undermining the foundations of the house
  • What to do with weed like suppliers who pop up everywhere 
  • Who is in charge of the tool shed, and keeping the tools sharpened
  • Who's the gardener and who do they report to
  • What's the objective for the garden
  • What soil do you have
  • What type of plants thrive in this environment
  • How many plants do you want 
  • Do you want all year round colour, or just summer colour
  • Whether to have a compost heap, and if so when to spread it about
  • and so on. 
Can you get a sense that saying "purchasing is like gardening" has opened up the conversation in a way that talking about procurement theory might not have done (more here too). Especially with non procurement managers in the business - who I'm assuming don't live and breathe purchasing like I have for 30 years.

Another tool I use in my coaching is Landscaping Your Life - it's a process I've used for 15 years - and uses nature as a metaphor for our lives. That is we use the richness that is contained within nature to provide insight into how we might want to relate differently to a situation we're struggling with.

These images may help convey it a little better. For example if we decided the solution to a problem was to be more bear or eagle like - those few words are conveying so much more....




Yes metaphors are in the eye of the beholder. Our minds are also meaning making machines, and therefore they are very good at noticing the pattern within a metaphor that does apply, and ignoring everything that doesn't. So using the bear and eagle as a metaphor could have brought to mind the viscous aspects of their nature - but it didn't. However it might have done when asked to apply it to a different situation that perhaps did require more self preservation like behaviours.

There is no right or wrong with metaphors - all they do is open up a conversation so that the current situation, barriers to change, options, opportunities and the desired outcome are seen from a different perspective. This enables solutions to be found regarding what action to take in order for progress to be made.

Alison Smith
Inspiring change inside and out (more here on why that's important)

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