The use and misuse of metaphors in organisations

The history of employee engagement is littered with inappropriate metaphors.  I remember a client once insisting that we structure a big picture about financial services around the metaphor of a nuclear waste processing plant.  It did make me wonder about their culture. But the bigger problem I think is not so much inappropriateness as lack of clarity – what does the metaphor mean?

For some people the diversity of interpretation is actually the whole point.  As long as the picture gets people talking then does it really matter what’s in it?  If the conversation is entirely exploratory then maybe that’s true, but in my experience that’s not why most managers are using visual language.  Most managers want to catalyse conversation that is relevant to their outcomes.  And most managers want the core elements of their story to be interpreted in a consistent way.

So how do you avoid metaphors blowing up in your face?  Metaphor theory has been a hot topic in linguistics for a few decades now, as academics have started to realise just how pervasive a phenomenon it is, and how basic it is to all of human thought.  If you’re like me then it was just another figure of speech you were taught in English class, alongside similes, oxymoron, alliteration and so on.  But on a more basic level, metaphor is really just saying something is like something that it is not.  And if you think about it, from this perspective all of language is metaphorical, because the words we use are not like the things the words refer to.

The reason we think of some phrases as being more metaphorical than others is that some comparisons are more obviously “wrong” than others.  To say “this project is miles off course” is just as metaphorical as saying “this project is a hamburger”.  If all speech is metaphorical to some degree, then the key for avoiding subjectivity in interpretation is to choose metaphorical expressions that accord most closely with universal experiences.

Joseph Grady has called these more basic associations “primary metaphors”.  Grady’s idea is that there are experiences that are so baked into normal human development that we can effectively take their interpretation for granted.  We’ve made a series of cards that we use to teach this idea in our training – here are a few examples:

Ideas like “power is up” or “time is motion” are not novel, linguistic creations.  They are hard-baked into our experience from childhood.  It’s really hard to imagine someone saying “our relationship has cooled” or “we have moved further apart” and interpret that as meaning that the relationship has got stronger, because our experience as babies is that our primary caregiver provided warmth and closeness.  The metaphor is baked into the language, and makes sense to anyone with a normal upbringing.

So rather than just completely embrace or completely castigate metaphors en masse, we find it more helpful to distinguish between creative metaphors on one end of a spectrum (“the project is a dragon boat”) and primary metaphors on the other (“the project is big”).  If you want to avoid subjective interpretation then stay toward the primary end.

Is there a place for creative metaphors in business?  Absolutely!  But their natural fit is for sensemaking and innovation, not for communication.  Think about it – metaphors are a way of drawing comparisons between disparate concepts, so asking a question during a group session that explicitly demands a metaphorical response (“that’s like what?”) is going to reframe the content through a new lens for the whole group.  In a situation that is ambiguous (or equivocal, as Karl Weick would say), using creative metaphors increases the chances of someone coming up with a new way of describing the situation that yields better insights / makes more sense / points to a solution.

The story above about project dragon boat is facetious, but this sort of thing happens all the time.  The thing is, it’s only a joke for the people outside the room.  For the people inside the room it feels really good.  Even a completely ridiculous metaphor will feel good if it helps you make sense of your situation, because making sense always feels good.  It’s only once it moves out of the environment in which it was created, and in which it made sense, that you start to have a problem.

This isn’t to say that a creative metaphor can’t be used on a broader scale.  The Walt Disney Company is famous for using a studio metaphor across the company, with employees as cast members and so on.  But if you’re going to attempt this then you need to be really sure that your metaphor is going to generate the feelings and associations you expect, and you need to invest massively in making the metaphor ubiquitous, not just across comms materials but job titles, department names, marketing strategy, internal brand etc etc etc.  But we’re now well outside the realm of visual language.

To summarise, if you’re thinking about metaphors as something you might choose to use in your picture making, then think again:  Metaphors are pervasive, whether you like it or not.  Instead, think about them as a spectrum between primary associations (power is up, time is distance, stress is pressure etc.) and creative associations (power is a mustard seed, time is a honeypot, stress is a hamburger etc.), and stick to primary associations unless you’re prepared to deal with the fallout of having your imagery interpreted in a multitude of different ways.

If you’re new to these ideas but find the subject of metaphor intriguing, then you might be interested in exploring the young discipline of Cognitive Linguistics – this is the book most people start with.

Making visual language less subjective

I once heard about an argument breaking out in an ISO committee meeting about whether or not pictures should be included in the specification of a new management system standard.  The pro-picture lobby argued that the wording was too hard to understand without a diagram.  The anti-picture lobby argued that including pictures would introduce an element of subjectivity, whereas the words could all be rigorously defined in the prologue.

I think a lot of this stems from a misunderstanding of what visual language should and shouldn’t be used for.  We’ve written before about this – try explaining a 2×2 matrix, or the shape described by a quadratic equation, or the outline of North America – in words!  But when you start trying to visualise more conceptual content – business models, social systems, customer journeys and the like – the question remains, to what degree will the visual meaning be subjective?

This is a problem we’ve struggled with a lot over the years, and we’ve discovered that while you can clearly never completely eradicate subjectivity entirely, you can go an awful long way.  Once more, my favourite everyday example of this is the way we use maps.  When you pull up Google maps, you don’t spend your time thinking how subjective the visual language is, because you’re too busy using the visual language to explore, locate yourself, or find a route.  The reason is that wherever possible the visual language of the map corresponds with your experience of the world – trees are green, rivers look blue, and so on.

Now what’s true of maps is also true of conceptual pictures.  The more your visual language corresponds to the way people experience the world, the clearer the meaning will be.  Just to be clear, I’m not saying that pictures aren’t subjective.  The point is that there are ways of depicting things that 99% of people will read the same way.

There will always be 1% who see the world in a beautifully, stimulatingly non-conventional way.  But the point of all types of language – whether visual or verbal – is to convey meaning.  If you want to create visuals that 99% of people read the same way, then there are a number of principles you need to understand about the mind and the visual intelligence.  One of the main purposes of this site is to share what these principles are … stay tuned!

How meaningful is your management model diagram?

One of our ambitions is to find a way of evaluating the “meaning quotient” of diagrams, that is, how much information the diagram conveys that you wouldn’t get from just reading the text.  You would get it by measuring the % of non-verbal information conveyed proportional to the volume of visual language employed.  Even without the rigorous measurement system though it’s still a useful concept to play with.  Let’s try it out …

Here’s the famous McKinsey 7S model of organisational design.  It’s a brilliant example of how little a diagram can add to the concepts it’s intended to illustrate.

The first time I saw it I remember thinking “that’s not a model, that’s a list!”  And of course, if you look at the text of the many management books in which it’s cited, it is indeed accompanied by a list that describes each element in turn:

  • Hard elements:
    • Strategy
    • Structure
    • Systems
  • Soft elements:
    • Staff
    • Skills
    • Style
  • Central element:
    • Shared values

Now, this list of words is clearly meaningful (and presumably helpful, given how frequently it crops up).  But what meaning does the visual language of the diagram add?

The colours merely represent the categorical hierarchy already explicit in the hierarchy of the list.  The lines connect everything to everything, so don’t say anything beyond the rather obvious “these concepts are interconnected”.

In fact, the only meaning the diagram conveys significantly better than the list, is the fact that Shared Values are central.  You can’t show a spatial concept like “central” in a linear form like a bullet list.  But otherwise, it’s just a list.  You could rotate the outer balls around however you want and no meaning would be created or destroyed.

This isn’t to say the diagram isn’t useful.  The 7S framework is extremely useful, and having a recognisable visualisation makes it, well, recognisable.  But what the lack of specifically visual meaning says to me is that the 7S framework is more of a list than a model.

Google around and it’s easy to find even more extreme examples.  Check out this HR diagram, which I found on Pinterest:


At least the 7S framework has some implicit categorisation.  Here there’s nothing, it is literally a list.  If you think of my rough definition of a meaning quotient as the amount of conceptual information that the visual language conveys over and above what is conveyed by the words alone, then in this diagram the quotient would be approaching zero.

In fact, the visual language here actually gets in the way of meaning.  Is there a reason why the shapes are circles?  No.  Do the colours mean anything?  No.  Does the particular arrangement of the circles mean anything?  No.  The only visual meaning I can pick up is that the concept of a Human Resource Management System is in some way superordinate to the other concepts.  But that’s because it’s the title of the list:

Human Resource Management System

  • HR Management
  • Payroll Management
  • Recruitment Management
  • Training Management

Why do we end up with diagrams like this?  It happens because most models in business start out as a series of bullet points on a flipchart during a brainstorm.


If you want to publish it internally or externally it has to look decent, so it goes to a designer.  The designer doesn’t understand the meaning of the content because they weren’t in the session, but they do know how to make it look nice.  You end up with an aesthetically pleasing list, but a list nonetheless.

Here’s another famous model – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  It’s usually drawn something like this:


Now this is not just a list.   The verticality of the diagram represents levels of dependency in a hierarchy – the upper blocks would not be there without the lower ones to rest on.  This is not the same as a list – if you switched the order here, it would mean something different.  The closest you can get in text is an ordered list:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety needs
  3. Love and belonging needs
  4. Self-esteem needs
  5. Self-actualization needs

But of course the point of the model is not that the elements are discrete, but that they form a chain of dependency – you can’t meet one level of need without satisfying all the needs below it.  Saying that they’re ordinal and putting them into a chronological list ends up visually inverting the order of the pyramid.

The point is, the visual language is instantly conveying meaning to the viewer on an instinctive level that would take a paragraph to explain verbally.

The reason the pyramid works instinctively is because the visual structure matches the concepts in a way that agrees with our experience of the world.  In the world, the downward force of gravity means support always comes from underneath, because objects fall downwards:


You sometimes see progressive leadership teams inverting their organisational structure diagrams, because they see themselves (or want to be seen by others) as supporting the organisation, not the other way round:


The support metaphor still works because of the implicit force of gravity working downwards.  I’ve always found these diagrams unlikely, not just because gravity makes it look like the organisation is going to fall over, but because another basic meaning of verticality is that power comes from above.

But this is a problem with the concepts, not the visual language.  Whether the pyramid is upside down or the right way up, the visual elements have meaning that’s not conveyed by the text.

So, visual language can convey things that are very hard to illustrate using text alone.  A simple example is the 2×2 matrix, which adds a huge amount of meaning over the corresponding words.  Try explaining a Prisoner’s Dilemma using text alone, and see how much longer it takes:


Any management consultant worth his or her salt will struggle to get through a day without spotting a 2×2 matrix somewhere.

And this I suppose is the difficulty of mastering visual language:  It’s not enough just to be well versed in design principles.  You need to understand the conceptual structure of the content to be able to match it to the appropriate elements of visual language.  And a really good test of this is to ask yourself strictly, how much meaning do these visual elements add?  If they don’t add very much, then what you’ve really got is an aesthetically pleasing list.

Now let’s finish by looking at some really effective visual language, in one of the most popular business diagrams of the last five years:


This is XPlane’s visualisation of Alex Osterwalder’s business model canvas.  If you reduce it to just a list of words like this …

Business model canvas

  • Key Activities
  • Value Proposition
  • Customer Relationships

… look how much meaning is lost!  It’s clear that the visual language is conveying meaning over and above the list of words, for example:

  • The distinction between vertical and horizontal blocks has meaning: Vertical blocks represent delivery elements, whereas horizontal blocks represent financial elements
  • Size of gaps between blocks has meaning: The gap that the arrows fit in represents an organisational separation between producer and consumer
  • Interconnections have meaning: Notice the tabs on the left, which represent collaboration
  • The icons have meaning, acting as a mental shortcut to the concepts they represent.
  • And so on …

So, the Meaning Quotient.  Maybe some day we’ll be able to measure it.  In the meantime, why don’t we ask ourselves the next time we visualise a management model, how much meaning is the visual language actually adding here?  And if it’s not adding anything, was it really a model to begin with, or just a list?

Visualising the journey of transformation

Here’s a great visual tool we made this summer for anyone who wants to get people talking about organisational change.  Just click on the link and use the interface to pan and zoom in like you would with Google Maps:

The Transformation Journey interactive rich picture

We’d like to develop this tool further, so do please give us your feedback on what you’d like to see in future versions.

What’s the cost of bad communication?

Can you afford the time to bring your content to life?  Or can you afford not to?

crowded train platformI’m writing this stuck on a train, and it’s struck me what a good analogy train delays are for bad communication.  This whole blog is effectively about using visual language to hack system 1 – that is, to make complex things make sense quickly and intuitively.  But what is the cost of failing to do this?

You see, communication problems have a compounding effect.  If someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying after ten minutes, then you’ve wasted ten minutes of their time.  But if a roomful of people don’t understand what your saying, then you’ve wasted ten minutes x 200 people, the equivalent of 30 hours.  Then there’s the knock-on effect – if the content was important, then all those people will go out wasting more time trying to figure out what it was you were trying to explain to them.

So next time you’re planning a presentation, writing a document, creating an instruction manual, building a user interface or whatever, imagine yourself as a train driver and your audience as the passengers.  Then ask yourself:  How many people are on board, and how important is it that they get to their destination?  It doesn’t matter if it’s just a 5-minute pre-read e-mail or a 5-minute presentation – if there are a 1000 people on board, then the potential compound delay is not 5 minutes but 1000 x 5mins = 3.5 days.  With great communication comes great responsibility.

System 1 and visual meaning

We love Daniel Kahnemann.  And we’re not aloneThinking, Fast and Slow has given us a whole range of useful tools for managing our work and making it more meaningful.

For those of you not familiar with it, Daniel’s work centres around the characterisation of the mind as composed of two “systems” – system one which understands things instinctively (“thinking fast”) and system two which processes information in deliberate conscious steps (“thinking slow”).  So for example, system one knows how this person is feeling without having to think about it:


But it’s clueless about how to solve …


… which requires System 2.

It’s just a metaphor, but it’s a neat one.  The practical implication of the book is that our lives work better when we understand the two systems, and know which one is appropriate for each situation.

It’s an idea we’ve started using more and more in our work to describe how useful (or not useful!) our pictures are.  If everyone we show it to gets what our picture is trying to say, then we describe it as “System 1 friendly”.  If they spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, then something’s gone wrong.  The same of course is true of all visual tools – maps, human machine interfaces, dashboards, charts, you name it.

So how do you make visual tools more System 1 friendly?  The answer, as ever, lies in connecting with the experience of your audience.  Think, for example, about the visual language of maps.  What makes road maps intuitive?

Well, the experience that maps connect to is that of the physical landscape and its geographical features.  So the more closely the visual language of the map replicates the visual experience of the geography, the faster System 1 can understand what things are.

Sometimes this is obvious.  I haven’t encountered a full-colour map that has not shaded woodland in green, because that’s the colour we prototypically associate with trees:


But if you imagine for a second someone was creating a new series of maps and decided that woodland would be purple, you can see that suddenly System 2 will be called into action, because the symbols no longer connect intuitively with experience:


Here’s a subtler example.  In the UK, roadmaps invariably have motorways shaded in blue and A roads in green.  Here the visual language isn’t taking its cue from the physical characteristics of roads (which are all black with white stripes), but the small number of things that differentiate one road from another.  In this case, motorways are larger than other roads, and have blue signs compared to the green signs on A roads, so this is reflected in the visual language:


Also notice how dual carriageways have a line down the middle, giving System 1 a convenient connection with the experience of seeing a central reservation.

Now imagine this visual language is taken away – all roads are the same size and the same colour.  Reading the map is now more like asking someone a long multiplication problem i.e. System 2 has to step up.


And this is the point:  System 2 hates stepping up!  It takes way more mental energy than System 1.  This is why we’re drawn to interfaces that are clean and intuitive, and repelled by complex, hard-to-read charts.

So, try this yourself.  Whether you’re making a picture of a complex system, a visual for a Powerpoint slide, a User Interface, or whatever.  Feed System 1 with cues that it can use to connect to its experience of the world, and you’ll end up with much happier users!

Everything is a thing

If there’s one thing that will transform your ability to make intuitive conceptual visualisations, it’s to start thinking of abstract concepts as physical things.

There was a great episode of The West Wing once in which all the characters periodically told each other over the phone “sorry, can’t talk right now, we’ve got a ‘thing’”. The idea of a “thing” as “a complex situation that would take too long to explain” became a thing in itself.

We use the word “thing” to describe anything and everything – objects, events, ideas, emotions, perceptions, illusions, relationships, events, you name it. But no matter how abstract whatever you’re describing, your brain is always thinking of it in terms of things, and the archetypal thing is a physical object.

Understanding that all things are modelled by your brain on physical objects is immensely powerful, because it means the question “what does that look like?” always makes sense, even when the thing is an abstract concept.


Most of our work involves mapping operating models, so we’re typically depicting things like departments, processes, teams, IT systems, meetings, reporting lines and so on. These are all abstract concepts to some degree. But thinking about them like physical objects begs questions like “Does it have a size or a shape?”, “Does it have hard edges?”, “Does it have a weight?”, “What other things does it look like?” and so on.

As a really simple example, take the evolution of a typical Powerpoint slide. You make a slide and create a bullet list of the things you want to talk about. In a business context these will almost invariably be abstract concepts. For example:


A week before your presentation, you send the slide to the graphics team, who apply a corporate template, the right branding colours and some whizzy lines:


Or, more likely, you do it yourself, applying random text box styles so that at least it’s not a set of bullet points:


Now, blur your eyes slightly and see what the brain sees in the first millisecond of viewing these slides, before it has time to read the text. What it sees is five things. It can tell they’re things, because they have size, shape, edge, position, just like real physical things in everyday life. But apart from the fact there’s five of them, the visual language gives you no assistance whatsoever in intuiting what they are, or how they’re related to each other.

Now, looking at what these terms mean, it’s very clear that they’re not at all the same kind of thing. But having five boxes, especially when they’re the same colour as in the branded version, tells your brain that they are. So it’s not just that the visual meaning of the slide is limited, it’s actually tricking you.

The first thing to do in this situation is to analyse the concepts and categorise them properly, so that you know which concepts are conceptually similar and should therefore look similar. In this example, service levels and efficiency rates are both measures of team performance, whereas staffing levels and staff satisfaction are aspects of the team itself. Recruitment is an activity, not a measure. So if we just make similar objects look similar, you end up with something like this:


If the brain treats abstract concepts the same way it treats physical objects, then similar things should look similar and dissimilar things should look dissimilar, because that’s the way we experience things in the physical world.

This is just one application of the principle that everything is a thing; you can ask yourself anything about concepts that you can ask about physical objects. How hard edged is this thing? Is it solid or fluid? Does it have a length? Is it bright or dark, clear or opaque? Where is it in relation to other things?

Thinking in this way, the shapes, locations and flow of objects can start to tell a story. In the following version, you can tell a lot of what the slide is saying before you’ve even read it:


So, in conclusion, there’s no big divide between the world of physical objects and the world of conceptual things. In our mental models of the world, everything is a thing.

In our experience, this is not so much a rule as a state of mind. Once you start seeing everything as a thing, figuring out how best to represent abstract ideas becomes a whole lot easier. Try it!

Making the world a more meaningful place

I like to talk about “meaning”.  A lot.  I believe that a more meaningful world is a better world, and I want you to believe that too.  And I want you to realise that making the world a more meaningful place is not some arcane mystical notion, but a practical skill that you can learn and put into practice every day.

Now, first up, meaning has two related senses, the first to do with significance (“that was a very meaningful experience”) and the second to do with things making sense (“I know what that means”).  Interesting as deep and meaningfuls can be, I am not going to talk about the first sense, only the second i.e. what is happening when you look at something and know what it means.

Imagine this situation.  You’re driving home from work and you
unexpectedly find your normal route is shut – for roadworks say.  So you take a diversion down some roads you’ve never used before.  At some point, the new roads reconnect with the old roads you knew before, and you probably say something like “Oh, I never knew that’s where that road went”.


In other words, your mental model has just been updated and now better reflects your experience of the world – a bit like adding an extra bit of map to a SatNav.  “Meaning” may sound a fancy word, but this is all it is – it’s the feeling that your mental model of the world (and the symbols you use to represent that mental model) corresponds to your experience of how the world actually is.

And boy does it feel good!  Every time you learn something in this way, your brain releases a shot of dopamine.  Sometimes this is dramatic (like when you smile because the film’s twist ending puts everything in place) and sometimes it’s subtle (“ah that’s where that road goes”).  Sometimes it’s conflicted (like when you get a terrible diagnosis, but it at least lets you make sense of six months of baffling symptoms).  But it’s always there.  And if you identify with this, then it’s not a huge leap to realise that a more meaningful world is also a happier world.

So how do you use this to make the world a more meaningful place?  Well, very simple.  When a diversion forces you offtrack, the meaning comes when your new route (of which you have had no experience) connects with your old route (of which you have).

In the same way, you make meaning for your audience when you connect with their experience.  It really is as simple as that.  Everything else on this blog elaborates this central principle.  So use examples that will have experience.  Use the language that they have experience using.  Use pictures of things they have seen before.  And (most importantly), structure your content in the same way your brain structures experience.  But that’s a subject for another day

What is “Visual Meaning”?

Visual Meaning is not just the name of our company, but the name of our discipline, which is understanding the way people make sense of the things they see.

By “visual” we mean everything people see – words, diagrams, symbols – not just pictures.  By “meaning” we mean the connection between our experience of being in the world and the things we use to describe that experience.  This connection is something you feel – a sense of resonance when you see things that makes sense to you … a kind of feedback loop, like this:


The reason our company exists is because there are too many things in the world – often really important things – that should be meaningful but just aren’t.  We use too many abstract words, pictures and diagrams that don’t connect to experiences in a way that people can relate to.  Where there is no connection between our experiences of the world and the way we are representing those experiences, meaning breaks down.  In business this happens over and over and over and over and over again:


Our mission is to rebuild these connections and make the world a more meaningful place.  This requires us to be able to do two things:

  • Firstly, master visual language, understanding how people make sense of what they see, so that the visual models we make are read in the way we expect them to be read
  • Secondly, master the analytical skills that allow us to fully understand the content we are trying to depict, so that our visual models match the mental models of the viewer

When visual models connect with mental models, meaning is made.  Visual Meaning as a business is about doing this for clients.  Visual Meaning as a discipline is about understanding how those connections are made.