Metaphors at work, an interview

I recently interviewed another IT coach about metaphors because I wanted a better way of speaking about the relationship between business and IT.

I am looking to kill the notion and reality of ‘silos’ in the organizations I work in. I believe that a change in the language we use and specifically, the metaphors we use, can change the mood of a conversation to that end.  There are some really useful thoughts in here about the role of conversation and dialogue, practicing when it is easy, etc.  Have a read and let me know what you think.
Here is the interview:
I’m looking for metaphors to describe business (customer) to IT (supplier) relationship

Pilot and co-pilot doesn’t fit.

Can you help me find one?

A vehicle for: direction and impulsion
or direction and speed

but it could also be (like in pair programming) :

tactical and strategic

I drive,
you schedule the trip on the map

or it could be:

I drive (customer)
you make it a safe vehicle (IT)

or it could be:

Where do we have to go (to make money for the business, etc)
and: how can we go there?

Yes, those are metaphors of a journey… taken together.

What if the tactical guy sees an opportunity that the strategic guy doesn’t?

Like when the tire needs air? Or the engine needs oil?


If they’re not used to such events, they will not know how to deal with it. They will miss opportunities and face risks.

How do they get used to dealing with such events? Do they play with the who-decides-what game?

They build a shared aptitude to it…

How do they do that?

Simple: They have conversations. When the driver and copilot have a new kind of decision to make, they have a conversation. That’s what they do.

What they don’t do is:

-try to fit the new kind of decision into the framework of old kinds of decisions (called process)
– try to avoid the subject, waiting for the decision to take itself on its own
– try to drive the decision unilaterally, while the other is not looking

How do they train themselves to have good conversations?

They start with small subjects.

They don’t wait until the project is full of big issues, so that when medium size problems occurs, they already have some practice. And they can deal with it by means of a conversation.

This is one of the pillars of agility: individuals and interactions (having conversations) over process and tools (avoiding communication)
Your mindset enters here, because you’re the one wearing the badge “talk to me”. You’re the one leading, conversation-wise [as a coach].
Oh, YES: the badge.

Talk To Me!

Talk To Me!

This is all brilliant… but this big huge organization doesn’t have lines drawn for those conversations – it seems – between the right people.


I hear you. Then it probably means that BIG conversations cannot take place overnight, or even tomorrow. The big huge structure is not ready for that. Besides, “we have always done it the old way” .
That means that only small conversations can take place I guess, and maybe not between the big guys who need to have the big conversations.

Well, that’s coherent with the fact that they need to start small  just like a big fuel engine needs a small electrical engine to get started or like a giant cargo ship rudder needs a tiny rudder — going in the opposite direction — to start moving the ship.

In other words, it won’t be a big conversation at first, and it won’t be between the right people so the communication gaps and the project discrepancies won’t be solved quickly; big projects are hard to maneuver.

Metaphors are so useful.

Metaphors are everywhere.

A process diagram, as complicated as it can be, is still a metaphor, too.


For fear and uncertainty


Where there’s a process, there are fewer questions and agents need not pay attention, they just follow the steps.

It’s very practical for *complex* stuff but applied for simple stuff, it just makes this stuff *complicated*.

The distinction between complex and simple within an organization or department, is based on their stories about teamwork.

If team = group of individuals who need to be told what to do, we go for complicated.
If team = multi-mind awareness with holistic emergent behavior, we keep work simple, and the team figures it out!

(those are two extremes on a line)


For a lot of large companies team = horsepower
more people = more basic tasks piled (e.g. more code cranked)

For some companies,
more people = more diverse response to a given unpredictable problem = more smarts
Thanks for helping me reflect on this salient topic!


You are welcome.

Explore posts in the same categories: Clean Language, Dialogue, Organizational Change

Tags: , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

2 Comments on “Metaphors at work, an interview”

  1. Sharon Small Says:

    Metaphors are so useful. They begin the conversation about what each person wants and what that might be like for them. Even if you do not have the same metaphor for the same process that is great information and the beginning of finding out what it is like for the other person. Andrea has been working with and looking at metaphors for a while now and she is a great resource in finding out more about how they can be useful and the questions you might ask when you hear one in your work conversations.

    Thank you Andrea for this great post and interview 🙂


  2. Paul Boos Says:

    Try this as a Metaphor….

    Native Scout to Native Guide to Guided Non-Native Explorer

    The Native Scout is the person in the business that is out determining what is needed. This might be a product marketer, an operational mission specialist (thinking military), or perhaps an entrepreneur. They are discovering their landscape.

    The Native Guide is the person (could be the same as the Scout) that helps others understand the landscape and how to navigate it or use it effectively. They might be the product owner or some other similar role that translates the needs into something more refined (like requirements). When working with an explorer, they should also be thinking of what should be done sustainably from a business point of view.

    Lastly, the explorer is the one who is trying to help the team navigate the landscape for some purpose – building a product of some sort might be the best. They rely on the Guide to help them chose the right stuff to arrive at the desired outcome.

    Not sure it is the best, but that might work…

    If that doesn’t resonate you could try –

    Captain – visionary (product marketer, et cetera from above)
    First Mate – product owner
    Helmsman – guides the team (Scrum Master, team facilitator, et cetera)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: