Levers, blueprints and roadmaps: the danger of “dark” metaphors

Sonja Blignaut
3 min readSep 22, 2017

For those who follow me, it’s probably become apparent that I have a love for metaphors and analogies. Because much of what I do involves introducing others to new concepts, I find them to be useful “hooks”, linking the new idea to something familiar, thereby providing a “scaffold of mind” while understanding grows.

Because of this, I have become more aware of the language we use — in fact I find myself always on the “hunt” for new and useful analogies. Unfortunately, not all metaphors are useful. I’ve become increasingly aware of how pervasive potentially problematic metaphors are in our every day business language, and how invisible they have become because of their ubiquity. I call these “dark metaphors” i.e. cloaked or hidden”.

Here are a few I’ve come across in the last two days:

“We leverage the science of language, coherence, and learning architecture to drive change.”

See if you can spot them before reading further …

Leverage … architecture … drive change …

What do all of these imply? Predictability, certainty, linearity i.e. everything that change and learning is not. This was probably (hopefully!) not what the authors intended, it’s the language we’ve become accustomed to using when communicating about these concepts in business.

How about this one:

“… we examine the nuts and bolts of what makes a powerful learning experience.”

Nuts & Bolts … so are learning experiences like a machine?

Or

Looking “under the hood” to understand culture; Fireing up, fixing or fine-tuning your culture. Creating a culture change “dashboard”.

So is culture like a car that can be taken apart, fixed and tuned? Again the metaphor implies predictability and mechanistic certainty. In this case it also implies that culture can be reduced to the sum of it’s parts i.e. it’s susceptable to reductionist techniques.

Here’s another one:

Having “Cultural Blueprints” or Strategy as the blueprint for the organisation. (Linked to the idea of building culture and even “building our people”.)

Let’s think this through … What is a Blueprint?

According to the dictionary it’s a design plan or other technical drawing. Synonyms include: plan, design, diagram, drawing, sketch, map, layout, representation. Or something that acts as a plan, model, or template.

So again, it implies culture can be designed and constructed like a building or machine.

“The Cartesian Framework often relies on structural or machine analogies — complicated objects that can be designed in detail in advance by architects and engineers. This vastly overstates our ability to design and control human organizations and suppresses notions of co-creation and organic concepts of cultivation, emergence, natural growth, development and adaptation. Roadmap carries similar connotations of control. After all, you can only create a roadmap if there are roads, which means that others have been there before you. Maps always have a scale and emphasize some features of the landscape at the expense of others, depending on their purpose. Who picks those and how?”

David K Hurst

Think about ideas like human capital or human resources, or creating a talent pipeline. What does this say about how we see people?

So what does this mean for those of us working in organisations and especially those who are challenging the status quo?

  • Become much more intentional about the language you use. Make sure the analogies and metaphors you use are congruent with your messag and intent. If for example I say that culture emerges and evolves, but I speak about finding the levers or drivers of change, then I’m not being congruent.
  • Really think about the meaning of the metaphor. E.g. what is a blueprint or a roadmap? What does it imply about the thing I’m talking about? Is that coherent with what I intend to say?
  • Make others, especially leaders and those in communications aware of the impact of their language. What does it mean if a leader says “our people are our most valuable assets”? Was that the intent?

Language creates reality: if we want organisations that are “human friendly” places where people can bring their best and creative selves to work, we need to have a critical look at the “containing spaces” we create with the language we use, and those are enabling or disabling.

“If you don’t change people’s language, you don’t change how they think”

- Dave Snowden

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Sonja Blignaut

Exploring our relationship with uncertainty. Enabling future fitness. Complexity nerd, Waysfinder, Artist, Scientist. https://complexityfit.com