Business metaphors

I’m a big fan of metaphor and analogy, as is witnessed by the title of this blog (even if I have reduced it to an abbreviation these days). In the world of business, however, it seems that metaphorical and analogous comparison for the business of doing business is limited to one of two spheres: military or sporting.

At heart, I’m a pacifist. That might bias my acceptance of militaristic metaphor. But it seems to me to be generally inappropriate in two ways: firstly because it perpetuates a machismo in parts of business that are generally so far away from the roughty-toughty world of the military as to be untrue (yes, IT Security specialists- I might mean you, with your DMZs and all. You are the nerdiest of the nerds in reality, and camoflague-coating your nerdiness doesn’t fool me); and secondly, because military metaphor in business implicitly implies a command and control-style of leadership that doesn’t really work in most modern businesses (and to a great extent doesn’t work, or get used, in the modern military either).

Sporting metaphors are also, in my view, flawed. Sport is either based on the performance of the pure individual (athletics, darts, freediving etc.), or teams but where the team is comprised of people with clearly defined roles and expected contributions (football, curling, kabaddi, etc). The challenge with sporting metaphors is that modern businesses are highly complex, highly matrixed organisations where people have to continually switch hats, but also collaborate with colleagues, partners and even competitors on a regular basis. Just imagine a matrix-managed football team (actually – you don’t need to. Just watch some videos of Watford playing in the season with Gianluca Vialli and Ray Wilkins in charge…)

So what would make a more appropriate framework for business metaphor? “Family” springs to mind – and is used occasionally but usually in a one-dimensional “everyone gets on as part of one big happy…” variety. The bits about “having to get on even though you don’t like them”, and the “mad Aunt who lives with cats” should get more of an airing in a business metaphor context. At a macro level, the way in which colony creatures like ants work might also be quite good, but tend to devalue the contribution of the individual in a way that might not be valuable.

Metaphor, of course, always runs the risk of ending up making you look like David Brent or Swiss Tony, so maybe it’s just about being able to pull from a broader source than merely sport and killing people…

3 thoughts on “Business metaphors

  1. I used to lead a team of customer service professionals. We had high standards and were seen as the team that others aspired to be like. I recently met one of my colleagues who worked with me in that team, and asked her why she thought we had been so successful.
    ‘Because we were like a family’ was the reply.
    So I guess there might be some truth in your opinions, Matt.
    As far as sporting analogies are concerned, I loved the comment from Dave Brailsford, Head of the Team GB Cycling Team at the recent Olympics. ‘We don’t really have targets’ he said. ‘We just support everyone to be the best that they can possibly be’

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