by Stephen Sloan 

I was scared and the team was frankly, quite concerned.

I stood in front of fifty expectant and dubious faces–the newly combined sales and order processing team. Within a few months, we had to:

  • Eliminate a nasty conflict that divided the team
  • Move half the team to a combined space
  • Remove two order processing and tracking systems
  • Reengineer the entire sales and order process
  • Double the size of the team

I knew the physics of change: to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The more we tried to do the greater the resistance from the team and the organization would be. I started up my PowerPoint and hoped my unorthodox approach worked.

Prior to that day, my default as a leader would have been to meet the reaction with the force of data, logic, and structure. But, with this complex group, situation, and short timeline, I knew that wouldn’t work.

After a series of sometimes tearful one-on-one meetings with team members, it became clear that the predominant operating metaphor of departmental conflict around right and wrong, us and them, would not serve our new goals.

Operating metaphors are those images we use as shortcuts in conversation. We find something in the greater world that operates in a way similar to our business or topic of discussion, and we borrow its lexicon.  We can quickly recognize the operating metaphors behind words commonly used in business discussions.


Commonly Used Words  Operating Metaphor
Agility, sprints, heavy lifting, blocking  and tackling, run up the score Sports
Victory, firepower, guerilla marketing, boot camp War
Well-oiled, smooth-running, fueling the tank Machine
Organic growth, running, sowing seeds Plants



After talking with the team, it became clear that key players were working out of a warlike operating metaphor.

I needed to shift the bellicose metaphor and the resulting mental images, thoughts, and feelings before I started moving desks and redesigning systems or we were in for a very rough ride.  

But how to find a metaphor that would work better? And then, how to get the team to adopt it?

The first key was relevance. Both adoption and effectiveness would be driven by the relevance of the new metaphor to the team’s personal experience and to our current and future needs. The metaphor would need to be easily imagined, compelling, and give us a new sense of our shared desires, concerns, and fates.  Additionally, for the business, the key to relevance was to shift the focus from the fears of the individual team members to the collective needs of the client and the team in the challenging days to come.

I started by looking at the precise value creation moment of our process. Our value was created by delivering elegant holiday gifts for business people wanting to show gratitude to their key clients. With any luck these beautiful moments of graciousness would be so fast and furious they would swamp us in a huge seasonal rush as soon as we finished making our organizational changes.

To properly host these moments of graciousness at scale, we would need clean strong processes, systems, and internal culture to support our mostly female team through the weeks of 14-hour days ahead. Because the proposed changes were radical, I needed to introduce a radically different, relevant metaphor.

With these facts in mind, I set out looking for helpful new metaphors; images of connection between women, images of building a strong boat, images of ships and their crews heading into storms.

I opened a new PowerPoint file and began building a deck like none I had created before.  Rather than dive into data, logical imperatives, and project management cadences, the presentation would be full frame images of paintings that reset the imagery and the operating metaphors we would share going forward.  

I focused on recontextualizing our challenges and opportunities in terms of shared moments of graciousness with our clients (could we meet our clients in their moment of kindness if we were being mean to each other?) and in terms of our all being in one boat facing an imminent storm of seasonal demand.

image 1


image 2

Ivan Aivazovsky

Images courtesy of

As if by magic, within hours the team stood shoulder-to-shoulder facing the challenges we all shared rather than facing off in conflict.

Then, by linking our collaborative efforts to the structure of data, logic and project management, we were able to deliver the systems and process changes to transform our work experience and results.

I am convinced that the preliminary inoculation with the new operating metaphor made all that came later much easier if not simply possible.

Are you consciously choosing the operating metaphors that lead your team?

Originally posted on, Humane Leadership Conference website.

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