Team Building with Metaphors

Anyone who has ever taught someone else . . . well. . . anything, has probably quickly learned that using metaphors speeds up cognition and enlivens the discussion. 

A while back, I learned something by conducting an experiment of sorts. I didn't have an expected outcome or even a hypothesis.  I merely wanted to see what would happen in a group setting. I assumed it would be positive but wasn't entirely sure. OK, not really an experiment at all.  I took a chance.

While metaphors are great for teaching one-on-one, what I learned was that, in a group, this method takes on a complexity and even a life of its own with benefits going well beyond teaching the topic at hand.

Here’s what happened: I was sharing some metaphors that I use when coaching teams, and something unexpected happened. The discussion exploded into an idea session--a really positive one.

I had intended to simply do a presentation, lecture-style, on a couple of the metaphors that I use when coaching teams,  but, prior to the talk, I realized that one metaphor might not resonate--mainly because it was pretty obscure. I decided that, instead of describing it ad nauseam, when the time came, I would try to pull them into the creation.  There’s always a risk in relying on your room.  What if the audience isn’t “tracking” with your topic? What if they’re bored? What if they don’t feel safe in a room full of strangers?

I was illustrating the concept of near-range and long-range release planning using the metaphor of a harbor and a harbor master.  Simple enough, except that, just as I had guessed, no one in the room had ever heard of a harbor master.  The potential for a rough evening was looming larger. Fortunately, I had illustrated the concept with a fake harbor and a whole bunch of model ships and docks to which they were trying to unload--crude drawings using bad graphics. Turns out that’s all they really needed.


Hands shot up all over the room.  People threw out ideas to extend the metaphor--not just once but multiple times.  There were no wrong answers.  (Sure people say that all the time, but there really were no answers that were more right than any others).  But with this metaphor in this room, there were no wrong answers because the metaphors appealed to each person in the room uniquely.  Some had extended the metaphor to be about the harbor master.  Others saw the metaphor to be a great model to think through delivery and DevOps.  Others even saw the harbor itself as a metaphor for customer access to product.

But here’s the really cool part.  No one felt compelled to tell anyone they were wrong.  In fact, as each new idea came up, participants would jump in and encourage that new outgrowth. Some even jumped from one branch of the extended metaphor to another without missing a beat. Some sat quietly, squinting, imagining in their own heads or gathering new ideas as voices shouted out. It was a chain reaction that suited each person’s style. Most importantly, it created a safe and nurturing space to think through solutions.

Was it just this group of people and this metaphor?  I don’t believe so.  I have since used this same method with smaller groups and with teams in various formats--from workshops to team build sessions. I nudge the team towards finding a metaphor for what they are working through, and the very act of creation has brought those teams closer together.

How can you apply this experience? If you have a new team, give them a framework for a metaphor and let them build on it. If you have a project facing multiple conflicting solutions, create a metaphor for it, and ask the participants to extend it. The more that participants are allowed to explore in the world of metaphor, the more they will allow themselves to look at the problem from multiple disciplines, tearing it down to build something new using all of their disparate backgrounds. (That concept, by the way, can be explored in much greater detail in John Boyd’s paper on OODA loops, “Destruction and Creation”)

The goal for you as a servant leader should be this: create an environment in which team members can explore and take imaginative risks. Working in extended metaphors allows people to distance themselves from the problem at hand, thereby, working through potential solutions--or even a clearer definition of the problem--objectively and productively.