#43: Mixing metaphors
Our windows to the world?
I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.
Hello, dear reader,
Metaphors are popular cognitive and conceptual tools in the worlds of systems and complexity, and boy do we like to fight about them!
Take this discussion, for example, about the limits of understanding the organisation as a human body. Even if you agree with the premise (which I do, the metaphor has its limits) the collective conclusion still strikes me as remarkable: that somehow we will find a single metaphor (meadow, estuary or octopus) that sufficiently explains the phenomena under investigation.
Now, obviously some metaphors are more appropriate than others, depending on context and purpose. Like everyone else, I have my favourites and go-to’s. But the power of working with metaphor is in holding the space between multiple, often competing, perspectives to explore how they relate and how each makes certain things clearer and others cloudier. Saying that an organisation is an ecology foregrounds particular aspects of how they operate (autonomy and self-organisation), but almost certainly makes others hazier (delegation of authority). Alternative metaphors—like body, network or economy—focus our attention elsewhere and can likely help to augment this ecological understanding.
Add to this that in my experience of bringing groups together to do collective sense-making, the group is inevitably split between those that focus their attention on metaphors and explanations that simplify complexity and those that choose ones that deepen it. Pronouncing those on either side of the fence as ‘bad’ or ‘unhelpful’ simply misses the point. Every extension is an amputation. There are contexts where simpler metaphors are likely more appropriate, there are those where we should prioritise depth and richness, and there are likely those where there is value in exploring a context from both perspectives.
If our intent is to build a better understanding of the world around us, the zero-sum approach that prioritises particular metaphors to the exclusion of others is remarkably arrogant and deeply counterproductive. We don't get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Ecological monocultures tend to fail. Eggs belong in multiple baskets. Notice the trend?
What else I am paying attention to
A conversation between Nora Bateson and Dave Snowden that explores the uses and shifting meanings of some of the key concepts and ideas in the fields of complexity and systems theory.
A recent speech by Jeremy Hirschhorn from the Australian Taxation Office on ‘beyond tax gap thinking’ and why understanding system health is the next frontier for tax administration.
An interesting report from the good people at The Workshop that explores how to talk about systems change using metaphors from kaupapa Māori and other Indigenous perspectives.
A new article by Emily Kasriel on the importance and value of deep listening to navigate change work in complex systems. Sticking with Emilys, Emily Beausoleil has written about how different practices of listening—comedic, theatrical, and embodied—can open up new ways to make sense of complex systems.
An excellent article by Marco Valente that outlines thirteen paradoxes and dilemmas in complexity. Marco’s eighth paradox on models could equally apply to metaphors: making sense of complexity requires more AND less reliance on metaphor.
An incredible paper from Zachary Wojtowicz and Simon DeDeo that develops a Bayesian account of how to integrate a diverse set of explanatory values (simplicity versus depth, for example). The paper highlights the importance of interacting with people that hold different ideas of what constitutes a satisfying metaphor or explanation.
A final, metaphorical, thought
By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.
Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Full disclosure: I was previously employed by the ATO and was involved in the development and implementation of some of these ideas.
Hi Luke - yes I saw Dave Snowden's post too, he seems very angry about metaphor ;-) Gareth Morgan warned of the folly of thinking about one metaphor being THE lens through which to understand organisations 30+ years ago... I totally agree on your point regarding "holding the space between multiple, often competing, perspectives" there is something valuable about standing in the soft shadows between clear meaning to allow new understandings to emerge