Category Archives: metaphor

The Nature of Fear: Are We Paralyzed by Conformity?

AMG121606a-dilworth-leaves

Conformity in nature and human nature. Survival is at our core. Are we afraid to be different? Where has Darwin taken us?

Understanding the notion of conformity is important when we talk about culture, inside organizations and out. It’s become a key driver in our thinking. As we’ve discussed, our mindset is subtly but deeply influenced by our own vauge perceptions of things are supposed to be, consumed by a feeling that our survival may depend on our ability to fit in.

Can we actually be paralyzed by conformity?

To Margaret Wheatley, there’s no beating around the bush. She says we are. Consider these excerpts from A Simpler Way (1999):

“We have terrorized ourselves by the thought of evolution, driving ourselves into positions of paralyzing conformity, for fear of getting things wrong .. (where) extinction will follow swiftly on the heels of any mistake.”

“.. fear is the darkest of Darwinian shadows.”

Wheatley likes to cut to the chase.

Can we find examples to support her claim? I think they are plentiful, and they are all around us. Consider:

  • a consumer culture that thrives on conformist based purchasing (think: brands, trends, styles)
  • social circles that favor (or outright demand) fitting in
  • work environments that favor the status quo, resisting alternative viewpoints
  • education systems increasingly riveted to standards
  • organizations that cling to structure/hierarchy over more dynamic/collaborative modes of interaction
  • a Western busiess culture modeled upon repeatable, uniform, mechanistic models of efficiency

Much has been written (by me and others; see also a book by C.Christensen, and a great RSA animation by K.Robinson), on the downside of our mechanistic, structure-focused paradigms. It’s thinking that makes us slaves to someone else’s blueprint. Our culture and our thought processes seem literally consumed by the conformist view.

Can we break the cycle?

I say yes. If we can find ways to fundamentally change our mindset.

I’m intrigued that in the very same book, Wheatley goes on to describe patterns and rules in nature that seek to discover what works. Conformity, perhaps, is not all bad, like a tree seeking a greater share of critical sunlight, or vying to expand its rainfall catching potential. Have a need for more light and water? Grow a little taller. Sprout some more leaves.

AMG121607a-dilworth-leaves

A better, more useful frame might be: conform if it’s working, adapt if it’s not.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a balancing act. So often, we don’t see a choice. Conformity of purpose is important where precision, quality and scale are required. But when we limit our exploration of new ideas or way of doing things, we cut off our chance to learn, to innovate, and to grow.

Conformity can be a trap. And it can also be our saving grace when we frame it as a repeatable pattern, a platform for new possibilities.

Both. And.

The #cdna community hosts a periodic exploration of social learning, a deep dive into the factors that help us learn together. We seek to identify enablers that help us discover, and the barriers that tend to keep us from learning.  At our next discussion, let’s tee up these questions on conformity in the context of culture:

  • Q1. What reactions or thoughts does mention of comformity tend to trigger?
  • Q2. Can we advance metaphors for conformity that focus on upside (tree leaves) and caution of the downside (factory model)?
  • Q3. If you agree with Wheatley on the dark side of Darwin, why does conformist thinking carry a special risk?
  • Q4. Can we influence the cultural implications that conformity introduces? How?

I can help on that last one with a hint: if you’re a Peter Block fan, you’ll know the answer to “How?” is almost always “Yes!”  Our next #cdna chat is slated for Monday March 10th at 8pm ET.

Bring your ideas and an open mind. We hope to see you there.

Chris Jones (aka @sourcepov)


Crossover: The Power and Resilience of Diverse Perspectives

Do we appreciate the strength of our crossover connections?

Do we appreciate the strength of our crossover connections?

Pick up an ordinary basket and look closely at the weave.  You’ll find an ancient yet simple way of making something that’s durable, flexible, and resilient.

In fact, a basket’s weave is a great model for how we might interact and learn with others more deeply. We need durability and resilience in our relationships too .. to me, a weave is a powerful way to think about “crossover” in all our interactions, especially when we seek to collaborate.

The power of the basket weave metaphor lies in its very basic structure. The over/under aspect of a basket weave reinforces the notion of complementary, diverse elements.  One thread or strand of cane provides support from one angle, which is further supported in the other direction by another.  These are connected and supported by yet another thread or strand on the perpendicular axis, creating structure, and ultimately, strength.  The tighter the weave, the more durable the resulting creation.

Aristotle was a big fan of metaphor, and I am too. Like so much in our world, we take useful concepts (like metaphor and basket weaving) for granted. But what could we gain if we dig a bit deeper? Is there untapped power in our mental models?

To me, there are 3 areas where I think the notion of a basket weave can help our collaborative efforts:

Unlocking Creativity. Artists are well versed in the flow of possibility that occurs when raw materials begin to show their potential. How might the threads or strands come together? What patterns are possible? How might we weave something new?

Inception of Ideas (or “ideation”). Each thread of insight brings new energy and strength from a different direction, supporting the other threads but in a different way.

Design Thinking. Coming up with new ways to solve a problem (solution patterns?) is at the core of design thinking, where structure, form , function and relevance demand diverse thinking from muliple perspectives.

AMG152709b Basket Weave

Examining the basket weave. It may help to ask: what is possible?

As we bring together design elements or ideas, we are bringing together strands of raw material.  As innovators, we are like basket weavers.  As collaborators, our ideas are like threads.  Our soution may well be the resulting basket.

Here are a few questions to drive this thinking home.

Q1. What challenges do we face when we seek to weave together ideas?

Q2. Why are notion of durability and flexibility important?

Q3. Have you seen examples of ideas woven into a “solution fabric”?

Q4. Where and how else might we apply the basket weave metaphor?

We’ll discuss these topics WEDS 10/16 at 9pET using hashtag #cdna, and again in the social change context with SMCHAT cofounder & special guest moderator Kelli Schmith WEDS 10/23 at 1pET using hashtag #smchat.

I must point out that idea weaving is already in progress. Props to Angela Dunn, Shell Rummel and the crew at #ideachat who provided deep insights on “Design Thinking” that contributed to this post.  To me, the richness of the weave metaphor provides plenty of inspiration, or at the very least, some new thinking based on a very old way to make baskets.

More on metaphor? See G.Lakoff: Metaphors We Live By (1980). In The DNA of Collaboration (2012) it’s chapter 6.

Let’s compare notes on this. I’ll see you online.

Chris aka @sourcepov


Semantics of the Spiral, Unwound

We’ve been talking around the idea of Spiral Thinking for several weeks now, but have yet to advance the metaphor beyond a general sense that it’s an improved way to think about learning. It’s a captivating visual. But in terms of manners and symmetry, it’s clearly less well-behaved than it’s straight-as-an-arrow distant cousin, Linear Thinking.

Spiral GOLD lighted

Spiral as a metaphor for thinking

We’ve learned to date that it’s hard not to run afoul through negative connotations of tornados, flushing toilets, and more generally “spiraling out of control”. We’ve concluded there are more negative connotations for spiral metaphors than there are positive ones.

Our only saving grace so far, perhaps, has been the DNA double-helix. Or the haphazard flight of a bumble bee.

To see if we might further use the Spiral metaphor in useful ways, let’s take it apart, as we think about what it might represent for us as a visual aid, in the context of thinking and learning.

  • Q1. Could each successive band represent progress?
  • Q2. If the bands converge to a single point, might that represent movement toward a solution? (see also Q8)
  • Q3. If the bands diverge into a funnel, might we infer exploration?
  • Q4. Are we mentally beholden to what Lakoff (1980) describes as a cultural certainty: “up is good?”
  • Q5. If we view the path of any given band as a gradual curve, might we regain a preferred sense of an orderly, smooth path?
  • Q6. Does the spiral advance the notion of flow?
  • Q7. How might this metaphor most used in our thinking? our learning? how we approach collaboration?
  • Q8. Is a linear model better when it’s time to move to a solution? (see also Q2)

We know we rarely experience the world or learn from it in a linear fashion. Our lives are a round-about journey.

Perhaps our prevailing metaphors should follow that lead.

We won’t stay in the Spiral metaphor too much longer. We’re clearly testing the limits of how spatial and visual a Twitter Chat can be. But it helps to know the limits of our visual tools. If we’re going to use Spiral Thinking as a metaphor, we need know how and when to apply it, but also, as Lakoff advises (to paraphrase) we need to know when enough is enough.

See you online, MON 8pET at hashtag #CDNA.

Chris


Common Ground: The Power of Metaphor and Story (Ch.6/7)

When we talk about team play or collaboration, we often talk about the importance of establishing common ground. Trouble is, we spend very few cycles on how to get there.

Here are two approaches that interact in powerful ways:

  • From the literary side of the world there’s a valuable and relevant tool called Metaphor that links abstract notions to concrete things we can observe ..
  • Since the dawn of civilization, we’ve used Story to pass down values and create emotional connections across societies and generations ..

So what does all that mean for us as collaborators?

What if we were to weave metaphor and story together to form a new, more resilient way to get people working together, stitching a durable fabric of ideas and communication principles that everyone can relate to?  Well, actually, we just did. Reread that last sentence. The weaver and fabric metaphors are themselves powerful because they elicit the sense of creating something strong, new and valuable. Putting ourselves .. as collaborators .. into that metaphor is the stuff that draws interest and connection, and the short narratives wrapping around it all quickly evolve into emotional, high impact stories.

When our communication is rich and insightful and touches on our emotions, I’m finding that fundamentally deeper connections can be forged.

All of the sudden, collaboration is not only possible, it’s contagious.

Let’s unpack a few aspects of how these fascinating communication tools can help us.

Q1. Semantic Grounding. From Aristotle to Lakoff much has been said re: the power of metaphor to make the abstract more clear; what are your favorite examples?

Q2. K12 Education. How does the factory metaphor for learning (re: defects) stack up against a more organic metaphor, like the rhizome (re: rooted resilience)?

Q3. Emergence. In “Where Good Ideas Come From” @StevenBJohnson shares Reef, City & Web as 3 metaphors for emergence. Other examples? Something based on weaver or grower idea:  maybe Fabric? or Seedling?

Q4. E20 Storytelling. How can simple narratives tell a story? If we put our enterprise co-workers and stakeholders in the plot and discuss consequences, can we touch emotions?

I hope you’ll join us SAT 8/18 at 11aET as we discuss what I always find a fascinating topic.  If you want to dig further, you’ll find discussion of both threads in The DNA of Collaboration, now on Kindle, with softcover launch planned for Labor Day.

In the book, I discuss over 20 metaphors (including all of these) which can, when used in stories and even simple narratives, provide rich and powerful ways to establish common ground. In truth, language and communication are vast topics, and we are only scratching the surface ..

But as they say, you have to start somewhere.  See you online?

- Chris Jones, author, @sourcepov


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