Tools to think with

Concepts and assumptions determine how an organisation and its environment are seen. When plotting a course of action, managers implicitly rely on them. These concepts are the foundation for both daily decision-making and long-term planning. Once concepts are taken for granted, they are held implicitly, possibly impeding innovation efforts. Leonard and Straus found that thinking style preferences are becoming “hardwired” into brains and reinforced over years of practices and self-selection. When, in the course of an organisational change, the new outlook does not conform with held assumptions, these concepts can be the reason why people are reluctant to change.

In the first sentence of his perennial “The World as Will and Representation”, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer states: “The world is my representation. This is the truth which holds true for every living and cognizing being, although only the human being can bring it forth to reflected, abstract consciousness. And when he genuinely does that, then the philosophical mind has formed. Then he gets aware that he does not know sun and no earth, but only an eye, which sees a sun, a hand, which feels the earth, that the world surrounding him is there only as a representation, only in relation to something else, the representer, which is himself.” Schopenhauer’s representation (German “Vor-stellung”, something put in front of something else) stands for an object of perception, an image, notion, or conception.

tacit mental models can cause insights into new markets to be lost or outmoded organisational practices to be preserved

Dumas confirms that “tacit mental models can cause insights into new markets to be lost or outmoded organisational practices to be preserved.” Peter Senge mentions mental models as sources of deeply ingrained assumptions. Gardner describes that barriers to the stimulation of novel thinking around a common aim are often based on conceptual framing –groups in a business context often exhibit a preference for communication that is logical, rational, and based on “hard” data.

The concept of  a conception, a “pre-understanding” of a subject preceding every new understanding, is a basic ingredient of 18th century hermeneutics with Schleiermacher and Hegel. In a contemporary context, Michael McCaskey calls them “mental maps” and Robert Kegan “big assumptions”. They are described as maps, shapes or pictures created by the human brain to make sense of the world. Others call these concepts folk models, frames, myths, or parables. Fauconnier describes a model of “mental space”, containing a representation of the entities and relations of a particular scenario as perceived, imagined, or remembered. Kempton asserts that people, much like scientists theorizing, construct mental models that make sense of most of what they see. In a schema for decision-making elaborated by Marshall (Identification – elaboration – planning – execution), the stage of elaboration involves the creation of a mental model about the current problem situation, calling on already existing knowledge.

Concepts are a fundamental part of everyday behaviour and the strategy formulation of organisations

Concepts are  a fundamental part of everyday behaviour and the strategy formulation of organisations. The premier method of human conceptualisation, argues George Lakoff, is the metaphor. Metaphors -from Greek metapherein, to transfer, to carry (pherein) something from somewhere to somewhere else – play a fundamental role in sense-making. According to Lakoff and Johnson, they are “tools to think with”. Metaphor is a higher-order mental process operating on mental images, mapping the structure of one domain onto the structure of another. Human interpretation is metaphorical, based on pre-verbal categorization and sensory-motor coordination. Lakoff states: “We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.”

In Gareth Morgan’s view, “all theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that lead us to see, understand, and manage organizations in distinctive yet partial ways”. Schön states that metaphors are central to the task of accounting for our perspectives on the world: metaphor is a means to communicate understanding from one frame of reference to another, communicates a perspective and serves an instructional purpose. Problem definitions that remain tacit are potentially incomplete and can lead to the development of inadequate solutions. Schön also draws attention to “problem-setting” and defines “frame restructuring” as a recursive process of integrating conflicting frames into a new problem-setting, being closely related to the making of generative metaphor.

Deborah Ancona states that metaphors are like frames, limiting what we see and how we think, and that new metaphors may be needed to describe new possibilities. She states that Metaphors are evocative, partial, elastic, and informative. Martin Gannon elaborates that metaphors are significant in describing values driving business in different cultures, such as the Japanese garden and American football.

We tend to look for reassuring parallels instead of troubling differences

Von Ghyzcy elaborates on wrong metaphors for organisational strategy by describing the case of a wrong metaphor for the conceptualisation of an insurance company. The problem of the organisation, an intricate sales offices network, was wrongly conceptualised as the sources of renewal through an inadequate metaphor (an evolutionary tree) in the face of the disruption brought about by the Internet. He states that we tend to look for reassuring parallels instead of troubling differences, “clear models to follow instead of cloudy metaphors to explore”.

The more appropriate metaphor of ‘breeding pigeons’, von Ghyzcy explains, was found by focusing on the ‘fault line’ of the first metaphor. Metaphors are not ready-made solutions and need “conceptual contortions” to work. In his view, “the challenge in making the metaphor do its innovative work resides in zeroing in on a few incongruent elements of the source domain that are pregnant with possible meaning back in the target domain”.

Metaphors can change concepts, mental maps, and assumptions, contributing to the organisational ability for innovation

The elicitation and subsequent change of concepts lies at the heart of innovation and organisational change, and metaphors can change concepts, mental maps, and assumptions on a cognitive level, contributing to the organisational ability for innovation – the ability to reconfigure the organization in relation to its environment.

Since 1993, a range of methods dealing with metaphors were published. The stated goals in the organisational context range from new product development to strategy and innovation. Common to all methods is the focus on shared insight and developing new ways of thinking.

  • Gareth Morgan’s Imaginization is primarily language-based and lets participants compare predefined concepts with their organisation. Published in 1993, it is described as “an invitation to develop new ways of thinking about organization and management”.
  • Totem Building by Angela Dumas, published in 1994, primarily conceived for new product development, is a process involving sketching and verbal-visual framing. Dumas states that “Metaphors can play a vital role as integrators for a group involved in developing a new product”. The method, so Dumas, is using “the natural process of mental model-building to build a shared mental model”.
  • The Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) was primarily conceived to elicit emotional responses from consumers, but is also used “increasingly to address organizational issues.” It works mainly with photo-collages and individual interviews, stating that the tool “allows people to understand their own thinking more fully and to share this thinking with researchers” and ”to explore business to business and business to consumer issues.”
  • The Boston Consulting Group’s Strategy Gallery, published in 2000, is intranet-based and offers text- and picture-based conceptual models. It contains principles collected from various sciences (biology, physics, economics) for the use of business consultants employed by the Boston Consulting Group. The stated goal is to “inspire strategic insight”. It “lets us see familiar issues with new eyes and generate new frameworks for thinking about business strategy”.
  • Lego Serious Play, introduced in 2002, lets managers build and modify constructions from Lego bricks. Used for Project Management, Strategic Planning, Starting New Teams, Product Development, Innovation, and Branding Strategy, its stated goal is to “communicate more effectively, to engage their imaginations more readily, and to approach their work with increased confidence, commitment and insight”.

These tools use various sensory channels (tactile-experiential, pictorial, lingual) and map different stages of the process model (concept – representation – modification – communication). Approaches can be distinguished by degree of existing structure and involvement of verbal context:

Tangible and visual

Management context
Design context
Tangible unstructured model building
structured Photo collages, mood boards Components in model building (often as a constraint for product design)
Visual unstructured Drawings (Arnheim´s “nonmimetic” drawings) Concept drawings
structured Photo collages (used for example in ZMET)

Verbal and narrative

Management context
Design context
Verbal unstructured Free metaphorical associations   Free metaphorical associations
structured ‘Ready-made’ thinking models
(BCG´s Strategy Gallery)
Principles used in the design process
Narrative unstructured Free storytelling
structured Storytelling with given


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