StratChat 11 November 2020: Metaphors and Business Strategy

Unlock the role of metaphors in business strategy: simplifying concepts, shaping perceptions, and enhancing strategic storytelling.


  1. Why metaphors?
  2. How do we use them?
  3. The Art of War
  4. Alternative metaphors
  5. Know your audience
  6. Cultural roots
  7. Getting to the nub of things
  8. Metaphors for processes
  9. Next week

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StratChat is conducted under Chatham House Rules. Consequently, the summary below is presented without any attribution of who said what. As such, it is an agglomerate of views - not necessarily just those of the writer or indeed of any one individual.

On 12 November 2020, we discussed the use of metaphors in business strategy.

Segue: Last week we talked about creativity in business strategy. Metaphors can be a source of creativity. But they have other uses as well.

Why metaphors?

The word 'metaphor' derives from the words 'carry' and 'across'.

Metaphors enable us to carry ideas across from one (familiar) field of knowledge to another (perhaps less familiar).

Strategy (as a concept) and strategies can be quite complex. So we use metaphors to explain them in simpler terms.

How do we use them?

We can use metaphors in lots of different ways.

Sometimes we use metaphors explicitly. For example: Strategy is like a game, with winners and losers.

  • Other times we allude to them with the words we use: For example: We need to be the fittest to survive (implying that the principles of evolution applies to business strategy).
  • And yet other times we use them negatively. For example: There is no referee in business strategy.

We can also use them:

  • to convey familiarity, for example, to explain a difficult concept,
  • to juxtapose contrasting ideas in a more surprising way, to stimulate creativity.

Sometimes the become cliches and can lose their impact.

The Art of War

Warfare is a metaphor frequently used for business strategy.

This is hardly surprising:

  • The word 'strategy' itself derives from the Greek for "the art of the general" (source).
  • Some of the oldest works on the subject of strategy are books about military strategy. Sun Tzu's The Art of War dates back to the 5th century BC. Known by some as the father of Western strategic study, Carl von Clausewitz wrote On War in the 19th century.
  • Business strategy as a discipline in its own right was probably first written about in the 1950/60s. (Source)

Alternative metaphors

But there are lots of alternatives:

The metaphors we use have a significant impact. Some metaphors will lead you to believe that business strategy is difficult, adversarial and a zero-sum game. Others will lead you to believe that strategy is fun and creative.

Know your audience

It's important to consider your audience when choosing your metaphors.

It has been said that if you start using sports metaphors you immediately lose half your audience. This is because people don't necessarily understand or care about the sport your using.

Some sports metaphors have become so entrenched though, that it probably doesn't matter if the audience understands or care about the sport. For example, most people will know what you mean by "home run" even if they don't know or care much about baseball.

Sports analogies can add a lot of value. For many people, they are the easiest step away from military strategy. They easily convey ideas of wanting to win/goal orientation, overcoming adversity, teamwork, strategies and tactics, etc. But they avoid the military connotations of death, suffering, destruction, hostility, good and evil which are much less appealing to most people. Sports and sportsmanship are also deeply embedded in many countries education systems. So most people are primed for sports analogies.

However, some people may have very bad memories of school sports. Think, for example, of people who were, for whatever reason, particularly bad at sports. And possibly bullied because of that. They may even be primed against those metaphors.

Cultural roots

Lots of metaphors have strong cultural roots.

Who doesn't know the story of the hare and the tortoise? This, with many other metaphors we take for granted, was established some 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece in the form of Aesop's Fables.

But widespread as these are, they are not ubiquitous. Other cultures may have different metaphors leading to different perspectives.

Why, for example, do we not see more metaphors based on 'family' in business strategy. Is it because in the west we see family and business as two separate realms in our lives. In fact, confusing the two is likely to get you accused of nepotism. In the middle east, however, it was noted that family relationships are much more important in business.

Marshall Mcluhan has argued that, since the invention of the printing press, the western world has become better at dealing with detail, but has lost the ability to see the big picture compared to more oral societies.

The militaristic roots of strategic thinking easily lead to a paradigm based on strength and power. We overcome competitors; we conquer markets.

But if instead of taking Sun Tzu as our starting point we begin with Lao Tzu, we might reach a different conclusion. Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, argues that all force is self-defeating. He points out that while trees are strong they break in a storm, but whilst grass is weak, it bends in a storm and survives. He also observes that the value in a pot lies in its emptiness. And that whilst water is soft and formless, it erodes rock.

How would our strategies be different if we started from these premises instead of from The Art of War?

Getting to the nub of things

Albert Einstein said: "If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself." (Source)

Metaphors help us to distil the essence of long complicated explanations into shorter simpler explanations which convey more meaning to more people.

We find great examples with films. "Alien" is "Jaws in space". Those three words convey not only the basic premise of the film but also the sense of terror. A dozen paragraphs might have provided more detail, but probably less meaning.

Our strategies need to convey their 'big idea(s)' in equally brief and compelling ways.

Metaphors for processes

It's not just our strategies that benefit from metaphors. It's also our tools and processes which benefit.

Clayton Christensen is the author of The Innovator's Dilemma. He popularised the Jobs to Be Done framework. This uses the metaphor that when someone buys your product or service, they are buying it to do a job for them. By understanding the job they need to be done you can improve and better market your product or service. The Job-to-be-Done metaphor opens up a new way of thinking about products and services. It neatly encapsulates the idea that no one wants a drill; what they want is a hole.

Another example is Blue Ocean Strategy. This metaphor contrast blue oceans against red oceans. Red oceans are set to have been churned up and bloodied by the sharks of competition. Blue oceans are free of competition and offer better prospects. The Blue Ocean Strategy approach brought us, amongst other things, the Strategy Canvas.

Attendees: Chris Fox (host), Christopher Norris, Jerald Welch, Philip Hodges, Graham Treakle.

Next week

In some respects, metaphors are just a simple way to tell a story. As such they are deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. Stories convey ideas. They embody simple truths. They help to move people from one level of understanding to another. They engage more of our brains. They are more memorable. Stories are how we communicate.

And so, as business strategists, we need to be good story-tellers.

Join us next week as we talk about story-telling in business strategy. What roles does it play? Where does it fit in our process and toolkit? How do we get better at doing it?

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Updated: 2023-12-11