Top two business metaphor images that don't work.

A good metaphor is the icing on a cake, the dawn of a new day, and the hub caps on a car. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain these metaphor metaphors but, you've guessed it, I love metaphors. However, call me old fashioned, but I prefer my metaphors to be either spoken or written, and not visually represented. Trust me on this one - using a literal image to represent a metaphor ruins everything. Literally presenting something that is figurative is like messing with the space-time continuum - you don't necessarily know exactly what the outcome will be, but it's unlikely to be good (unless you're Marty McFly in which case you may end up with a Pepsi in your hand and a new Toyota truck in the garage).

As with most of my blogs, it was a particular example that set me off. In this instance, seeing yet again the notion of 'sustainability' being represented by a pair of hands holding some soil out of which a tree is growing. I've provided an example, but you're probably familiar with the general gist (if not, run a Google image search on "sustainability"). 

There are several problems with using this image (or the hundreds like it) to represent sustainability. In fact, it's difficult to imagine a less sustainable situation than trying to grow a tree in your hands. Firstly, someone needed to dig up the tree to take the photo, and I'm 99% certain they didn't bother to plant it again after the photo shoot. Secondly, you can't water the plant because your hands are otherwise occupied. Thirdly, it's difficult to undertake gainful employment while growing a tree in your hands as most jobs require at least some hand use. And lastly, you can't answer your iPhone when it rings while you're holding a tree. Although, speaking of Apple, I'm sure right now they're working on an iTree - the must-have beautifully engineered virtual tree that fits right in your pocket, but which requires iRain you can only purchase from the iTunes store. Mind you, iRain could be downloaded to iTree via iCloud, thus creating an Inception-like metaphor within a metaphor. But alas I digress.  In short, replant the tree and let's move on.

The second image that drives me nuts is what I call the "triple cog dilemma". Again, you've probably seen an image like this at some point - three cogs, preferably shiny and clean (never oiled like in a real machine), with each cog's teeth meshed with both of the other cogs. You often see this kind of image used to demonstrate working together, efficiency, parts in a system or contributing to something larger. I've provided an example to help with this one. 

Now, I'm no mechanical engineer (pause for collective gasp), but I'd like you to try to imagine how this simple machine would actually work. Go on - virtually turn one of the cogs and think about what the other cogs would do. Yep - you got it - it can't work. Instead of demonstrating a snapshot of a perfect system, it actually demonstrates the opposite. It's not efficient - it's just stuck. No need for a metaphorical spanner in these works - the works are doing the job of getting stuck quite well on their own. 

In an example of extreme metaphor within metaphor, I even managed to find a triple cog dilemma shaped like a tree, complete with iCloud and iRain. Where would we be without Google and overly energetic graphic designers?

On behalf of all management consultants, I'd like to apologise for the way we've stretched the laws of nature and mechanics to try to present ideas with images. I hereby solemnly swear to keep my metaphors spoken or written, and never visually represented.

It turns out that we often over-complicate things in organisations - we're just not straightforward enough in the way we explain things. We use fancy words and fancy pictures instead of taking the time to communicate like normal people. Let's make 2012 the year of straightforward communication. And next time you see the triple cog dilemma, please ask the facilitator to explain how the cogs work and what the facilitator is implying about your company by using the image - at least that will lead to an entertaining discussion.