What Is Metaphorical Thinking? Metaphorical Thinking In A Nutshell

Metaphorical thinking describes a mental process in which comparisons are made between qualities of objects usually considered to be separate classifications.  Metaphorical thinking is a mental process connecting two different universes of meaning and is the result of the mind looking for similarities.

Understanding metaphorical thinking

An expert metaphorical thinker can sense the hidden connections between these classifications in a way that is creative or even poetic. Each connection is made by identifying similarities, which is a natural tendency of the human mind.

When director Ridley Scott was pitching the idea for his new movie Alien, he described it with the three-word metaphor “Jaws in space”. Here, Scott made an apparently unrelated connection between a previous movie about killer sharks and outer space. 

In addition to connecting unrelated objects, metaphors similarly connect problems with unrelated or dissimilar problems and situations. Metaphorical thinking can be used to address predominantly logical thinking, which can stifle the creative process. Lastly, metaphors themselves help the individual approach something from a different perspective or encourage their audience to do the same. 

How does metaphorical thinking help creativity?

Metaphorical thinking encourages creative thinking by reframing the situation or problem in three ways. That is, metaphors:

  1. Identify similarities between two disparate problems – by analysing seemingly unrelated problems, new insights may emerge which have the potential to solve the original problem.
  2. Examine the problem in a new context – in this case, a new or different perspective may reveal a viable alternative or unusual approach to solving the original problem.
  3. Force practitioners to search outside their existing body of knowledge and comfort zone. Metaphorical thinking allows the individual to put distance between themselves and their problem. This important sense of perspective gives them the freedom to question their assumptions, habits, biases, or stereotypes in search of a solution.

Metaphorical thinking in business

While the applications of metaphorical thinking in business are limitless, there are two broad ways they can be used.

1 – Metaphors make the strange familiar

Here, businesses help consumers make sense of the unfamiliar by comparing it to something relatable. In technology, metaphorical thinking was used to describe new products such as the mouse, desktop, Windows, and Facebook. 

During brainstorming sessions designed to solve problems, teams may also benefit from reducing the problem or process into something so familiar a child could comprehend. 

2 – Metaphors make the familiar strange 

Organizations can use this approach to help employees or consumers gain a new appreciation for something they’ve taken for granted. 

For example, a company selling shampoo in a market where consumers tend to stick with one brand may use metaphors to encourage consumers to try something new. That is, marketing campaigns may be based on metaphors describing resistance to change, such as:

  • Getting children to eat their vegetables.
  • Trying to give the cat a bath.
  • Converting people to a new religion.

Brainstorming can also be used here to force teams into multiplicity, or the process of analyzing a problem from multiple points of view. When the team is forced to look at an old problem with a fresh perspective, the likelihood of finding a solution increases. 

The “new point of view” brainstorming technique is one such example. It advocates the creation of metaphors by imagining how professionals in vastly unrelated fields might solve the problem at hand.

Key takeaways:

  • Metaphorical thinking is a mental process connecting two different universes of meaning and is the result of the mind looking for similarities.
  • Metaphorical thinking unearths the hidden connections between problems, objects, or situations in a way that is creative or even poetic.
  • Metaphorical thinking was used to introduce less-understood technological products such as the mouse, desktop, and Windows operating system. The concept can also be used to increase new product visibility and consider a problem from multiple points of view.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.
The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.
The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.
Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.
Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.
Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.
The CATWOE analysis is a problem-solving strategy that asks businesses to look at an issue from six different perspectives. The CATWOE analysis is an in-depth and holistic approach to problem-solving because it enables businesses to consider all perspectives. This often forces management out of habitual ways of thinking that would otherwise hinder growth and profitability. Most importantly, the CATWOE analysis allows businesses to combine multiple perspectives into a single, unifying solution.

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