Unlock the power of metaphorical thinking

Today, we're all being encouraged to 'think out of the box.' But how, precisely, can you do that? Through the power of metaphorical thinking.

If you want to originate breakthrough business solutions, you will need to think differently than you usually do. In a phrase, you will need to “get out of the box.” But how? How does a person go beyond the boundaries of their own mind? Is there a key? A door? A nearby genie just waiting to be invoked? How, precisely, does a person think something they’ve never thought before?

Perhaps the simplest and most powerful way is to awaken the image-making part of your brain. To imagine (ever wonder why the word “image” is the root of the word “imagination?”).

Poets and writers are masters at awakening the imagination. A simple turn of phrase, a simple metaphor, and voilà!, a reader’s mind a thousand miles away is opened to a whole new world of perception, understanding and experience. But not only poets and writers have this knack. Scientists do, too. Friedrich Kekule, the noted German chemist, at a loss for words, described his breakthrough understanding of the benzene molecule as “a snake biting its own tail.” And Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was preceded by one of his famous “thought experiments,” in which he imagined himself riding a light beam into outer space while holding a mirror in front of his face. No wonder Einstein said, “I rarely think in words at all.” No wonder Aristotle, centuries before, concluded, “It is impossible to even think without a mental image.”

Unfortunately, business people do it all the time. Addicted to the logical, linear, analytical and rational, we have traded in our artistry for craftsmanship… our palette of possibilities for an increasingly thinning bottom line. The resulting state of our imagination? Downsized, outplaced and otherwise re-engineered into oblivion. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not by a long shot. A simple turn of phrase can re-ignite it. And the most effective turn of phrase is the metaphor (and its kissing cousins, analogy and simile).

Simply put, a metaphor is the application of a word or phrase to an object or concept it does not literally denote (i.e., “The ghetto was a volcano about to erupt.”). A metaphor calls attention to a similarity between two seemingly dissimilar things and, by so doing, establishes the kind of creative tension that has the potential to spark quantum leaps in thinking – the kind of leaping that generates insight and discovery. In fact, a well-placed metaphor is a lot like a… chemical reaction… or a meeting of the minds… or a successful merger between companies. Something good can happen when two similar, but different, elements enter into a relationship with each other.

“That’s a stretch,” you might say. Yet it is this very act of “stretching” that opens the door to new solutions. If you’re stuck in the desert, which would you rather have: A 20-page report telling you where the water is… or a map? Metaphor is the map – a guide to your own, out-of-the-box solution-finding ability. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Especially when that picture, consciously chosen, stretches the imagination just enough to disentangle it from the limitations of ordinary business logic.

If you want to learn more about metaphorical thinking, click here to order It’s AHAppening!, Idea Champions’ series of five creative thinking guidebooks. Metaphors Be With You, from which this article was excerpted, is one of the five.

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