Culture Mapping and metaphor

It’s been several years now since I started the Culture Mapping journey with my good friend Alex Osterwalder, and I think it’s a good time to share some lessons learned about the use of metaphor in business design tools.

A good metaphor is a powerful thing, because it brings all kinds of associations with it. This can be a good thing but it can also be a two-edged sword.

The first several iterations of the Culture Map were a simple grid. In one of my conversations with Alex, I mentioned that one of the inspirations for the map design was Edgar Schein’s iceberg model. Alex immediately suggested that we modify the shape of the map to include an iceberg in the background. We decided to give that a try.

In some ways it worked very well. People understand that most of an iceberg is hidden. People understand that although an iceberg is beautiful, it’s potentially dangerous. For those who had never done any “iceberg” exercise before, I think the metaphor was helpful.

But there are other exercises that use the iceberg as a metaphor. In fact, I had no idea how many “iceberg exercises” are out there. Not only culture exercises, but psycho-social exercises, diversity activities, system thinking tools, family therapy, social studies classroom exercises, writing exercises, and who knows what else!

The problem this causes is that people who have done an “iceberg exercise” in the past tend to confuse the Culture Map with other tools and exercises they have done in the past. We’ve had people decide not to attend workshops because they’ve “done the iceberg exercise before.” Even people who attended workshops, I found, had a tendency to dismiss the Culture Map without truly understanding it, simply because it is superficially similar to “iceberg models” they had seen in the past.

This is a shame, but it does indicate how powerful a metaphorical connection to a concept can become. Icebergs that reference culture, I’m afraid, have become a kind of activity cliché that makes the metaphor pretty useless, and even counterproductive when introducing a new and unique strategic business tool.

Alex pointed out to me last week that this was the first time his company, Strategyzer, had introduced a metaphor rather than simple geometric shapes as an element of tool design. For now, we have decided to extract the iceberg image from the tool and rely instead on a relatively conservative arrangement of boxes.

Those who still love the iceberg metaphor are certainly welcome to simply draw an iceberg on top of the boxes. I like the idea that people might do that. The bare-bones quality of the boxes is an open space, like a canvas, that can serve as a base for people to think about other metaphors, like perhaps a ship.

The “Enablers and Blockers” categories are shaded. These are the spaces that represented the “underwater” portion of the iceberg, and the distinction or separation between “underwater” elements and open air (visible and hidden) is an important distinction that remains in the new version of the map.

In practice, though, I do still employ a metaphor when introducing and explaining the tool at the beginning of an exercise, and, with the help of the awesome Culture Mapping LinkedIn Community, I believe I’ve found a much better metaphor for culture that reflects several important aspects of culture in human organizations. Here are some problems with the iceberg as a metaphor for culture:

  1. Culture is created by people, organically (icebergs are not).’
  2. While culture itself cannot be designed, many of the elements that shape and mold culture can be designed (no aspect of icebergs are designed).
  3. Culture is a living thing, continuously growing and changing (icebergs are not alive).
  4. Culture must be attended to and nurtured if it is to grow in a healthy way.

The metaphor I use now when I introduce the Culture Map to a new group is that of a garden.

Starting at the bottom of the Culture Map and moving upward:

Enablers and Blockers are the designed elements of the garden, the things that reflect the intentions of the gardener. The tilling of the soil, the seeds that are planted, the weeds that must be pulled, the watering and caring for the plants. The enablers and blockers give the seeds a chance to take root and begin to grow. There are also Enablers and Blockers that are outside the control of the gardener, like climate zones and weather. Enablers and Blockers represent the environment within which the work takes place, which includes some things that are outside management control, like regulations, but in many ways management creates the conditions that enable and block a culture’s growth.

Behaviors are the actions that the plants take in that environment created by the gardener. The plants are like people. It’s the people in an organization that, collectively through their behavior, create the culture. The gardener can only design the conditions and create a healthy environment. It’s still the plants that have to grow.

Outcomes are like the fruits and flowers of the garden. They are the result. The harvest.

Nobody wants to live on an iceberg. They are cold and inhospitable places. Cavernous even. But everyone can see a garden as a beautiful thing. There are as many types of gardens as there are gardeners. A garden needs constant care and nurturing if it to grow and thrive. An unattended garden tends toward disorder. A garden in a place that people enjoy visiting and spending time in.

Who wouldn’t like their workplace to be more like a garden?

When I describe culture design in this way it does seem to energize and motivate people. They become engaged when I ask them what they want their garden to be like and ask them to help their management team design it. We start talking about where the weeds are, how the gardeners are doing and what they could do better, how wild or controlled the garden should be, and so on.

I think a garden is a beautiful metaphor for culture. It’s a little less common than an iceberg, I think it’s a much better metaphor, and I intend to use it for awhile. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Dave Gray is the Founder of XPLANE.

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