How to create a ‘clean’ company

Working with metaphor on the task
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Presented at the 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Prague, October 2011.

These annual conferences are run by Transparency International (TI) to a strongly multi-cultural audience. They provide a forum for those concerned with tackling corruption in their own countries. For more background, see the TI Source Book or browse the TI site


A ‘creative workshop’ at the 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference workshop plan:

Steps 1 and 3: Introduction to metaphors
Step 4: The ‘clean’ company
Steps 5-7: Generating and drawing metaphors
Step 8: The time-line exercise

Recurring themes
Illustrative metaphors:

Metaphor 1: Greek temple
Metaphor 2: Upright house
Metaphor 3: Group of people in a meadow
Metaphor 4: Pyramid. Joint metaphor of 1-3.
Metaphor 5: A corn on the wayside
Metaphor 6: Armadillo
Metaphor 7: Corruption repellent

A creative workshop plan

I was among a small group of colleagues who were asked to run ‘Creative Workshops’ at the 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference held in Prague in October 2001. The topics of the workshops were pre-set by the conference organizers – in this case: “How to create a ‘clean’ company” – i.e. one run in such a way that the risk of corruption is prevented.

There had been some concern in advance of the workshops about how well they would work in such a strongly multi-cultural setting, but in the event, this didn’t seem to be too much of an issue – indeed the metaphors generated were sometimes much richer than those one might meet in a workshop with UK nationals.

However, the ‘mini-lecture’ elements of the workshop sometimes worked less well — perhaps because of role status issues for participants who were mostly quite senior officials or managers. Because of competing attractions and time-tabling issues, workshop attendances were low, but those who did come seemed to value them.

Workshop plan

The initial plan for my 2 x 2-hour workshops is given below. However, the actual implementation of this plan varied between the workshops. The mini-lectures (Steps 1 and 3) tended to be cut back, and the final Step 8 only happened once, since groups tended to take different directions or run over time.

  1. Metaphor introduction: Short presentation on the role of metaphor in thinking and in the management of complex, ill-defined areas, such as anti-corruption.
  2. Warm-up exercise: If you were to see yourself as, say, a car (or a plant, animal, tool, insect, landscape feature, building, machine, etc., etc.), what kind of car (or whatever) would you be?
  3. ‘Clean language’ introduction and practice: Short presentation on the use of ‘clean language’ (Lawley and Tompkins, 2000) in unpacking and exploring metaphors. Then practice with using ‘clean language’ to unpack and explore the warm-up metaphors.
  4. Introduce ‘clean company’ concept: Round robin on what each participant understands by ‘clean company’.
  5. ‘Clean company’ metaphors: Each participant generates a metaphor for ‘clean company’. Then in groups of three, use clean language to unpack and explore the resulting metaphors.
  6. Drawing the metaphors: Each participant then draws their own ‘clean company’ metaphor.
  7. Shared metaphor: Participants get together to produce a shared metaphor that captures the important elements of all the separate metaphors (“Imagine that you were going to work together to create your own ‘clean’ company. Create a metaphor that you could all share as your joint vision in doing this.”). They create it directly as a drawing.
  8. Time line to ‘clean company’ project: Put the shared metaphor drawing up on the wall, set up a time-line on the floor leading up to it and then experiment with walking down the time-line and/or observing it from one side to report how each stage in building the company feels.

Steps 1 and 3: Introduction to metaphors

The gist of the ‘mini-lectures’ and of general comments thrown into discussions was as follows:

As well as being an important element of rhetoric and of colourful and memorable language, metaphor is also a very central feature of the way the mind works. To a considerable extent, the metaphors we use – particularly those we don’t realise that we are using – determine how we perceive the world around us, and what we perceive as possible and desirable. Therefore recognising, understanding and challenging our own ‘metaphor landscape’ (Lawley and Tompkins, 2000) will often allow us to perceive courses of action that were previously ‘imperceptible’ to us.

When we are dealing with complex and ill-defined ideas (such as corruption and anti-corruption) discussion can easily become very diffuse, so a well-chosen metaphor can often provide a central focus around which collaboration and shareable thinking can form. So it is hardly surprising that the literature on anti-corruption makes extensive use of metaphors: ‘transparency’, ‘clean’, ‘watchdog’, ‘regulator’, ‘fighting’ (corruption), ‘integrity’, ‘positions’ (of power), ‘root’ (cause), ‘standing at the pinnacle’ (of accountability), etc., etc. In the TI source book (Pope, 2000), most chapters begin with a few metaphor-rich paragraphs that set a particular perspective for the chapter.

Corruption metaphors are sometimes ‘close’ ones (e.g. bribery is often likened to an unofficial tax, and the literal meanings of these two ideas do indeed have many direct parallels). Close metaphors often help us to grasp unfamiliar ideas by relating them to similar, more familiar, ones. But close metaphors are less likely to lead to major re-perceptions.

Other corruption metaphors are much more ‘remote’ (e.g. likening anti-corruption to ‘transparency’). In such cases, the literal meaning of the metaphor is actually very unlike the concept it is being compared to. However, when a remote metaphor works, and we find that these apparently unlike ideas in fact offer important parallels, the result is often much more colourful, evocative and memorable – it captures our attention in powerful and unexpected ways, helping us to ‘re-perceive’ the situation from a significantly different perspective.

The conference showed very clearly how powerfully a metaphor such as ‘transparency’ can provide a shared central image to bring together people of widely differing perspectives. This property of an apt metaphor explains why skilled politicians are so often concerned with installing suitable metaphors in the public mind (and uninstalling unsuitable ones).

However, metaphors also tend to import unwanted meanings. For instance we often associate transparency with fragility (since glass is transparent), transparency is normally a passivephysical property that some substances have, rather than a dynamic state that has to be actively maintained, and, at least in the UK, the phrase ‘transparent honesty’ often has overtones of naïveté rather than skill. While these secondary meanings were not an issue at the conference, it is not difficult to imagine contexts where they might get in the way.

The emotive overtone that metaphors can have is illustrated when we talk of ‘looking up’ to senior people. This metaphor is usually imported from our childhood days (when ‘looking up’ to powerful adult figures was literally, rather than metaphorically, true). When ‘looking up’ to someone it is all too easy to begin to feel echoes of that childhood sense of being ‘little’ and dependant. This tendency is often exploited by those in powerful positions. For instance, the Pope addresses the crowds in St Peter’s Square from a high balcony – a ‘father’ talking to his ‘children’. Whereas a politician who wants to be seen as ‘one of us’ deliberately ‘comes down off his pedestal’ to ‘meet us on our own level’ by going on ‘walkabout’ sessions, shaking hands, etc.

There was a nice illustration of the subtle way in which metaphors can become embedded into our personal and emotional lives in a brief series of exchanges from one of the creative workshops. It involved a delegate (D) from Kenya, and myself (M).

M: ‘Can anyone suggest a good metaphor for ‘corruption’?
D: A stink! [Said with considerable feeling]
M: … and is there anything else about that ‘stink’?
D: A vile stench!
M: … and where could that ‘vile stench’ have come from?
D: It is like a foul, festering, stinking wound with maggots in it!
M: … and where could that ‘foul, festering, stinking wound with maggots in it’ have come from?
D: It is like a wound in somebody’s leg.
M: … and where could that ‘wound in somebody’s leg’ have come from?
D: He’s been working in some place where there is lots of very rough ground and spiny bushes that can cut you, and he hasn’t got the right kind of shoes or leg protection. He is too poor, he can’t afford them, he hasn’t been supplied with them….. [There is a brief pause and then D laughed] … Hey is this some kind of subliminal thing? What are you doing to me? You’ve just made me see corruption in a new way!’

A few simple minimally directive questions had helped D to realise that something he loathed (corruption) and something he cared deeply about (poverty and deprivation) were surprisingly closely linked in his mind. The link had been inaccessible due to his strength of feeling about corruption. Now that he had recognised the link, it opened up new action possibilities that he might not previously have been aware of.

Step 4: The ‘clean’ company

Some of the ideas that emerged when they were asked to share what they understood by the idea of a ‘clean’ company included:

  • Clean – uncorrupted
  • Well articulated perspective
  • Values of integrity and a fair price
  • Proper, fair, procedures
  • Well-organised

Steps 5-7: Generating and drawing the metaphors

The illustrations appended at the end of these notes show some of the attempts to generate metaphors, draw them, and then aim for a shared metaphor. The notes below each diagram are my record of what the participants said about their own efforts.

Step 8: The time-line exercise

A time line is simply a spatial metaphor representing a period of time – in this case the imagined period required to construct the ‘clean company’. After discussion, the participants agreed that five years would be a good run-in period. The shared metaphor drawing that they had produced was fixed to a wall to represent the target they were aiming at. Pieces of paper were placed on the floor in a straight line at 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 metres from the drawing to represent the five years that they felt they needed.

They stepped on each piece of paper in turn (like stepping stones) and talked about what they were doing and what it felt like at each stage, using ‘I’ and the present tense – e.g. ‘I am now only two years away from the launch, and I am beginning to feel a bit anxious about it … etc.’ The others looked on from one side and could comment in a more detached way: ‘When you were moving from the second to the third year I noticed that ….’ These two different perspectives tend to produce associated and dissociated types of thinking, respectively, often providing different kinds of insights.

An interesting distinction that arose when we did this exercise was between those who saw themselves as primarily holding and promoting their vision, and those who rapidly became deeply involved in the day-by-day details of setting up the company, and perhaps lost some of the salience of their vision.

Recurring themes

There are some recurring themes in the metaphor drawings shown below, and one can’t generalise from such a small sample, they seem worth mentioning. For instance:

  • Five of the seven metaphors have a clearly ‘moral’, ‘spiritual’ or ‘exemplar’ tone – the temple, the special house on a hill, the group meditation, the maize plant that everyone can see growing and the pyramid. It is not just a well run company – it is set apart as something special, to be looked up to.
  • They tend to be ‘remote’ or ‘off the beaten track’ – on the top of a hill, off the side of the road, in a desert. It occurs to me that evolution often happens at the edge of a species’ range – perhaps it would be easier to develop ‘clean’ companies when they are in marginal or remote niches.
  • Very few animate interactions. We can’t see the people in the temple or the house on the hill. The group staring at the sky are focussing on remote emptiness, rather than on one another. The corn plant is off to one side of the road, and ‘not too many people know too well about it’. The armadillo is a bit of a loner, in a hostile territory. Even the raincoat is presented for its physical properties rather than for the person inside it.
  • Protection vs. openness is an issue in all six images.
  • The pyramid, armadillo and house on a hill are dominated by physical solidity and protection.
  • The temple has both strong protection and openness.
  • The meditators and corn plant have no physical protection, but gain security from togetherness (the meditators) or from anonymity or remoteness (corn plant and armadillo).
  • The corruption-repelling rain-coat protects, but also has gaps.

These themes suggest to me that the ‘cleanliness’ metaphor may perhaps carries secondary meanings to do with the impersonal, the sterile, and the exceptional that might not be entirely helpful in pursuing the goal of reducing corruption in ordinary organizations.


Lawley, J and Tompkins P. (2000), Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling London: The Developing Company Press, ISBN 978-0-9538751-0-8. 

Pope, J. (2000), ‘TI Source Book 2000 – Confronting corruption: The elements of a national integrity system’, Berlin and London, Transparency International, ISBN 3-980 5657-8-5. 

Illustrative metaphors

The drawings have been scanned in from the flip-chart originals. The text below each metaphor is based on my notes of what the participant(s) said about their image.

Metaphor 1: Greek temple


Metaphor 1: Greek temple


UK delegate: It is a Greek temple — a sacred place. It consists of pillars and a roof. You can see through it, and the pillars define the structure. It is on raised ground. The columns are very strong, with deep foundations (not as wobbly as they look in the drawing!). The pediment has some kind of pattern of ornamental flowers, etc. – not statues of people. The roof provides protection from weather, etc., but the building doesn’t need protection at the sides, since it is surrounded by other open buildings. There should be some quite extended series of steps at the front – a system of pathways for people to walk along — the little flight of steps shown stands for this more complex arrangement.

No people are shown – this is like an ‘architect’s drawing’ – but nevertheless it is designed to be a special place where people go, so it would often have people coming to it and walking through it, and could be quite crowded; perhaps with rituals of some sort.

Metaphor 2: Upright house

Metaphor 2: Upright house
Chinese (Hong Kong) delegate: It is a stone building, with good foundations and straight lines. It is on the top of a hill (which would continue below the bottom of the picture but was left out for lack of space). There are lots of windows because there are many people inside, and many activities going on. The sun provides warmth and life. It would have been a more Chinese building, but that would be too hard to draw; however the main roof and the little roof over the door are Chinese in style.

Metaphor 3: Group of people in a meadow

Metaphor 3: Group of people in a meadow
Japanese delegate: This is a group of people standing under a blue sky (he decided that ‘blue sky’ felt better than ‘bright sky’). The curved meadow continues below the bottom of the picture to make a circle. There are men, women and children (the different colours). They are not hiding anything. They are all looking up in the same direction towards a clear (empty) area of blue sky. Nothing happens. They are just looking steadily and quietly upwards. It is important that they are physically close together, so that they feel together.

Metaphor 4: Pyramid. Joint metaphor encompassing key elements of Figures 1-3.

Metaphor 4: Pyramid

This drawing was produced by asking the creators of Metaphors 1-3 to come up with a joint metaphor that included the important elements of all three of their personal metaphors — not a compromise — a genuine synthesis. It shows a very solid pyramid or hill, with a flat top which is a special place, with a roadway or flight of steps up to it. People (men and women) are going up the steps looking ahead to the sky they can see ahead of them at the top of the pyramid. There is a feeling of some special ritual or ceremony.

Metaphor 5: A corn on the wayside


Metaphor 5: A corn on the wayside


Sierra Leone delegate: This is a plant of corn (maize) growing by the roadside – a rural African track – no motor traffic. It is there, growing by itself for everyone to see, but not many people know too well about it. It has a life span and it is not harmful. It gets pollinated and has seeds. It can be harvested and distributed, and could provide jobs for people.

S. African (white) delegate:

No drawing produced.

The armadillo eats ants – it lives on stinging ants. It lives in the desert where there are many prickly bushes around, so it has to forage through spines. It is not particularly social – you might have perhaps half a dozen together. It doesn’t hurt anything except ants. It is moving forward – it is alive – but it is slow (the delegate said that it was like the old Honda car that he had used as a metaphor for himself earlier). It has a long sticky tongue. Ants sting and they are no good for anything else. The armadillo neutralises them – so it is capable of neutralising bad things. Its exterior scales allow it to do these things. It is slow moving. It is going towards a water hole for a drink. It is quite happy.

Metaphor 7: Corruption repellent

No drawing produced.

UK delegate: It is like rain hitting a water-proof – it rolls up and falls off. But a company needs to be able to repel from the inside as well. It wouldn’t accept any corruption – good guys have white hats, and black hats can’t join it. It is a people thing – they won’t accept bribery. However, a rain coat can let water through its seams, etc. – a hat would help! So you can never stop this seepage completely, but if it gets too bad, you do something about it – hang it out to dry, repair the seams, etc.

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