Modelling, Metaphor and a Clean Approach to Business and Organisations

An interview with James Lawley, 3 March 2008
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James Lawley very kindly offered us some of his time to tell us about his experiences as a manager, knowing what he knows now about modelling, metaphor and Clean Language — three components of Symbolic Modelling.

The reason for us to have this conversation with him comes from our using modelling, ‘clean’ and metaphor in the context of business. While we know that these processes contribute enormously to businesses and other organisations, we sometimes find it hard to put that into words in a way that makes sense from their frame of reference.

James seemed an ideal ‘model’ for us to find out more about how to do this. Not only is he one of the most experienced facilitator & sponsors of this approach, he also has held various management positions in several organisations over the last 30 years, both as an internal manager and as an external consultant.1

And, as it turns out he used to think in some very similar ways to many managers we commonly encounter.

Our aim was twofold: To find out more about how using clean, modelling and metaphor has successfully worked for businesses and organisations; and how those benefits can best be described in typical corporate and management language.  Below we describe what we learned from this interview.

Value of using modelling, metaphor and a clean approach

Less arguments, more creativity

“Real men don’t use metaphor” would have been James’ mindset as a manager. Yet he now knows that back then, he and his computer engineering colleagues constantly used metaphor without knowing it. For example, metaphors from the construction industry were common (laying the foundations for a project, building a team, getting the blueprint right). He can now see that communication often comprised of fighting each others’ metaphors, and decision-making would commonly be based on ‘the last one left standing wins’ method.

Knowing about the function of metaphor would allow managers to consciously choose the ones they use. This would help to make oneself understood and help to understand others. Then different viewpoints can be respected and contribute to a better way forward. It would also give team members the opportunity to distinguish between ‘I don’t like your metaphor’ and ‘You’re stupid’; and to replace an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ attitude with ‘What can we learn from each others perspective?’, thereby creating:

  • less arguments
  • more openings for creativity & creative solutions
  • more respect for diversity

The key is to recognise that everyone’s metaphors have value and all metaphors have limitations since they foreground some parts of experience while backgrounding others.

In finding out how this works, we stumbled upon an interesting paradox in the effect of using metaphor in group settings:

On the one hand the use of metaphor dissociates (the metaphor we use to talk about a situation is not ‘it’, the situation itself, but something that ‘it’ can be likened to). As a result it is common for people to be less emotionally attached to the topic and find it easier to be more open and respectful in discussions;

On the other hand, when creating a metaphor together (e.g. in team alignment and visioning processes), a metaphor can also do the exact opposite: the members associate strongly with the joint metaphor and the values represented by it.

Improved forms, call scripts & other language-based tools

Modelling, metaphor and a clean approach offer some fascinating ways of thinking about how language is used, and can be used to improve business.  Because language is the primary mode of communicating within and between businesses, a company can gain significant added value by understanding how people process language.  A relatively untapped market that James mentioned is working with companies to improve any tools they use that are based on language. Examples are improving questionnaires and forms, making both the quantitative (number of returned forms) and qualitative results (useful information gathered) better.

James has been directly involved in a number of such projects including:

A Yale University Child Study Project designed to identify the psychological and social maturity of 20,000 teenagers and how that related to their academic attainment. The consultancy helped to make a questionnaire ‘cleaner’ and easier to understand by, for example: removing leading presuppositions and assumptions that were likely to bias the answers given; sequencing questions to reduced the cognitive load on the completer of the questionnaire; replacing metaphors which might limit the choice of answers.

Simplifying a big pharmaceutical company’s pro-forma for gathering data about the side effects of one of its drugs. By understanding how doctor’s actually filled in the form, and what they thought the questions meant, it was recommended that the initial form be reduced from six to two pages, with a second form completed only where necessary. This simple expedient meant that doctors were much more likely to fill out a form immediately rather than put it to one side for when they had more time.

Managers in a large organisation requested feedback and advice about a major announcement to employees about the future direction of the company. They were unaware that the style of the letter they were about to send out and some of the metaphors they were using were incongruent with the messages they were trying to convey.  Alternative wordings were suggested that were more aligned with the direction the company wanted to take.

By recording and modelling the transcripts of a series of high-level meetings James and a colleague were able to demonstrate, among other things, that the way questions were being asked was inhibiting the responder from giving the very information the questioner wanted. Furthermore, the style of chairing used in the meeting was undervaluing certain views, thereby biasing the output of the meeting. As a result a personalised development programme could be designed for each individual so that specific communication skills could be targeted.

A Research and Development company found they were not able to convert enough of the best people applying for a job into employees. By recording and modelling actual questions asked during interviews it became clear why.  Recommendations included more productive ways to conduct selection interviews and a tailored training course. The result, a greater hit rate.

The above are examples of how modelling, metaphor and a clean approach can contribute to:

  • The clarity of a team or company’s (hidden) goal, vision, plan or strategy
  • Making documents supportive of, and congruent with, the intended message
  • Designing questions to get to that hard-to-gather information
  • Improving questionnaires and forms so they help rather than hinder the answerer
  • Removing unwanted bias or inconsistent messages embedded in a text
  • Putting information over in a variety of ways so as to appeal to a range of preferred styles of taking in information.
  • Making use of metaphor to convey strong messages

In general this involves:

  • Looking at both content and structure, within the frame of what the document is trying to achieve.
  • Modelling what’s happening in the customer’s or supplier’s mind as they attempt to make sense of the questions and statements.
  • Suggesting how to improve the language used so that: (a) at both the conscious and the unconscious level it is easier for the reader/listener to understand and/or provide the information required; and (b) the document is more effective and aligned with the aims of the organisation.

Development of existing qualities

On the subject of organisational change, we got a lot of insight into what ‘change management’ means to James. He is now sceptical of most methodologies used by ‘change agents’ since research shows that many change programmes fail to meet their own objectives.2 He is suspicious of much of the current perceived ‘wisdom’, e.g.:

  • Programmes that seek to change peoples’ values rather than their behaviours.
  • Beliefs that bigger, faster and more exspensive is better.
  • Assumptions that there is a need to ‘shake up’ the existing organisation.
  • The over-valuing of ‘change’ and undervaluing of work being currently undertaken.
  • Coming in with pre-conceived ideas for how to ‘make change happen’.
  • Prescribing solutions or methods that have little or no understanding of ‘confirmation bias’ or ‘the law of unintended consequences’.
  • Not learning from past (often unsuccessful) attempts at change in the organsiation.

James prefers change programmes which are more centred on improving what’s already working, rather than making wholesale change the main focus. This involves attending to evolutionary development and ‘trial and feedback’ processes, i.e. a generative and outcome-orientated approach. In his experience organisational change programmes are usually another name for ‘a solution’ and are therefore still problem-focussed. 

Change programmes can be a massive waste of resources, cause more strife than improvements, and risk losing the very things that mean the organisation has survived as long as it has. James thinks that metaphors from the biological world are more appropriate when considering how complex self-organising systems evolve (i.e. all organisations where a number of people interact over a period of time).

One of the ways to support a more organic kind of change is to consider the ecology of the wider system, to develop qualities that are already there, and be on the look-out for qualities that need to be preserved. [We noticed the similarities between this approach and Appreciative Inquiry.] 

For James as a manager it would have been quite a shock to be asked about the qualities of his department instead of what wasn’t working: Which qualities do the individuals and the teams demonstrate? How can these be enhanced and used elsewhere? Who do you admire or look to for inspiration? What nees to happen for you to take on some of those qualities?  [This kind of ‘shock treatment’ we personally love and in which our ‘Dutchness’ – directness, sometimes perceived in Britain as slightly blunt – might actually be of use!]

James gave an example of what made an impression on him in his early days as a manager, and which he now sees has similarities to working cleanly with clients (when we face them with the reality of their words). In a large organisational change programme he was complaining about the way top management was handling the situation. He was then asked: When the situation is as it is, what are three things you can do? It instantly changed his focus of attention and state. Although he felt “put on the spot” he appreciated it to such an extent that he still remembers it 25 years later.

What made this bit of our discussion particularly interesting for us was the distinction made by James between typical change management and an improvement/outcome-oriented approach. He maintains that change is not ‘a something’, and that ‘management’ implies a degree of control that is not possible.3 Systemically speaking ‘change’ is the net result of all the feedback loops operating in the system, and any actual change that occurs is inherently unpredictable.

By comparison, when we facilitate change and when we talk about this we aim to do so with an outcome orientation and as organically as possible, because our aim is change facilitation so that changes actually happen from within, and that means “getting the people on the bus” first.4

This makes us want to find out more: are these associations / is this distinction common for other managers also? Is this maybe different for the UK and Holland? If so, we need to be aware of this and of the words we use when we talk about our work!

So, how can we achieve all of this?

Outcome orientation

Outcome orientation is one of the strongest tools we have for the organisational context.

It seems so easy once you have learned the PRO model part of the REPROCess model works,5 but experience shows that most people find it difficult to maintain an outcome-orientation in real-life situations. Even if this model is all you take with you from the clean domain, it has the potential to make a big impact in any organisational setting. Combine it with the ability to model and it gives you the opportunity to be guided by desired and actual outcomes, rather than solutions or methods.

When modelling is the starting point you have to find out what is happening, what patterns have been maintained over time, where the system is already heading, and where change is already occurring.  Out of this ‘bottom-up’ approach emerges a way of supporting the system to learn from itself and to establish the conditions whereby improvement is the natural response. Clean Language helps develop the discipline needed to be able to do this.

Outcome orientation is so much more than defining a goal. It is a way of thinking about a situation and a way of actually behaving in that situation.

Modelling accelerates learning

James said a big part of learning to model comes down to “Ignore everything that’s irrelevant, keep focussing on what is relevant and thereby accelerate learning”. Or, in other words: Get more of the key bits, less of everything else, and you learn faster.

However, to know what to focus on you need to start with a broad perspective and maintain that until the relevant bits “beg to be noticed”. Once you have this skill it can be applied in many contexts. It is not only of benefit to the modeller, it’s super valuable to any conversation, to meetings, planning, report writing, etc. etc.

When modelling, ‘salience’ is key

Lately, a term that has been the focus of James’ attention is ‘salience’. When he is modelling, this is what he is looking for. He asks himself: What is it that stands out in this landscape? What really matters? Again, ‘salience’ is not a thing. It is a relationship of relationships. It lives in the background, “between the lines” (David Grove). You can’t touch it but you can know it well enough to let it guide you. James says “I don’t know what it is until I’ve seen it, but I assume it’s there.”

Therapeutic Modelling, Product Modelling and Change Facilitation

James mentioned an important distinction he uses between Product Modelling — where the aim is to come up with a specific model, the product; and Therapeutic Modelling — where facilitating the process of the client is the aim, as in coaching and mentoring. In the latter case, the model the facilitator makes is an ever-changing construct that only exists in their mind at that moment, it does not become a representation independent of it’s creator as in Product Modelling.

For us, talking about change management and change facilitation in organisations is more akin to Therapeutic Modelling, although the context, aims and contract with the client are not the same. This raises more questions for us as to where Therapeutic Modelling is different, where it is similar and what that means in terms of choices in facilitating.

Organisational change: what’s needed for it to be effective?

Besides outcome orientation and modelling, the third important way of influencing organisational change is by facilitating developments which encourage more choice; greater flexibility and resilience; more ‘response-ablity’; and more comfort with ambiguity, unpredictability, not-knowing and diversity. Facilitating people to develop their “emotional intelligence” is a big part of this process. These changes will better prepare individuals and the organisation for the unexpected that is outside the plan, and especially those “Black Swans” that can lead an organisation to “break down,” or … “break through”.6

Using Clean in Business: don’t talk about it – do it.

Explaining what is different in using these methodologies is not an easy task. And it’s not for everyone. Often it is much easier to demonstrate than to describe. Doing it up front takes courage. You can’t predict what will be delivered. This means staying away from promising specific results. This can be somewhat of a challenge because customers usually want to satisfy their craving for certainty and expect to know the ‘deliverables’ in advance.  But when an organisation is willing to enter into this kind of systemic approach, the results they achieve turn out to be more than they could have expected!

Possible products, based on Clean, Modelling & Metaphor

In talking about our own (explicit and implicit) work with modelling, metaphor and Clean Language and getting James’ thoughts, we briefly covered a number of actual and potential products:

  • Modelling as a product
  • Outcome-focussed facilitation and project management (e.g. teaching PRO model)
  • Maintaining a balanced life (and how to work with stressful situations)
  • Leadership development / leadership skills
  • Communication training: building trust, finding out more in less time
  • Interviewing / research
  • Building commitment and ownership
  • Project evaluation
  • Conflict resolution
  • Facilitating learning for trainers
  • Project kick-offs / project team alignment

How would James go about getting (business) work from scratch?

Being two Dutchies with plenty of work in Holland but trying to get started properly in the UK, we asked James how he would approach trying to get work in a different country without an existing network. He made three suggestions, to:

  • Keep an eye out for articles in newspapers, magazines, etc. and follow up with those companies which either have problems where this approach would be valuable, or leaders which seem open to a fresh approach.
  • Write articles for business magazines and web sites.
  • Offer to work on a ‘not satisfied – no payment’ basis to reduce the risk to the organisation and to obtain examples which can be used to gain further business.

Metonymy after metaphor?

On a different level, we found James using the phrase “let me give you an example” a lot during this interview. This gave us both a clear idea of what he was trying to bring across in a very practical way, and showed us the breadth and depth of his experience.

When explaining this James added another very useful feature, namely how examples simultaneously reach people with either a ‘big chunk’ (general) or a ‘small chunk’ (detail) preference for taking in information. Big chunk in that examples tell a story; small chunk in that they give the specifics of what happened.

In this way examples can be seen as metonymies: a part that stands for the whole (typical examples of metonymy: “give me a bell”, “the White House says….”).

This is a whole new area for exploration. James concluded: “If I ever get bored with metaphors, I may start working on metonymy. Although at present it seems unlikely I will ever be finished with metaphor.”


1 James Lawley has been employed as a post-grad research assistant, a financial forward planner for a local authority, a systems analyst for British Oxygen, a senior manager for British Telecom managing £100m projects and 300 staff.  Since then he has acted as a consultant to organisations as diverse as Glaxo-Welcome, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center, and the Findhorn Spiritual Community.

2 Martin Roberts, Change Management Excellence (2006).

3 Paul Ormerod, Why Most Things Fail (2006), and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (2008).

4 Jim Collins, Good to Great (2001).

5 Resource, Explanation, Problem, Remedy, (desired) Outcome, Change.

6 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1996), Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (2008); “break through” or “break down” in Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (1996).

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