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Mind your metaphors: Why CIOs’ choice of corporate jargon counts

Mind your metaphors: Why CIOs’ choice of corporate jargon counts

The honeymoon’s over, we’re jumping hurdles and heading into battle

Feeling bitter?

Gartner recommends chief information officers use and invoke metaphors when they are questioning colleagues about what is and isn’t working during a change initiative or major project.

One of the issues faced by CIOs is their seniority often means they are “too remote from problems or issues occurring at the front line” and suffer from the ‘authority filter’ present in large organisation that keeps them unaware of bad news.

“The higher the leader ranks on the organisation chart, the less likely it is that people will come to him or her with problems,” a research note from November last year states.

“…asking directly about the health of the change can be intimidating for many, as many behave evasively, especially if the CIO and IT leaders have not built a sharing group across the enterprise,” it continues.

It’s here that using metaphors can prove invaluable.

The note’s author, Gartner research director Daniel Sanchez Reina – a former CIO of Sony Europe – suggests selecting different metaphor themes for different types of question. Taste should be used when questioning about motivation and forward motion metaphors for gauging progress. Texture-based metaphors should be used when delivering calls to action.

Taste metaphors are known to recruit areas of the brain associated with emotion, making them a useful tool in gauging motivation, which itself is “sometimes difficult to perceive because it lies in the emotional arena and is seldom visible,” Sanchez Reina’s paper states.

Taste-based questions around motivation might include; what are the sweetest benefits of this change? Is there anything about this project that makes you bitter? Tell me something that is making you bitter.

Forward-motion-related metaphors, meanwhile have been found to subconsciously activate a sense of achievement in the brain.

CIOs can use this to their advantage, Sanchez Reina says, using such metaphor laden questions to not only assess the difficulties teams might be encountering, but also “awaken their desire to succeed”.

Such questions might include: How far down the track are we? Are you swimming against the tide? What potholes are we running into?

A motion metaphor has been utilised to great effect by Sydney Water CIO George Hunt. Describing the utility’s transformation effort, he told the CIO50 event in November: “I often say we’re trying to upgrade an aircraft whilst it’s in flight. And if we’re trying to upgrade the aircraft – the customer travel experience at the same time we’re changing the engines to up efficiency – then I basically say ‘are you okay being a glider for a while?’”

ANZ’s group executive, technology, Gerard Florian, meanwhile has used phrases such as ‘oil tanker to speed boat’ and ‘teaching the giant to dance’ to describe the bank’s technology transformation.

Texture-related metaphors, when heard, are understood to activate similar areas of the brain as actually sensing the texture through touch. Using them “allows us to convey messages that generate more noteworthy and impactful memories” Reina Sanchez says.

Pleasant and unpleasant texture can be evoked: It’s been a hairy time, a smooth transition, a rough year.

“CIOs can resort to the power of language in smart, original ways,” Reina Sanchez writes. “Metaphors…act as powerful tools to motivate and generate calls to action in impactful ways. However, metaphors should not be overused. Use them surgically as necessary; otherwise, they may sound exaggerated and lose their impact.”

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