Use Metaphor And Imagination At Work

Most of us are overtrained in intellect and undertrained in creative thinking—at least at work. But no matter our background and training, we can flex these underused creative muscles.

Growing up, I loved stories, poems, and imagining worlds that don’t exist. As I became a professional, teacher, coach, and leader, I mostly thought of imagination and metaphor as the stuff of my hobbies—an escape from work rather than a key competency for it. Through coaching, I’ve been reminded of how short-sighted this is.

Dan Pink, author of “A Whole New Mind,” believes that “the future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers—creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.”


A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison. So why should we use metaphor and imagination more often at work?

  • More and more of our jobs are knowledge based. We trade in information, creativity, solutions to complex problems, etc.
  • Technology is continuing to take over linear kinds of work.
  • The dynamism of virtually every industry presents challenges and opportunities that creativity is needed to address.
  • Most of us are overtrained in intellect and undertrained in creative thinking—at least at work.

No matter our background and training, we can flex these underused creative muscles.


In working with a friend who wanted to start a coaching business, I had two possible approaches:

1. Tell me who your clients are, your niche, and let’s talk about the business case for your services. Then we can lay out a year 1, year 2 marketing plan, etc.

2. What’s the new vision like? What lights you up? You love food? Coaching reminds you of when you find a great meal? OK, tell me about that.

We took approach #2, and it went like this:

Him: “It’s like a really cool food truck.”

Me: “Mmm, keep going!”

Him: “The food smells great, something new on the menu, creative and unexpected. Nourishing food— just what you want when you go get food on a busy day, with a little spice.”

He’s beaming, energized. We both can almost smell our favorite foods. We keep going, designing, savoring, and resisting the urge to overly intellectualize it. He describes the music, the menu, the color of the truck, how well prepared the food was, the delight everyone experienced, and the joy he experienced in surprising people and making them feel welcome. Joy. Delight. Surprise. Quality. Welcoming.

Now that he has this image, he’ll never lose it. It’s so much more vivid than a mission statement or business plan. He’ll utilize those, too, of course, but when times get tough, he’ll come back to the image, the impact, the unique approach that only his imagination could generate.


  • Ask metaphorical questions. What’s that like? What’s an image for that situation? If that was a movie, what would it be? In that situation, what’s the weather? What food does it remind you of?
  • If a colleague uses creative language, invite him or her to stay with it for longer and continue the metaphor. “Yes, it feels like we’re jumping from one kayak to another this year. How does that feel? What does this new kayak look like?
  • Go first. Blurt something out, take a risk.
  • Expect some discomfort. For most of us, these are new skills. You can always come back to the problem with analysis and strategy.

All this talk of metaphors and imagery reminds me of something Sidney Harman, former CEO, Harman International Industries, Inc., once said: “I say, ‘Get me some poets as managers.’ Poets are our original systems thinkers. It is from their midst that I believe we will draw tomorrow’s new business leaders.”

Craig Fischer, MA, is a former poet and a current consultant and executive coach. He serves as the director of Leadership and Organizational Development at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane, WA, where he teaches leadership and reflective practice and serves as an internal coach. Contact him via LinkedIn at: