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Metaphors (could) improve your meetings

Think back on the last week. How many meetings did you attend? How many of those were productive, creative, boring or provided you with new insights?

If some of those meetings felt like no one really listened to each other or made use of having each other in the room, metaphors might be of interest.

We are meeting a lot, at least in Danish companies, and I suspect the trend goes beyond our borders. We are also increasingly aware that it is expensive to meet this much and that we should be sure to make the most of the time invested.

This potential in turn has been taken up by a number of consultancy firms drawing on the concept of using a ‘shared third’ in meetings. The philosophy behind the concept of a ‘shared third’ is that each of the individuals in a given meeting brings their own personal and/or professional beliefs, habits and attitudes to the table. In order for exchange and change to happen, the individuals meeting must share a third mode in order to realize how what the others say or do is different or similar to what the self thinks and beliefs.

In some management theories, the idea is that if a medium for a shared third were provided, the knowledge exchange and – co-creation would happen.

I went to investigate that hypothesis by use of metaphor analysis.

I chose a well-documented experiment of shared third using toy bricks (Stege Bjørndahl et al. 2014). However rather than using it in a laboratory setting, I brought the experiment into six different companies. Thus, the groups I investigated were working together on a daily basis.

The task was easy: Build three consecutive buildings in five minutes each, put the bricks away and discuss the concept of knowledge in the context of your company. As I was especially interested in their concept of knowledge, they built “ideal office space” to get started, then they built “experience” and at the end “knowledge”.

What I was looking for was how the ideas from the building tasks traveled into the following discussion and how the building strategy would seem to affect that travelling as a measure for co-creation and ability to listen.

All six groups used plenty of metaphors. Both in speech, gesture and toy bricks, the metaphors were all over the place just as expected. The interesting part was the group’s ability to notice, use, expand and negotiate different metaphors by using the three modes of toy bricks, gesture and words.

One group quickly decided that knowledge is a tower. They made a shared gesture and then built the tower. The metaphor “knowledge is a tower” was then negotiated when the building threatened to tilt. The group made the concept of knowledge fit the building - knowledge is fragile because employees can leave. Thus, the source domain is shaping the target domain:

  • Knowledge is a tower

  • The tower is fragile

  • Knowledge is fragile.

Further the tower-gesture and reasoning about the concept of knowledge continued throughout the conversation.

In this case, the shared third in the shape of gesture and toy bricks shaped a shared metaphorical understanding of the abstract concept of knowledge. An example like this could potentially suggest that giving groups toy bricks would help in sharing and negotiating concepts as has been suggested by e.g. Heracleous and Jacobs (2008).

However, in three of the six cases nothing like this happened. In other words, the ability to negotiate and co-create a shared and stable concept is not in the bricks, in the gesture, or in the language. It is in the ability to negotiate and take up the metaphors presented by others. What the successful groups seem to be good at is to investigate the consequences of understanding one thing in terms of another. This in turn demands that the group members notice each other’s metaphors and ask elaborate questions.

This approach to the ecology of metaphors (Jensen & Greve, 2019), which start in one mode and travel between participants and modes throughout a meeting highlight that having creative and generative meetings is not so much about having a shared third as it is about using all available modes in an investigation.

Modes like toy bricks, pen and paper, play dough etc. all hold their affordances and constraints, which in turn will shape the metaphors we use. But, from an ecological perspective it is not so much about which modes we use, but how we use them as a means of investigation and exploration.

Try it at your next meeting or attend the pre-conference workshop at RaAM 2020 in Hamar.


Greve, L. (2016). Metaphor as a management tool. In Routledge Handbook of Metaphor and Language. Routledge.

Greve, L. (2015). The Diversity of Metaphors for Knowledge: An Empirical Study. Journal of Knowledge Management Research and Practice.

Jensen, T. W., & Greve, L. (2019). Ecological Cognition and Metaphor. Metaphor and Symbol, 34(1), 1–16.

Heracleous, L., & Jacobs, C. D. (2008). Crafting Strategy: The Role of Embodied Metaphors. Long Range Planning, 41(3), 309–325.

Stege Bjørndahl, J., Fusaroli, R., Østergaard, S., & Tylén, K. (2014). Thinking together with material representations. Cognitive Semiotics, 7(1), 103-123.

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