couple-thinkingThis tidbit came to me indirectly.   I was having a meeting with a talented architect this afternoon, and after the meeting wrapped up, we were chatting about some of the different tactics we’ve seen for “selling an idea to an executive.”  At the end of the day, the ability to influence an executive is a core competency for Enterprise Architects.

So this architect, whom I will name “Bob” to protect his identity, points out the problem of the “sidetracked metaphor.”  It happens like this:

  • You are working hard to take a really complex idea and turn it into something that a business executive can get his or her head around, without too much difficult.  Something that you can explain, and that rings true.
  • You come up with a metaphor that you find compelling.  Perhaps you run it past some of your friends, and they find it compelling too.  So you put the metaphor into a powerpoint deck and work all your content around it.
  • You give the presentation.
  • The executive stops you:  He doesn’t understand the metaphor, or worse, he doesn’t agree with it.  He flips the bozo bit on you.  Your idea is dead.  Doesn’t matter if the idea will save him millions.  Actually, it does matter… because the next person to present the idea, using a metaphor that he likes, will get his ear.  THAT person will convince him.  You won’t.


So how do you prevent this?  Bob gave me a good idea…

Investigate the things that the executive has said, or written about.  Investigate other programs or ideas that he has signed up for.  Investigate business books that he has mentioned.  Investigate products that he loves to talk about, and even activities he may be involved with.  You are looking for the metaphors.

Create a list of metaphors that your target executive understands.  What metaphors have driven him to action?  What metaphors does he use in his own presentations?

Leverage that knowledge.  Pick a metaphor that is related, or ties neatly, with one that he or she is already familiar with.  Reuse a metaphor if it won’t create confusion.  Put that metaphor into your deck.

Your odds of getting your idea into the head of your executive just doubled.

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

6 thoughts on “Selling to Executives – Investigate their metaphors”
  1. I completely understand the problem with metaphors, having seen them backfire in the past. Why not use a use case or practical example rather than a metaphor? Less risk of being sidetracked by something that’s not even relevant to your solution.

  2. Hi Sandy,

    You would, of course, use as many tools as you can.  There are times, though, when a metaphor is necessary.  I’ve heard everything from "plumbing systems" through "city planners," from "standard outlets" to "landscape design."

    At the EAC conference, there is even a session on different metaphors for EA (archetypes) that can be used both to describe the engagement model and get buy in for the program.  

    So going without metaphors is an option, but frequently, metaphors are needed.

    So choose wisely.

  3. This sounds like a common technique that comedians do with their acts, which is to tell an (often corny) joke near the beginning and then relate other jokes back to the original one or more times later in the show.  For some reason it helps the audience to relate to the comedian.  

    (The executive’s metaphor is the corny joke, and you have to bring your own metaphors around in a way that relates back to it, thus helping him to relate).

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