Metaphor interactions to develop team relationships and robustness enhance project outcomes


Keywords: Metaphor, Performance, Behaviour, Reflection, Learning, Model


This paper reports the findings from an ongoing action research program to assess the impacts of stimulating constructive dialogue around behaviours on team performance, using metaphor as a catalyst. Interactions based on a new reflective performance cycle model were reported by participants to be intuitive and fun. Implementation of metaphor-based interactions with project teams was found to align participants around objectives and enable them to leverage the behavioural diversity inherent in the group. These metaphorical interventions assist to create a behavioural environment that encourages participants towards more specific outcomes in more collaborative and constructive ways. This paper introduces two practical examples of metaphor-based interventions designed to stimulate conversations that are either convergent or divergent, depending on the situation. Although early indications from this research suggest the metaphor-based interactions are effective, the current data are limited, and further research is continuing in several contexts to build a more robust body of evidence.


Organisations rely on processes to maintain agreed on practices and projects as the preferred method to introduce significant change. As the pace of technology developments has accelerated and the scope of organisations has increased, larger-scale projects have become more common, with greater value at stake. Although these changes create potential for bigger value creation, they also introduce greater complexity and higher risks. The literature suggests that a significant proportion of large-scale projects fail to meet their objectives and there is evidence that behaviour is a factor in these failures (Chua & Lam, 2005; Ojiako, Johansen, & Greenwood, 2008).

There is support in the literature to highlight behaviour has an impact on project outcomes (Cervone, 2008; Jacques, Garger, & Thomas, 2008) and organisational engagement (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). Although this seems intuitive to people experienced in project management (perhaps management generally), there is little evidence in the academic literature to explain how this can be proactively managed. Behaviour is a double-edged sword in that “positive behaviours” such as openness, collaboration, trusting, and caring can enhance the performance of a team, and “negative behaviours” such as overt politics, favouritism, inconsistently applied rules, and micromanagement of competent team members can severely damage performance and outcomes. The ability to recognise appropriateness of behaviour in different situations and roles is important to team dynamics (Belbin, 2010) and having these capabilities makes for better performing project leaders (Andersen, Dysvik, & Vaagaasar, 2009; Bierhoff & Müller, 2005; Müller & Turner, 2010).

The aims of this research is to first introduce the reflective performance cycle (RPC) and, second, to investigate what impact some intuitive interventions using metaphorical card games, designed to stimulate constructive conversations between team members, can have on team performance. The games were developed from the principles of the RPC, a new model to enhance performance of projects currently being tested through an action research program (Shelley, 2011b). The RPC combines reflective practice, constructive conversations, behavioural metaphor, and assessments of impacts on (largely intangible) performance outcomes (Shelley, 2010). Application of the new model is highlighting the power of combining these concepts into an ongoing capability development cycle. By adapting the behaviours required at each stage of the cycle, the individual or team can align thinking style (divergent or convergent) to desired outcomes (such as impact on stakeholders and team performance). Project team members can quickly be introduced to the intuitive playing cards (Zoo Character cards) and then engage in constructive conversations about the behavioural aspects of their project.

The foundation of the RPC model (Figure 1) is that participants can pre-select which behaviours are the most appropriate to achieving the desired outcomes of each conversation, depending on the situation. Circumstances that require a divergent conversation, such as brainstorming ideas for a complex issue, should be matched with creative collaborative activity. However, planning or prioritising actions from such a list of options requires more convergent thinking and is optimised by analytical and critical behaviour. This highlights the purpose of each conversation and matures participant's thinking before the interaction, thereby improving the probability of success. Actively engaging with colleagues in Conversations that Matter (Shelley, 2009) at each stage of this adapted reflective practice cycle (Reflect, Plan, Do, Observe), enables richer learning and stronger relationship development. Embedding Zoo Metaphor (Shelley, 2007) into this approach enriches the understanding of the behavioural interactions for both “Reflection in Action” and “Reflection on Action” (Schön, 1995). Placing reflection at the beginning of the cycle to simulate creative conversations about possible outcomes is something that some people do some of the time, but there are limitations in simultaneously engaging in convergent and divergent behaviours.

Combining reflective practice with conversation structure, behavioural analysis, and metaphor is unique. The implication of this model is to consciously align behaviour to the desired outcome and situation in a structured way, which enables the actors to be better prepared than the traditional approach of Plan, Do, Observe, then Reflect. Separating pre-reflection (simulation before the event) from planning is a critical point. Simulation is about creating and testing a range of options using divergent thinking. Planning typically is more about selecting which options from a range should be used and in what order, using convergent thinking. The behaviours to be displayed in each of these conversations are very different to optimising the process. If simulation and planning are done together, it is probable that useful emergent opportunities will not be developed (or perhaps even recognised).

The synergies between these four approaches generate a powerful mechanism to increase participation of team members and reveal insights of the behavioural capabilities of the whole team. Although metaphor, reflective practice, conversation, and behaviour-based interactions can be used alone—used together they become much more influential and contribute more to personal and team capability development and overall performance. All four concepts help those using them to develop a deeper understanding of themselves and others and the interactions they can then have with them. This interim report and the author's ongoing research will continue to assess the impact this model, and interventions based on it, will have on performance (of individuals, teams, and organisations).

Figure 1. Reflective performance cycle model.

Reflective performance cycle model


An action research approach (Coghlan & Brannick, 2010; Herr & Anderson, 2005) was used in this research to enable interaction between the researcher and the research participants. The research was being done to create a difference for the research subjects and assess the impact of interactions for the participants. Observations and impacts were collected through participant reflections and notes from group discussions and individual interviews and feedback. The design of the interventions and the character cards used to facilitate them are based on the RPC model. This paper describes the details of two of several interventions implemented as part of a wider action research program forming the basis of the author's PhD studies.

The Zoo Character cards look like standard playing cards, except they have two of each of the metaphorical characters from The Organizational Zoo (Shelley, 2007). These cards have been used in a variety of ways in the wider action research program by the author, but only two intervention types are described in this article. There are 27 characters on the cards, which collectively represent metaphors for the most commonly observed behaviours in organisations. Animals (and one plant) are used as they draw on the common knowledge of people and their often common perception of the nature of that animal. The intuitiveness of the cards is reinforced by the list being alphabetical. Deeper insights into other interactions and the categorising of the characters can be found in Shelley (2011a).

The first intervention is a game using the metaphor playing card (Zoo Character cards) designed to assess the intuitiveness of the cards and the nature of the conversations they stimulate. This was performed in three different situations with participants at different stages of their careers. The first group consisted of nine team members, who represented two projects in the same organisation. They were first interviewed about how they interacted with project stakeholders before being instructed in the use of the RPC model or the Zoo Character cards. After the baseline interviews, they were involved in several games using Zoo Character cards and then asked to sort the cards into desirable and undesired manager characteristics. A key point of difference with the other two groups this interaction was done with is that these participants were largely from similar cultural backgrounds and had been working together on a specific project for more than a year within the same organisation. The group represented early to mid-career professionals, ranging from five years of work experience through to a relatively senior-level manager.

The second group to test the intuitiveness of the metaphor cards was a group of seven professional consultants engaged in an educational workshop. These consultants had no prior direct experience with the use of the cards and were given only very basic instructions to the metaphor and only five minutes to sort the cards into desirable and undesired manager characteristics. The second group consisted of late career professionals who had all held senior management roles in commercial organisations before starting their own consultancy businesses.

The third group consisted of postgraduate students with less than three years of professional work experience. Eighty-five participants in a voluntary education workshop were divided into 15 groups of five or six participants and asked to categorise the desired and undesirable characteristics after a brief overview of the metaphor.

Each group was asked to select the character cards based on the metaphor characters to profile “preferred leaders” and “undesirable leaders.” They were instructed to select the five most desired characters (representing behaviours that enhance the relationship with the team) and the five least desired characters (representing behaviours that disrupt the relationship with the team). The results displayed in Figure 2 are percentages of the people who selected each character and are individual assessments for the late and mid-career groups, but groups for the early career students.

The second intervention was more focused and rich and only conducted with members of the first group (mid-career professionals). The nine members of the group were asked to (individually) use the cards to profile at least one of their stakeholders with a view to understanding them better. They were instructed to consider how they should behave in order to secure their desired outcomes from their next interaction with the stakeholder. Before engaging with the stakeholder, participants were encouraged to role play the planned interaction or at least discuss it with peers. The research participants were asked to record and challenge their thoughts regarding the interaction with the stakeholder in a reflective impact diary template. This approach was structured to enable two reflective learning opportunities around the behavioural interaction: the simulation or discussion before the planned interaction as well as reflection and challenge after the event.

The reflective performance diary (RPD) was designed by the author specifically for the planning and capture of details of behavioural interactions and facilitating reflective learning. The ideal method for using the RPD is to first plan and simulate the interaction to mature the approach and then record and review the real interaction after it happened. The RPD can also be used to record an unplanned behavioural interaction as a “reflection on action.” The one-page RPD template contains the following sections to prompt the research participant to record his or her perception of what happened (or what he or she plans to happen) as well as tag the experience to enable some semi-qualitative analysis by the researcher:

  • Headline to characterise the nature of the interaction in a summarised form
  • Impact to introduce background and record planned or implemented activity
  • Reflection to capture what the research participant thinks and feels made this experience worth recording
  • Learning to capture what the research participant would do differently if in a similar situation again
  • Meta-Tagging to have the research participant categorise the experience on some structured scales for analysis
  • Other comments to record other contextual information that may be helpful in understanding the impact of the behavioural interaction.

Findings and Discussion

Figure 2 shows the outcomes of the first intervention in which the early-, mid-, and late-career professionals were asked to select the five most desired and five least desired behavioural characteristics of their managers. It is interesting to note the high degree of similarity across the different groups in which behaviours are desired in one's manager; however, what is disliked is far more diverse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, eagle (inspirational leadership) was selected by all 16 individuals and all 15 groups representing early-, mid- and late-careers as a positive characteristic and by none as a negative. By contrast, lion (control and command style) was divided with some individuals and groups selecting it as desired and some as undesired behaviour. This contrast stimulated immediate rich conversation in all workshops about the pros and cons of aggression and control in different contexts. The conversations went back and forth about the need to be able to forcefully influence as a tactic at times, which was challenged by others stating this type of force only generates compliance, not influence.

There were many such constructive conversations stimulated by the intervention outputs. Some example quotes taken from participant notes are discussed next and provide insights into why the metaphor works well. All participants were actively engaged in the conversations around the tables and there was significant laughter and positive interactions triggered by the metaphor cards.

Figure 2: Percentage times each metaphorical character was selected as desired or undesired behavioural characteristics of managers by individuals or groups by early-, mid-, and late-career professionals.

Percentage times each metaphorical character was selected as desired or undesired behavioural characteristics of managers by individuals or groups by early-, mid-, and late-career professionals

These interactions, and in some cases additional conversations after the event once people had further reflected, highlighted several key insights about the research, the metaphorical RPC model, and Zoo Character cards:

  • Metaphorical representation of behaviours using natural images (animals, plants, and ecosystems) enables intuitive recognition.
  • Using cartoon images and a few words in card games is engaging and fun, which increases participation and richness of idea exchange.
  • The level of interaction between the small groups was significantly greater than when engaging the whole workshop group and the exchanges richer.
  • It was significantly easier to discuss behaviours of people as a separated object represented by the metaphor in a non-political and constructive manner than to talk about the person themselves.
  • The use of animals (and one plant) enabled the participants to understand the relationships between the behaviours more intuitively than more formal profiling tools.
  • The metaphor cards can be used with very little instruction and still provide results consistent with those who have more instruction in their use.
  • The situational nature of appropriateness of behaviour became apparent for a range of roles (not just leaders and managers). Upon initial assessment, there are some animals (behaviours) that are clearly considered as a positive attribute of managers and others clearly negative by the majority and some not considered to be a defining characteristic in either category. However, as the ensuing conversations take place and a range of situations considered, more participants realise the appropriate behaviour is somewhat contextual. Rich exchanges about when it is appropriate to be a lion (in cases of procrastination with potential negative impacts of inaction) were shared as were similar examples of when it is inappropriate.
  • Interactions stimulated by the metaphor cards increased the awareness of participants of the diversity of perceptions of others about behaviours, especially what is considered undesired.
  • When diversity of behaviour is discovered in a safe-fail environment, participants were interested to hear other perspectives about circumstances, which differed from their own experiences, increasing the ability to leverage others ideas.

A point to note is that despite participants being asked to select only five characters in each category from a total of 26 options, all characters available were selected at least once across all groups. The majority of characters were selected as either desirable or undesirable (within the content of appropriateness to be a dominant characteristic displayed by your boss), but there were five that were selected as both desired and undesired by different members of the same career stage group:

  • Ant, kid, unicorn, x-breed, and yak by early career professionals
  • Whale by both mid-career and late-career professionals

These results highlight that there is diversity of perspective around what behavioural characteristics of a good boss should be. Supporting this was one group of the early career professionals who selected lion as a positive against the main trend. They justified the selection by explaining there is nothing worse than working for someone who does not have sufficient “teeth” to support and protect the team (using the case of securing budget and resources required to succeed in difficult projects).

There are some selections that at first appear to be quite unexpected such as the selections of ant, kid, yak, and unicorn as desired leadership qualities. When asked about these selections, the perceptions shared were somewhat insightful. The ant was identified as a role model because of its strong work ethic and lack of interest in politics. This contribution led to many of the people in the room having a second look at these characters, having passed over them quickly the first time round. So, despite this selection being made quickly by students with little or no workplace experience, their perspective opened up a useful discussion that allowed a minority perspective to be shared and discussed without judgment and retribution. Such opportunities are often missed when the minorities of the group are stronger and push their own perspectives through, which may not always drive the best decisions.

Similarly, the kid was selected for its open-mindedness (highlighting to the group this can be lost when we “already know” everything); the yak for its sense of fun and willingness to make the odd mistake or two; and, the unicorn because it believed in ideals. Whilst the limitations of these arguments is quite apparent, there is also some merit in considering wider perspectives before rapidly categorising a behaviour and casting it to the reject pile.

Table 1 : Summary of animals selected in desired and undesired categories by each stage of career.

Criterion Career stage
Early Mid Late
People involved 85 9 7
Profile creation mode Group Individual Individual
Profiles created 15 9 7
Desired characters selected 14 9 8
Percentage of possible characters 53% 37% 31%
Undesired characters selected Percentage of possible characters 17 65% 11 42% 14 53%
Percentage of possible characters 65% 42% 53%

Table 1 shows the ratio of desired to undesired behaviours selected by professionals from different career stages. Although it appears that late career professionals may be more selective in what is desirable, there were less of them involved. So, this comparison cannot be justified with these limited data; however, what can be stated is that the range of animals selected as preferred behaviours was narrower than for the undesired behaviours by all career levels. This indicates that either there is not an equal number of animals that are viewed as “good” and “bad,” or more likely, that professionals are more clear about what is appropriate than what is not appropriate.

In the original construction of the complete set of animals there was no judgment regarding good and bad, just what was observed. Collectively, they were collated to represent the most commonly observed behaviours from the top of the organisation to the bottom, with a spread from the most passive through to the most aggressive. The design recognises that all behaviours have a place, so the focus is not good and bad, rather it is how that behaviour is perceived by the observer within the context they observe it. For example, a middle manager may feel it is appropriate to deploy a lion (control and command) to secure agreement to timeframes or targets from his or her direct reports, but would not expect this approach to be the optimal when managing upwards with his or her own boss or senior stakeholders. Equally, a gibbon (social, fun loving behaviour) is most welcome and adds value at the work function but can be distracting when close to a project deadline.

A key learning that can be generated from such conversations is that diversity of behaviour is a potential strength, provided it can be recognised and harvested by implementing it in the appropriate context. Leveraging behavioural strengths across a team aligned to roles for optimal team performance and is not a new concept (Belbin, 2010). Equally, recognising that situational leadership (Blanchard, 2007) has long been acknowledged to optimise outcomes, but the wider concept of how to effectively leverage behavioural adaptability across projects and their relationship with the entire organisations is less well explored (Andersen et al., 2009). This research adds to these concepts by providing simple, pragmatic, and intuitive interactions that can quickly engage the team members to act on what is known and build stronger relationships, rather than just understanding their behavioural preferences. In the salient words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Knowing is not enough; we must apply, willing is not enough; we must act.”

Of the seven mid-career professionals that were invited to participate in the second intervention using the reflections impact diary, six attempted to engage their stakeholders after planning the exercise using the metaphor contexts. Of these, five reported an effective outcome and one found that it did not work as they planned. The five successful participants were convinced that the use of the metaphor and reflections before assisted them to get their desired outcome. The one who did not get the outcome they desired later reflected to determine that they had misread the stakeholder and that it was more their lack of knowledge about them than the method. They intended to attempt the method again at a later date with more research into the behavioural characteristics of the stakeholder.

The one participant who did not attempt to use the metaphor-based techniques explained he was not confident enough to try this experimental approach and that he had a close set of stakeholders he knew very well. This is partially because this participant works almost entirely remotely from the rest of the team in a technical support role and has less exposure to the stakeholders outside of the immediate team. However, he did contact the researcher at a later time with an interest in trying the techniques after a restructure of the organisation ended with him having a very different set of business stakeholders. He believed the cards would assist him in getting to know the new stakeholders better and would assist in building a new set of relationships.

Some examples of the feedback from the group interactions and reflections gathered are listed next to indicate the impact that the use for the metaphor had for these participants. Please note these italicised quotes are directly as stated by the participants and are their own assessments, not contributed to or interpreted by the researcher. The non-italicised comments after each quote are insights from the researcher.

“Through reflecting on what needed to happen in the meetings and considering my team mates behaviours and preferences, I was able to steer the meeting outcomes to the desired actions. Behaviours displayed were talk and no actions, indecisiveness, not wanting to take responsibility. I was able to steer this to action, accountability and clear timeframes through appealing to different behaviours/preferences and coach them through”. The participant self-rated the reflection as “helpful to me” and the use of the RPC template and the character cards as “helpful in recognising the importance and benefits from suitable meeting preparation” (referring to behavioural preparation, which is not the normal practice in the organisation).

“I think it's worth pursuing planning and reflecting on conversations that matter using the prescribed techniques. For me, the main project benefit is of control—I perceive I have more control over the project.” This is a good example of the synergies between the metaphor and the conversation that matters and the structure that is highlighted by the overall RPC model. The use of the cards stimulated a greater awareness of the behavioural environment in the situation, which in turn triggered a conversation to exchange ideas about what behaviours might be most appropriate to get the desired outcomes. Having thought this through, the participant knows how to manage the meeting to greater effect given the parties involved.

“Of the interactions recorded, each produced favourable outcomes towards the mobile app project or podcast project. The conversational techniques learned in the workshops assisted me to plan in varying degrees how to communicate the points that I thought would best influence the stakeholder. While this preparation helped me to think clearly about what outcomes to aim for, I'm not sure there is evidence enough that the employed techniques produced the outcomes alone, autonomous of previous conversations and probably more importantly, conversations the stakeholder may have had with other persons about the project. Also employed, were prototypes of the mobile app to provide the stakeholders with a tangible sense of the product we were discussing. They had a chance to actually see and use the product themselves. This produced positive comments and body language from stakeholders and I think, also contributed to the outcomes achieved. Another important factor is that meeting strategies were discussed prior to the meetings (also to varying degrees) with my team leader; with a sense of humour while staying professional.” The importance of humour is emphasised here and proves good insight into why this approach works. Humour helps to lighten the atmosphere and reduce politics (unless it is deliberately used to in a negative manner such as to embarrass one of the parties). Any tool can be implemented in a positive or negative manner.

“I did see evidence, however, in a meeting where one of our team was actively attempting to be a lion in order to get specific decisions made and people to accept accountability/responsibility for some future work. In my opinion it didn't work—instead the team member came across as overly aggressive, rude and completely out for their own agenda only—and it certainly didn't get the desired outcome, with several other meetings required after the event to reach the decisions. So there is something in there about how people interpret animals and their characteristics and then translate this into their own behaviour.”

This quote highlights the importance of understanding that outcomes are about the interaction between the animals, not by simply adopting a more forceful style. There are times when a lion style can be appropriate, especially when in dealing with competitive challenges coming from outside the organisation, rather than when forcing a personal agenda internally.

“I think it's most useful for identifying my own behaviour and how I may need to shift it (note shift not change) according to the circumstances to move toward the outcome I'm after. It is also good to identify particular behaviours in others and know how to approach them.”

This quote highlights the power of reflection after the action. Sometimes we do what we think is best given the time and situation, which may or may not be optimal especially if under time pressure. The reflections template and need to record and challenge the outcomes after the event provided the opportunity to look back and determine if other actions could lead to better outcomes. This is a practice that is not often performed either by individuals, teams, or organisations. It is worthy to note that several of these participants have continued this practice after the research had finished indicating they find it useful for their own learning and development. “I believe that the metaphor technique is potentially useful as it opens my thinking about how people behave like they do. While traditional behavioural analysis identifies the preferences people have, I like how the metaphor technique acknowledges that some people will modify their behaviour to serve a purpose, and that the metaphor technique caters to this with optional remedies to suit each unique situation. The one area where I believe there may have been potential conflict is within team interactions where we are all aware of the technique. If during a meeting we do not acknowledge the behavioural change in one team member my mind tended towards trying to ‘guess’ what animal the other was trying to portray as their behaviours were noticeably different from normal. In situations like the one listed above, where all team members are aware of the technique, I think each behavioural change needs to be openly acknowledged so the metaphor technique is not used subversively.”

This highlights a critical point about ethics and professionalism. Effective tools of any kind can be used to constructively contribute to a situation or misused to destroy or inappropriately manipulate the situation for self-gain at the expense of others. Just as a car can be driven well to get you where you wish to be, it can also be used as a mechanism to create great damage (either willfully aimed or simply badly used). Any project manager, leader, facilitator or researcher needs to take care when entering the field of human behavioural interactions. Like electricity, behavioural methods generally can generate great value when facilitated well and even turn difficult circumstances into positive ones. However, also like electricity, if not appropriately controlled, they can quickly cause major issues where there was none. It is important with any method to make sure the facilitator is well versed in the method and has the right motives.

“Learning about the organisational zoo has opened up my view of how relationships can be conducted. Previously, team-building and organisational activities have focused on what our preferences are and why we have them, but the organisational has really shown that if we take an active view of our behavior, we can actually change it. While manipulation might seem a harsh word, it is really what has to be done to get the best outcome for each situation you are in. Some do it consciously, others sub-consciously, but in the end, you need to play the game better than the other person to get your way. Ultimately, this research has shown me that being conscious of your behaviour and picking the right behaviour for the right moment will increase your chances of success in business.”

The concept of manipulation in its common English usage carries a negative connation. However, in the purist use of the word it means to move. This is what this participant is referring to, the ability to move the relationships and behaviours to a better place in order to achieve a better outcome. This is highlighted when taken in the context of the next quote from the same participant (taken from the same feedback sheet in a later section). It is also clear this participant was seeking mutual outcomes and not those just to satisfy themselves.

“I think the metaphor technique is good way to identify behavioural traits in business and while I think that 25 metaphors might be a bit too many to remember off the top of my head, I have learned to incorporate it into my thinking when undertaking projects. As I had never used it before in projects I'm not sure my attitude towards it has changed, but it has at least given me an attitude (a positive one!) toward personal behaviours within project teams, something I didn't consider much before.”

This quote (in response to the researchers question: Has your attitude towards the use of metaphor in project management changed?) shows how the use of the metaphor methods can and does change the way people think about how they engage with others and that this can assist performance. The number of characters was considered very carefully after collating the range of behaviours observed in a large organisation that represented top to bottom and most passive to most aggressive. Understanding that systems with more than eight components are difficult to remember by most people, the use of the alphabet and (mainly) common animals was deliberately used to assist in memorising the characters. It is also why the playing cards have a combination of a cartoon image, a short phrase describing the characters, and a limit of five words for each category of what each character “IS” and “IS NOT.” It greatly simplifies the information while drawing on a lot of knowledge most English-speaking people already have. That is, memorising the alphabet and understanding of the basic behaviours of the animals selected—other than a few deliberately selected as being different to highlight there are behaviours you may not be aware of in the organisation.

A range of other supporting statements from these participants and from other parties from a different organisation has also been published elsewhere (Shelley, 2011b).

This research provides support for the proposition that the use of a well-structured metaphorical model can assist in the understanding of organisational behaviours and in project contexts. The evidence also supports the proposal that the character cards are quite intuitive and the model is simple enough for people with limited exposure to it to be able to apply the methods in an ethical manner with productive outcomes. There are a few examples of misinterpretation, which may be expected in early exposure to something to be expected when large groups of people with diverse backgrounds are involved in using a new technique. However, overall, the methods offer potential to enhance project outcomes and thereby assist organisational goals.


This ongoing research continues to build a body of evidence to support the proposition that the metaphor methods described in this paper can enable constructive conversation about the importance of behaviours in professional interactions. Engaging in these conversations can assist performance in project situations and assist in building better stakeholder relationships. The impact of these conversations is increased when sufficiently open to include perspectives that are counter to the mainstream thoughts as they leverage a wider range of perspectives. When behaviours are aligned with constructive challenges at appropriate stages in the project, the team becomes better prepared for stakeholder interactions. Furthermore, readiness to engage stakeholders in an adaptable way can be improved when approaches are shared with other team members before taking action (for example, by using role plays, reflective conversations, and simulations). Research is continuing to generate more data from a variety of sources to further support this model and develop more interventions to assist the application of the methods to enhance project outcomes and behavioural development of individuals.


Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press Books.

Andersen, E. S., Dysvik, A., & Vaagaasar, A. L. (2009). Organizational rationality and project management. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 2(4), 479–498.

Belbin, R. M. (2010). Team roles at work (second ed.). Oxford, UK: Butterworth Heinemann.

Bierhoff, H.-W., & Müller, G. F. (2005). Leadership, mood, atmosphere, and cooperative support in project groups. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 20(6), 483–497.

Blanchard, K. (2007). Leading at a higher level. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cervone, H. F. (2008). Good project managers are “cluefull” rather than clueless. OCLC Systems & Services: International digital library perspectives, 24(4), 199–203.

Chua, A., & Lam, W. (2005). Why KM projects fail: A multi-case analysis. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(3), 6–17.

Coghlan, D., & Brannick, T. (2010). Doing action research in your own organisation (third ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Incorporated.

Herr, K., & Anderson, G. L. (2005). The action research dissertation: A guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Incorporated.

Jacques, P. H., Garger, J., & Thomas, M. (2008). Assessing leader behaviors in project managers. Management Research News, 31(1), 4–11.

Müller, R., & Turner, J. R. (2010). Project-oriented leadership. Surrey, UK: Gower Publishing Limited.

Ojiako, U., Johansen, E., & Greenwood, D. (2008). A qualitative re-construction of project measurement criteria. Industrial Management & Data Systems 108(3), 405–417.

Schön, D. A. (1995). The reflective practitioner. How professionals think in action. Aldershot, UK: Arena.

Shelley, A. W. (2007). The Organizational Zoo: A survival guide to workplace behavior. Fairfield, CT: Aslan Publishing.

Shelley, A. W. (2009). Being a successful knowledge leader. North Sydney, Australia: Ark Group.

Shelley, A. W. (2010). Reflective Metaphor Model for Performance. Retrieved from

Shelley, A. W. (2011a). Creative metaphor as a tool for stakeholder influence. In L. Bourne (Ed.), Advising upwards: A framework for understanding and engaging senior management stakeholders. Aldershot, UK: Gower Publishing Ltd.

Shelley, A. W. (2011b). Metaphor as an effective means to stimulate constructive conversations on project culture and performance. Paper presented at the EURAM Conference 2011: Doctoral Colloquium European Academy of Management Conference, Tallinn, Estonia.

©2012 Project Management Institute



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