The Calming Effect of a Metaphor During Chaotic Change

by Armchair Aviator

I’ve been thinking more about the usefulness of the rebuilding the airplane metaphor that I’ve been using to explain the change process we’re going through with the Griggs University / Andrews University merger.

A metaphor can bring clarity to a situation… and make it easier to bring meaning and order to what is happening. It clarifies our thinking and manages expectations.

Clarifying Our Thinking

Before I thought of the “rebuilding the plane” metaphor for our work, it was difficult to make sense of the mountain of work. We all have so many ideas of where we want to be; visions for the future. Yet we are busy with the daily care for our current students; and it can feel like progress is slow. Before the metaphor, sometimes I felt panicky, wondering how on earth we’d ever get to where we want to be.

But when we realize we are rebuilding the plane while we are flying it, we can calm down; be patient with the process, and realize the value of changing one piece at a time! We recognize that if we change too many pieces at once, the plane will crash!

The plane metaphor helps us remember that for everything we change, we have to consider the long term (rebuilding) and the short term (flying). When we decide to change something for long term, we also have to think carefully through what that change will break in the short term, and how to work around the broken piece for a few months.

Before the metaphor, it was easy to want to change everything at once. But the metaphor reminds us that we are still flying the plane and serving our current students. It reminds us to change one part of the plane at a time, with careful thought to how it affects our current students, as well as the reasons to change for the future. The metaphor calms us down so we can take one step at a time, thoughtfully and carefully.

Managing Expectations

The other value of this metaphor is to manage expectations – expectations across campus, and expectations outside of Andrews University and Griggs University. Sometimes people ask how the merger is going. They may feel that we are changing too slowly. Or they may feel that they can’t see any change at all and they wonder what we are doing.

I’ve noticed that when I explain what we are doing using the “rebuilding the plane while we are flying it” metaphor, it makes sense to people. They realize more of the magnitude and complexity of the work of a merger. They are more likely to be sympathetic, patient, and understanding.


So… what about you? Have you ever used a metaphor to explain your work? Did it help you? How? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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