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Case study: Harnessing the Power of Metaphors and System Understanding at Company X

June 29, 2023
Sonder Studio teaching a workshop on complexity and metaphors

Company X, a global retail corporation, was confronting a major challenge: fragmented and unreliable data quality was impeding the understanding of store performance and innovation efficiency, crucial for strategic investment decisions. A convoluted process of data generation, spread across numerous departments and not fully automated, was making it extremely difficult to keep track of a myriad of store attributes needed for decision making.

The Challenge

The problem was deep-seated in a highly intricate system involving multiple cross-functional partners like Market Planning, Real Estate, Design, Construction, and Facilities. The data, scattered across different systems and formats, demanded constant manual intervention. Rapid innovations continuously added new dimensions to the existing data, necessitating frequent system updates and change management. The increasing complexity and the urge for strategic investment were amplifying the need for comprehensive and reliable store data.

Our Workshop Approach

To counter this complex issue, we designed a workshop leveraging the power of metaphors and system understanding. The workshop started by enlightening participants about the unpredictable nature of complex problems and the need for a shift in communication strategies around uncertainty.

The participants then engaged in two crucial aspects of problem-solving: system mapping and metaphor application. System mapping illuminated the intricate network of components and their interactions within the organization, while metaphor application provided a unique lens to view and approach the problem.

The metaphors, such as "an Emergency Room after a cyber attack", an "airport baggage system", and a "valet service", stimulated participants' creativity. These metaphors were not mere linguistic flourishes; they inspired participants to rethink data flow, prioritize under pressure, and conceive a seamless service strategy.

Importance of System Understanding and Human Behavior

Understanding the behavior of people within the system is as crucial as understanding the system itself. The workshop highlighted that the existing data issue was not just a technical problem; it was also rooted in the behavioral patterns within the organization. To make any substantial improvement in the data quality, a transformation in the system structure and the behavior of people interacting within that system was essential.

Limitations of Top-Down Commands

The workshop underscored that top-down commands are often insufficient for complex problems. Instead, these situations call for a collaborative and adaptive approach that acknowledges the system's intricacies and motivates necessary behavioral changes among stakeholders.

What Next?

Moving forward, the participants are encouraged to delve deeper into the system's focal point, directly and precisely reason from the metaphors, identify elements that can be modeled or solved using technology, and design effective incentives or even gaming strategies that work for the people in the system. By navigating through these steps, the organization can hope to create a robust, reliable, and centralized data source that can keep pace with the evolving business needs.

This workshop exemplified the potential of innovative thinking tools like metaphors and system understanding in tackling complex problems. By enabling the participants to look at their challenge from a fresh perspective, it paved the way for unique, adaptable solutions. The journey towards comprehensive, high-quality data that propels informed decision-making is ongoing, and the first steps have been decidedly promising.