Metaphor Stretch


Goal: To demonstrate how play can bring out possibilities from constraints; to gain new insights about a team problem or issue

Materials: A photograph showing an ambiguous activity. (CLICK to download the photograph shown here.)

Participants: Any number

Time: 20 minutes

Preparation: DOWNLOAD the photograph shown here and print it or project it so everyone can see it at the same time. Identify an issue or problem that you would like the group to consider, solve, or reflect upon.

Display the image you have chosen.

Ask people to work with a partner or in groups of three to make as many observations and assumptions about the photo as they can. For example, they can ask and answer questions such as where the photo was taken, who is shown, what is the man doing and why. Additionally, they might make statements like "a man is sitting in the street," or "the man is not concerned about the traffic."

After a few minutes, invite people to share a sampling of their observations and assumptions.

Next, ask people to think about the issue or problem that you previously identified. Describe it briefly and explain that you would like people to consider this issue or problem in a new way. Ask them to make connections between their observations about the photo and the issue or problem. Challenge them to stretch their thinking and make an expansive list of analogies.

By making this challenge, you are inviting people to play with their assumptions, to work within constraints as they look for connections to the situation you have identified.

After a few minutes, ask people to share the analogies they identified and lead a discussion using some of the following questions.


  • Which analogies do you find most compelling or relevant?
  • What new insights have you gained about the chosen situation?
  • How difficult was it to connect your observations of the photo with the situation?
  • What made this activity easy and what made it challenging?
  • What new observations do you have about working within constraints?
  • How can limitations and constraints be used to improve creativity?
  • What are some similarities between working within constraints and experimenting, bending the rules, or playing with ideas?
  • What other opportunities do we have to play within the constraints within our organization or team?

By the way, this photograph will work to bring deeper insight to any problem, issue, or situation. Why? Because our brain's constant search for meaning combined with our natural inclination to play with constraints insures that we will always be able to find connections among different stimuli. That's the power of a metaphor!