I’m hanging out at the Systems Thinking in Action conference, which has been terrific so far.
The use of metaphors came up today. A good metaphor can be a powerful tool in group decision making. It can wrap a story about structure and behavior into a little icon that’s easy to share and relate to other concepts.
But with that power comes a bit of danger, because, like models, metaphors have limits, and those limits aren’t always explicit or shared. Even the humble bathtub can be misleading. We often use bathtubs as analogies for first-order exponential decay processes, but real bathtubs have a nonlinear outflow, so they actually decay linearly. (Update: that is, the water level as a function of time falls linearly, assuming the tub has straight sides, because the rate of outflow varies with the square root of the level.)
Apart from simple caution, I think the best solution to this problem when stakes are high is to formalize and simulate systems, because that process forces you to expose and challenge many assumptions that otherwise remain hidden.