Clean Language Metaphor Cards Activity

Clean Case Studies, Introductory Articles

Introducing creative thinking and building capabilities

Activity designed by Emma Hackett, Clean-trained coach and consultant

The underpinning theme of this activity is that of increasing creative capabilities and promoting new ways of working and being (as part of a change process), but it can easily be adapted to suit different situations and environments.

I designed this activity for a company looking to grow its business significantly, in so doing alter its working practices and structures in order to support this growth. The consequence of such change was that everyone would be affected, being asked to work in new ways, and be actively engaged in the process of change.


As described here, the activity involved 15 participants, with 30-40 minute blocks of activity, totalling 1½ -2 hours, but it can be adapted depending on the context, available time, and number of participants.

To get the most from this activity, it’s worth considering the space you use. Environment is critical to creative thinking; space affects our state (there’s a lovely London innovation agency that even has a bed in it!) Ideally, adapt the space you’re working in so that it’s more conducive to creative play and thinking. For example, consider creating different ‘zones’ within one space, filled with stimulus materials including images, objects and music; or you can invite people to move to another area of the room, building or location. This very act marks doing something different, helps people generate different states, and you can discuss their experiences in the debrief.

You’ll also need a set of Clean Language metaphor cards.

Desired Outcomes

  • Actively engage participants in a change process, creating a safe space for them to experience and explore new ways of working and being.
  • Introduce the idea of creative business thinking, an incredibly important enabler of growth, development and innovation.
  • Get people thinking about what they value and would like to retain as the business grows, and to prepare them for collective visioning work.

Begin by discussing the notion that there are several ways of thinking; more traditional business thinking, and creative business thinking. Both of these are valuable and necessary; however, they tend to mix like oil and water. For example in our culture, as we move into a business world, we increasingly favour adult analytical thinking; it’s generally serious, cautious, values experience, and is focused on finding the ‘right answers’. We lose the art of exploratory, more expansive childlike thinking; when thinking this way we are curious, relaxed, and there are no right or wrong answers.


1. Introduce the idea of working in new ways through the frame of creativity

Spread out the metaphor cards and cluster around them.  Ask the group to consider times when they have been creative (e.g. in business, brain storming, doing a hobby, with their children, back to childhood if necessary). Ask, “When you are being creative, you’re like … what?” And suggest that looking at the cards and choosing one or two might help them get a sense of how it is for them when they are creative.  Ask them to share their answers with the group.  

Begin to tease out the behaviours and conditions needed.

2. Create an experience of working creatively

Frame this next activity by offering definitions of creativity, for example:

“Creativity is the habit of continually doing things in new ways, in order to make a positive difference to the business (or /team/group/school/any other context!)”.

Give the group an experience of this. For example:

  • Construct a creative working area, placing metaphor cards randomly around it, each in their own space; this can be as simple or inventive as you like!
  • Ask the group to move from space to space, noticing which cards they are drawn to, and exploring the answer to a Clean metaphor question such as “When X (eg, you/your business) is at its best, that’s like …what?”. The ‘X’ in your question should suit your specific context, and could be an expansion of the earlier creative thinking/behaving discussion.
  • Invite people, singly or in pairs or small groups, to move to at least 6 different spaces. You may want to encourage them to do something a little more unusual such as stand on a chair, visit a blank space, or turn around within a single space. You are encouraging them to do something different and to get comfortable being a little lost!
  • Depending on time, the pairs can share their experience at each stopping point. 

3. Share the answers to the question and discuss the experience

Sharing can be done in small groups or all together. 

Ask people to return to the card that has special significance for them, or the card they started at. Invite each person to share what they know about that card, and in particular what they now know about ‘when X is at it’s best it’s like what?’. Augment people’s responses by asking a few Clean questions such as ‘What kind of?’, and ‘Is there anything else about?’ as they share. If they are in small groups, you could suggest that after they hear from each person, they ask them these two questions to help them to develop their response more fully before returning to the full group and sharing. Capture the key attributes that the group offers.

Next ask the group about the experience itself, using ‘this experience was like … what?’ if you wish.

Lastly, invite participants to break into small groups to identify the ‘enablers’ and ‘disablers’ of working creatively like this. Again you are teasing out both the behaviours and conditions necessary for creative thinking, doing things differently, and creating necessary conditions that everyone can understand and agree to for future creative sessions.

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