Commonly misused business metaphors

reading time 2 min

I keep hearing people misuse metaphors, or say them incorrectly. Here’s a list of them.

I’m considering building a website that lists metaphors and their correct use. In the meanwhile, this blog post will have to do.

  • white elephant
    • Meaning: A gift you received that you do not want.
    • Use: After the Christmas holidays, organizations often host “white elephan auctions” where people donate their “white elephants” and they are auctioned off for charity.
    • Mis-use: The white elephant in the room.
  • the elephant in the room
    • Meaning: The bad thing that everyone knows exists, but is not discussing.
    • Example: A family knows a particular uncle is an alcoholic but at family gatherings nobody discusses it, even though he is drunk and causing trouble. They are avoiding the elephant in the room.
    • Example: In a business context there is an painful issue that needs to be discussed. Everyone knows it but nobody wants to be the person that raises the topic. Someone in a business meeting might say, “Let’s discuss the elephant in room: Our flagship product is starting to fail and we don’t have plans to address it.”
    • Common mistake: the elephant in the room has no color. There is no “white elephant in the room”.
  • the 900-pound gorilla
    • Meaning: The person or company that dominates the field.
    • Use: In an industry where one company dominates, they are the “900-pound gorilla”. Nothing happens without them either tacitly improving or at least not objecting. For example, in the 1990s nothing in the computer industry happened if Microsoft didn’t approve: You could invent a new chip, but if Microsoft wasn’t going to make Windows work on it, nobody would buy it. Microsoft had to support your invention or at least not block it. Most industries have a “900-pound gorilla”.
    • Misuse: The 900-pound gorilla in the room. (remove “in the room”)
  • Kick the can down the road.
    • Rather than solve a problem, do something that delays having to face the problem.
    • Misuse: “Kick this project down the road.” (kick the can, not the project)

Tom Limoncelli

Tom Limoncelli

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