SCAN: Hidden Influences in Four Metaphors

SCAN stands for Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs. Each SCAN dimension represents a hidden influence. Structures are the habits, rules, systems, and processes we follow. Context is comprised of the external, uncontrollable factors that represent both opportunities and threats. Assumptions are the unchallenged beliefs that determine our mindsets and our culture. Needs are what motivates the people we care about, the people we should include in our thinking and planning.

SCAN helps us notice the important information we’re not looking for, important information that might help us get unstuck.

SCAN helps us notice the important information we’re not looking for, important information that might help us get unstuck. While considering new ways to teach the SCAN framework, we’ve started thinking metaphorically about the four dimensions of the model. Each metaphor clarifies the nature of the dimension and why paying attention to it matters. Each metaphor captures the relationship between our experiences and the causal influences that often escape our attention.

Structures: The Flowers and the Soil

Structures are like the soil in which the flowers grow. Flowers thrive and grow in well-tended soil. The flowers become rooted in the soil. A lot goes on below the surface that determines the success of the flowers, which flowers do better than others, and whether weeds will also flourish.

Working with structures to get unstuck is like analyzing the soil instead of repeatedly pulling weeds.

Context: The Notes and the Melody

Context is like a melody formed by musical notes. The melody is a gestalt of notes in a particular arrangement. We make sense of the arrangement by detecting a pattern. When the notes are distinctive and the intervals between them seem random, it becomes difficult to discern a melody. When we detect a melody, we understand how to interpret and anticipate the notes.

Working with context to get unstuck is like learning to dance to new music before you appear out of step.

Assumptions: The Acorn and the Oak

Assumptions are like the acorn which grows into an oak tree. When the oak matures, the acorn essentially disappears. Still, the nature of the oak has been largely determined by the genetics of the acorn. If we want to understand the oak and predict how it will grow, we need to trace its development back to the seed from which it emerged.

Working with assumption to get unstuck is like acknowledging and perhaps reframing the characteristics that shape our reality.


Needs are like the force of gravity influencing how things move. We notice action and motion. We can only infer the pushes and pulls influencing how someone behaves. Wants are expressed. A need, like gravity, is an unseen, yet ever-present force.

Working with needs is like deeply understanding what makes the apple fall.


  1. Love the new metaphor analysis.
    Couple of thoughts
    – I like the one sentence summaries of each metaphor, and was somewhat expecting that the one sentence summary for Assumptions and Needs would be examples using the metaphor.
    – also, wonder if the metaphor examples might be even more powerful if they continued in the same theme as what you start with – flowers and soul. Could the Context metaphor be a continuation of the flower and soil metaphor; I.e. could context be something about the external environment in which the soil and flowers exist (atmosphere, weather patterns in this growing area, etc) and so on with the other metaphors?

    1. Thanks, Ed. I had a similar thought. The basic idea of SCAN being useful because it encourages people to look “below the surface” is summed up nicely by the distinction between flowers and soil. I wanted to see if there were nuances to the way things are hidden for each dimension. In the end, the distinctions may be so subtle that they stop being useful.

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