Analogies and Innovation

Stephen DeAngelis

March 11, 2013

The world is a complicated place that only gets more complex as new knowledge is created. How often have you listened to someone talking about a subject you are unfamiliar with and said to yourself, “I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.” Frankly, it’s difficult to explain a totally new concept in a way that most people will understand. That is why analogies play such a vital role in our lives. An analogy points out similarities between like features of two things so that comparisons can be made and understanding fostered. Good analogies paint a picture or tell a story that conjures up clear images in a listener’s mind. Near the end of Vietnam War, for example, Henry Kissinger penned a memo to President Richard Nixon on the subject of troop withdrawal. He wrote, “Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.” Analogies can provide simple, straight forward comparisons — for example, the human heart is like a pump.

If you’re like me, you may be confused when people talk about analogies, similes, and metaphors. One of the best explanations I’ve read comes from Your, which is where I found the Kissinger example. The website explains: “Some analogies are similes and some are metaphors. A simile is where two things are compared while a metaphor is where unlike things have something in common.” Whichever you choose to use to make an idea clearer in a listener’s mind, the result is the same — a mental picture is fostered that improves understanding. The online dictionary first talks about similes.

“A simile compares two things using the words ‘as’ or ‘like.’ An example of a simile would be ‘you are as stubborn as a mule’ which means to convey the fact that you are being very stubborn. Another example would be ‘He is as blind as a bat’ meaning he doesn’t see very well. Similes are widely used by authors, songwriters, and poets.”

Amusing similes have helped people explain feelings (or extend threats) for years. For example, you have no question about a person’s emotional state when they say they are “as nervous as a long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

The dictionary states, “Metaphors are an analogy where two unlike things are compared but have something in common. It sounds like you are stating a fact, but you have to think about it for it to make sense.” And that’s the point. You want people to think about new ideas so that they can understand them better. The article continues:

“For example, if you say, ‘you are the wind beneath my wings’ you are not saying that a person can actually be wind. Instead, you are referring to the support you get from that person. Metaphors can be humorous while still getting the point across. Others use strange comparisons but are still effective. Examples include:

  • Don’t be such an airhead
  • Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it
  • I’ll die of embarrassment
  • The new player is green
  • Set the wheels in motion
  • He is a diamond in the rough
  • Late breaking news
  • Bursting with flavor”

Southerners have long been known for their humorous analogies. For example, when you’re told that someone “is about as sharp as a cue ball” or that their “engine’s runnin’ but nobody’s driving” or that they’re “about two sandwiches shy of a picnic,” you have no doubt that the person to whom the analogy refers might not be someone with whom you want discuss theoretical physics.

You might be asking yourself, what do analogies have to do with innovation? Christopher B. Bingham and Steven J. Kahl explain, “Analogies can help people make sense of technological change and other innovations. Using them effectively relies on recognizing both their benefits and pitfalls.” [“How to Use Analogies to Introduce New Ideas,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2013] They continue:

“While change and innovation clearly produce much of the turbulence that besets modern businesses, research suggests that change itself is not the culprit, but rather how organizations perceive and cope with change. Both people and organizations rely on analogies to help them comprehend change, including the meaning and potential of new technologies, systems and processes. … When faced with something new, we usually look for similarities to the familiar. And the more commonalities we find, the more readily we accept the new. Think about what Apple did to help people get comfortable with its first Macintosh computer operating system in the 1980s. When users booted up their computer, the screen they stared into was called a desktop, with small icons labeled ‘trashcan’ and ‘files.’ It was really not a desktop in the physical sense, but Apple was helping people transition from what was familiar to them in the physical world to what was new in the digital world.”

Although Bingham and Kahl appreciate the benefits of analogy, they also note, “Following analogies too closely can cause similarities to remain undetected or, even worse, be falsely assumed to exist. Alternatively, a close-fitting analogy may make the new seem overly familiar. Concentrating too much on similarities can cause organizations to overlook what is unique about the new — particularly those aspects that might offer important advantages and opportunities.” They continue:

“Organizations can rely too heavily and too long on a favored analogy, which carries significant risks. One analogy might be a poor fit relative to others; by using it too long, the company might deprive itself of the insight a better analogy would provide. This may result in diminished competitive advantage, since rivals that use better analogies can adapt more rapidly to change and innovation. Despite these problems, analogies are among the most helpful tools for understanding new ideas and new technology and thus cannot be ignored. The challenge for managers is to use them effectively.”

Bingham and Kahl go on to discuss research they conducted involving the life insurance industry (represented by three national trade and professional organizations) and how that industry used analogies when it was introducing computers into the field. They wrote, “When groups use analogies to confront change, their approaches can generally be characterized as comprising three broad phases: assimilation, analysis and adaptation.” They discuss each of those phases in turn beginning with assimilation.

“The assimilation phase begins with recognizing something new to the organization that has the potential to significantly alter its future and perhaps that of its industry and markets. Included in this phase is identifying helpful analogies to understand the new concept. For life insurers attempting to cope with the commercialization of the computer during the early 1950s, two distinct analogies emerged. Because they were familiar with office machines in general, insurance companies initially saw the computer primarily as a new type of tabulating machine, used mainly for data entry. A second analogy, that of the brain, was less obvious and more difficult to grasp, so it initially received considerably less attention. Perceiving the computer first as a machine made the search for commonalities highly productive.”

The most profound idea I draw from that paragraph is that trying to find a single analogy is the wrong approach. Using multiple analogies to help explain various aspects of a new idea is a better strategy to pursue. The next phased discussed by Bingham and Kahl is involves analysis.

“Once groups have developed a certain level of comfort with something new, they begin to look at it more analytically in ways that challenge initial analogies. As insurance companies became more familiar with the computer, they thought of it less as a machine and more as a type of brain. This enabled them to better grasp the computer’s significance and more clearly comprehend its broad potential. As computers’ data storage and processing capacities expanded, how people talked and thought about them also changed.”

In other words, the sophistication of analogies needs to increase as familiarity is developed. The final phase discussed by Bingham and Kahl is adaption.

“In this phase, the most relevant findings of prior analytical thinking grow more cohesive and interconnected. This eventually provides a foundation upon which the organization begins to build a new conceptual framework to address the innovation or change. For example, by the 1970s, life insurers often spoke of computers in the context of ‘management information systems’ and ‘databases’ — concepts far removed from insurers’ earlier machine references.”

The best way to know that you’ve moved into the adaption phase is when you hear someone use the concept in an analogy. In other words, the analogy changes from “the computer is like a brain” to “his brain is like a computer.” Bingham and Kahl conclude:

“People and organizations naturally focus at first on those aspects of change and innovation that are similar to others with which they are already familiar — for example, thinking of the computer as a tabulating machine. The brain analogy, by contrast, centered on substantially different attributes. Companies likened data storage to memory and equated data processing with information management. This made it possible to envision more diverse and sophisticated ways to use the computer. Recognizing these two distinct types of analogies is critical to applying them effectively. Focusing on analogies that emphasize the familiar can greatly facilitate the assimilation of new products, systems and processes — an important consideration during Phase 1, when acceptance and interest can easily wane. However, dwelling too deeply and too long on the familiar aspects comes at the cost of overlooking the novel. And it is precisely here that the greatest value can often be realized.”

When it comes to analogies and innovations, the best place to start is with a good innovation. Wasting time trying to explain a bad idea is as useful as trying to sell a prefabricated post hole. If you want to sharpen your analogy writing skills, offers some free worksheets that are suited for individuals ranging from first graders to high school graduates. Practice makes perfect.