Innovation Tools: Analogy

By November 15, 2014 Skills One Comment
Forest Gump

This is the 8th in a series of posts regarding innovation and mechanisms for achieving it. You can find the previous articles here if you want to catch up.

It’s important to recognise the power of analogy. You’re probably using it on a daily basis without even realising it.

What’s analogy?

Not sure what analogy is? It’s what happens in your brain when you identify a relation between one subject (the source) and map information from it to another subject (the target), demonstrating how they’re alike by communicating the shared characteristics. Typically, when someone draws an analogy, they’re trying to show that if two things (the source and target) are similar in some particular ways, they’re similar in other ways also.

Analogies are used in speech all the time. Forest Gump famously presented the “life is like a box of chocolates” analogy, going on to explain the relationship (life -> a box of chocolates) in terms of the shared characteristics that “you never know what you’re going to get.”

Whether you agree with the analogy is not really the point. The point is that you arrive at some understanding of where the other person is coming from. It’s a kind of logical argument though and as such, may be more or less effective.

Some analogies are strong:

She was as quiet as a mouse.

Some analogies are weak:

Why is a raven like a desk? Because Poe wrote on both.

No analogies are perfect. There has to be some difference between the source and target subjects otherwise they would be the same thing. And there is always some similarity between subjects, as seen in the example (from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass) above.

The strength or weakness of the analogy is likely to have some bearing on how quickly or whether you arrive at an understanding at all.

Analogy in the workplace

You probably use analogy in the workplace too, but in a slightly different way:

When you say to yourself “I’ve done this kind of work before…” or “I know from experience that…” – you’re mapping familiar principles from situations or projects in the past onto your current problem.

When you think “I remember working on this specific project where…” or “this is like when…” – you’re mapping specific instances of a problem or solution that you’ve encountered previously.

There’s a difference between these kinds of analogy too. One is case-driven. The other is schema-driven.

Research suggests that experts are able to solve problems more effectively due to the amount of experience they have. Because they’re able to recall both specific instances and familiar principles from problems they have worked on or [seen] solved in the past. As a result, they’re able to recognise similarities that are abstract or specific and bring them to bear on a problem.

Novices have much less experience than experts and, as a result, are less able to think in terms of abstract principles. Problems are less familiar, so less experienced problem-solvers need to be able to recall explicit examples, and use those experiences instead.

What’s this got to do with analogising?

Most people understand and use analogy without much effort, the skill being closely related to communication. But it’s likely that far fewer people are aware of its use as a problem solving tool. Cognitive scientists Holyoak and Thagard write that the ability to analogise is actually critically important for creative problem solving.

Understanding that analogy is a powerful tool will only get you so far though.

If you’re a novice that wants to be an expert, you need to understand that having a wide variety of knowledge and experiences is pretty much the only thing that will provide you with a schema against which you can search for similarities between problems. If you don’t have a variety of experiences, and if you haven’t done some reading – you’ve got less of a variety of sources to analogise against.

Having a kind of internal database or schema of domain knowledge helps you to move away from relying on concrete examples based on previous experiences, towards a more intuitive recognition of familiar types of problems and their solutions.

So what should I do?

Here’s some ideas on ways in which you might increase both your internal database and your analogising skills:

  • Read around, from a variety of sources. Don’t restrict yourself to literature from your specific domain or industry because if you do, you’re limiting the range of sources against which you can search for similarities.
  • Try new things outside of work. Take up a sport or an activity. Don’t be a couch potato. Live, enjoy and learn from all that life has to offer.
  • Move jobs or expand your role into different areas so you can learn new stuff.
  • Go to conferences, meetups or other networking/social events and speak to people. Listen to and learn from their experiences.
  • When you’re thinking about a problem, don’t jump straight into the nuances and complexities. Try to zoom out a bit and think about the underlying structure or pattern. Think about the principles rather than the specifics, and try to see how these map to prior experiences or knowledge.
  • If zooming out doesn’t help, think about times when you’ve experienced similar problems and try to identify surface level similarities between them.

Got some thoughts of your own? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to reach out via a comment or on the socials if anything resonates.


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