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Are analogies the best way to describe innovations?

Posting in Design

A great analogy is like...a translation of a new technology to the masses. Right? Yes, write Christopher B. Bingham and Steven J. Kahl in MIT Sloan Management Review's Winter 2013 print issue. But not all analogies are effective. In their essay, they discuss the nuances of crafting a good analogy to describe an innovation.

It's not poetry, so it's not quite so mysterious. According to Bingham and Kahl's research, the key to a great analogy--in the business world--is to understand the distinction between focusing on what is familiar or what is novel.

Bingham and Kahl write that despite strong examples of leading companies likening new concepts to the familiar, doing so may not be a winning strategy. Sure, Apple was smart in the 1980s to call a computer screen a "desktop" and Amazon was wise in the 1990s to create a "shopping cart" where customers compiled their selections online. The problem with doing this in the 2010s is that companies may risk making their offering too familiar, the authors counsel. (May I add: it also might be an outdated way of describing new elements interaction design.)

Bingham and Kahl also share findings culled from numerous documents published by three national trade organizations over a span of three decades. The authors found that there's a process that's been generally used to craft analogies for innovations:

  • 1.) Assimilation: when executives first recognize there's an innovation at hand that might alter the path of a company forever, and they need a way to describe it.
  • 2.) Analysis: when executives get comfortable with initial comparisons and the push toward newer, alternative analogies that might be more powerful.
  • 3.) Adaptation: when executives create an entire new framework for deploying the innovation, built around the strongest analogy. For instance, the authors discuss how after computers were likened to brains versus machines, companies began using terms such as "memory" to describe their storage capacity in a meaningful way.

It's a nice breakdown of the process--but perhaps a bit too historical, as the research is based on trade publications dating from 1945-1975. Perhaps the authors--and other researchers--will look at how describing innovation has developed during 1976-2006, to help companies understand how to plan even more effectively for the next generation of analogies. Or to decide whether the analogy route might even be appropriate.

Image: Axel Pfaender/Flickr

— By on February 18, 2013, 1:50 AM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure