“When faced with something new,” write professors Christopher B. Bingham and Steven J. Kahl in the MIT Sloan Management Review, “we usually look for similarities to the familiar. And the more commonalities we find, the more readily we accept the new.”
For example: Apple used familiar terms like “desktop,” “trashcan,” and “files” to help early customers get comfortable. “Apple was helping people transition from what was familiar to them in the physical world to what was new in the digital world,” they write. Likewise, Amazon used familiar terms like “shopping cart” and “check out.” In so doing, “Amazon was helping people understand how shopping in an online environment was similar to what they would do in a physical one.”
Okay — so how can you develop proper analogies for your new ideas? The authors suggest three broad phases in the process: assimilation, analysis, and adaptation.
All told, Bingham and Kahl suggest that managers “employ a wide range of diverse analogies and maintain an open mind. This is much easier to achieve with a staff that can draw from a broad spectrum of work, personal, educational and cultural experiences. Depth of experience in one area may be more harmful than helpful, as it may prevent the richly diverse analogies that breadth of experience frequently engenders.”
In terms of actually concocting the analogies, the authors urge leaders to “concentrate on analogies that emphasize the familiar. Focus on similarity of function, rather than appearance. Obvious surface features may obscure important similarities at more structural levels.”
And perhaps the most important takeaway: “Be prepared to change analogies as the new technology becomes more familiar. Transition to analogies that highlight what is distinctive about the innovation. This will help ensure that high-potential attributes are not overlooked.”
Here's another analogy: "Charles Lazarus was inspired by the supermarket when he founded Toys R Us," observe Giovanni Gavetti and Jan W. Rivkin, the authors of "How Strategists Really Think: Tapping the Power of Analogy," a 2005 article in the Harvard Business Review.
More where that came from: "Intel promoted its low-end chips to avoid becoming like U.S. Steel; and Circuit City created CarMax because it saw the used-car market as analogous to the consumer electronics market.
"Each example displays the core elements of analogical reasoning: a novel problem or a new opportunity, a specific prior context that managers deem to be similar in its essentials, and a solution that managers can transfer from its original setting to the new one."