Analogical Creativity: Great innovators from Archimedes in his bathtub to Einstein riding his elevator of relativity have used analogies to creatively solve complex problems. We use analogies to transfer information that we believe we understand in one domain, the source, to help resolve a challenge in an unfamiliar area, the target.For example, the design of vacuum cleaners was largely unchanged for nearly a century when inventor James Dyson used a different analogy, cyclones, to devise a new way to separate particles through the spinning force of a centrifuge. With all due respect to your fifth grade teacher who diligently distinguished the differences between similes, metaphors, and analogies, these are all functions of analogical thinking.
In essence, analogies are bridges that allow our cognitive processes to quickly transport clusters of information from the unknown to the known, and back again. Analogies can be both rational and emotional. For example, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” It is not uncommon to see analogical creativity at work in commercials where we are assured that drinking this beverage is like jumping into a cool pool on a hot summer afternoon or that tasting this new gourmet chocolate is similar to a first kiss. Feeling refreshed and loved we consume the calories and put on the pounds because we relate to the analogy.
One of the challenges of analogical creativity is that the source of the analogy is often technically and culturally specific. Consider a group of computer hardware developers being asked “How is creating a new microprocessor like a NASCAR race?” While presumably they all know how an integrated circuit operates they may have never been to a stock car race or may have a negative impression of them. So it is imperative that you use analogies that can be deeply understood across the wide range of expertise and cultures when working in a diverse group. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung suggested that there archetypes, universally understood prototypes, of symbolic events that can used across cultures because they represent common experiences – sunrise, birth and harvest to name a few. These archetypal events can be used to overcome cultural differences when using analogical creativity.
Conversely, analogies can also be used to disrupt habit-bound thinking to make way for new ideas. In the same way that an analogy helps us make sense of our experiences by assimilating what we don’t know into what we do know, the process also works in reverse. That is, we can take something we believe we know and use an analogy to make it unknown. Artists call this defamilarization. Nobel Laureate Albert Camus frequently narrated his stories from the point of view of a housefly. Why other authors would focus on the existential desperation of the characters, Camus used this analogy of the fly on the wall to turn tales of personal desperation into objective accounts of suffering. The extraordinary becomes ordinary and vice versa. Consider what would your strategy development process look like if it was done from the point of view of your children instead of your shareholders or customers.
How to Improve Your Analogical Creativity:
- Adaptive Reasoning – Adaptive reasoning is a general description of how your perspective or relative relationship to a problem can change or evolve through the use of analogies. The basic approach can be summarized as follows: “How is [your problem] like [your analogy]?” For example, how is [creating a successful marketing campaign for your new line of fashionable handbags] like [making friends at a new school]? Ideas might include observing the situation before you speak, asking questions to understand who people are and what they want and giving yourself time to create positive relationships. Be sure to use different types of analogies: “Things” – Life is like a toothbrush; “Personal” – My life is like driving to work in traffic; “Symbolic” – Life is like spring turning into summer; or “Fantasy” – I wish my life was like Superman’s. The key is to vary your outlook and make numerous new connections.
- Imaginary Friends – This is a role storming method where the creativity comes from imaging what someone might say or do – “What would Steve Jobs do if he had this challenge?” So the analogy source, the challenge, is the same as with other analogical approaches, but the target, the unfamiliar area, is a person instead of a second idea. This can either be someone you know, like the crazy stuff you Dad says, or a famous person you admire, like Teddy Roosevelt, or a character from your favorite book or movie, like Gandalf. The key is to develop some real understanding of how people who are unlike you might think about your challenge. Watch documentaries; read biographies, encyclopedias and comic books. Put together your own imaginary board of advisors. Put their pictures, ideas and quotes on note cards, computer or phone and consult them regularly. Rent the movie Harvey and get used to people staring as you talk to yourself like Elwood P. Dowd.
- Synectics – Synectics is a neologism, a made up word, based on the Ancient Greek term syndetic, meaning connected by a conjunction. It’s a group creativity technique developed in the 1950’s by consultants George Price and William Gordon. It’s most commonly used for cross departmental solution development. While there have been multiple versions of this process over the years, the basic method may be described as follows: A facilitator takes the group on an analogical journey called an “excursion.” This entails dividing a challenge into its root causes to find the real underlying issue at the heart of the matter; creating numerous analogies to generate creative ideas that may resolve the challenge; force fitting or adjusting some of these analogies to develop potential solutions to the challenge; selecting the best solution to achieve the stated goals; and developing next steps to implement the solution. This process can be a bit involved so you may find it useful to learn Synectics from a trained facilitator.
Here are some resources to help you to creatively use analogies to think in new ways:
- Adaptive Reasoning – The Power of Thinking Differently: An Imaginative Guide To Creativity, Change, And The Discovery Of New Ideas by Javy W. Galindo
- Imaginary Friends– 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques: The Handbook of New Ideas for Business by James M. Higgins
- Synectics – Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity by William J. Gordon (Out of print but available on Google Books)
What analogical creativity methods and resources do you find most useful?
To learn more about how analogical creativity works you might want to read I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World by James Geary.
It’s time to start disturbing your habit-bound thinking. Remember, a creative life means you make it up as you go along.