Analogies can help people make sense of technological change and other innovations. Using them effectively relies on recognizing both their benefits and pitfalls.
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. But do all analogies function in the same way? How strongly should organizations adhere to their chosen analogies?
In coping with change and innovation, companies generally engage in a three-phase process that involves assimilation, analysis and adaptation. Importantly, there is a strong distinction between analogies that focus on aspects that are familiar and those that center on what is novel. How organizations apply these different types of analogies in confronting change and innovation can be a powerful influence in shaping their long-term direction and performance.
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.