How to Use Analogies to Introduce New Ideas

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? These and similar questions prompted us to explore the role analogies play in change management. Our research found that 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.

Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

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. Amazon.com did something similar as a pioneer for e-commerce. When Amazon first emerged, many consumers were largely unfamiliar with e-commerce. As customers shopped on Amazon.com, they were directed to put their selected goods into a shopping cart. The term “shopping cart” was deliberately selected to help people make the transition from the known (shopping in the real world) to the unknown (shopping in the cyber world). When customers were done with their shopping, they were directed to check out. Again, Amazon was helping people understand how shopping in an online environment was similar to what they would do in a physical one. But is creating similarities to the familiar always a good approach? Surprisingly, the answer may be no.

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Acknowledgments

The authors gratefully acknowledge the help of Peter Jacobs, Neil Levy, Daimon Lockett and Erin Norwood, who provided valuable assistance and feedback for this research project.

1 Comment On: How to Use Analogies to Introduce New Ideas

  • alicia.clegg | January 4, 2013

    A thought-provoking article. I would love to know of any instances where businesses have drawn overly timid analogies between new and old technologies and, as a result, have closed off more experimental uses for their products. It sounds highly plausible but can’t think of any myself.

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