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.

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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. 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, 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. Following analogies too closely can cause similarities to remain undetected or, even worse, be falsely assumed to exist.

Alternatively, a close-fitting analogy may make the new seem overly familiar. Concentrating too much on similarities can cause organizations to overlook what is unique about the new — particularly those aspects that might offer important advantages and opportunities.

Organizations can rely too heavily and too long on a favored analogy, which carries significant risks. One analogy might be a poor fit relative to others; by using it too long, the company might deprive itself of the insight a better analogy would provide. This may result in diminished competitive advantage, since rivals that use better analogies can adapt more rapidly to change and innovation.

Despite these problems, analogies are among the most helpful tools for understanding new ideas and new technology and thus cannot be ignored. The challenge for managers is to use them effectively.

Coping with Computers

Related Research

C.B. Bingham and S.J. Kahl, “The Process of Schema Emergence: Assimilation, Deconstruction, Unitization and the Plurality of Analogies,” Academy of Management Journal, in press.

To better understand how companies find, select and apply analogies we looked at how the life insurance industry grappled with the introduction of the computer. Our research centered on analyzing a broad array of documents produced by three national trade and professional organizations between 1945 and 1975. The 30-year span reveals how analogies emerged, were selected and changed over time. This study resulted in insights that could be especially helpful to organizations of almost any description. (Details of our research can be found in a forthcoming article in the Academy of Management Journal.)

When groups use analogies to confront change, their approaches can generally be characterized as comprising three broad phases: assimilation, analysis and adaptation.

Phase 1: Assimilation The assimilation phase begins with recognizing something new to the organization that has the potential to significantly alter its future and perhaps that of its industry and markets. Included in this phase is identifying helpful analogies to understand the new concept. For life insurers attempting to cope with the commercialization of the computer during the early 1950s, two distinct analogies emerged.

Because they were familiar with office machines in general, insurance companies initially saw the computer primarily as a new type of tabulating machine, used mainly for data entry. A second analogy, that of the brain, was less obvious and more difficult to grasp, so it initially received considerably less attention. Perceiving the computer first as a machine made the search for commonalities highly productive.

Phase 2: Analysis Once groups have developed a certain level of comfort with something new, they begin to look at it more analytically in ways that challenge initial analogies. As insurance companies became more familiar with the computer, they thought of it less as a machine and more as a type of brain. This enabled them to better grasp the computer’s significance and more clearly comprehend its broad potential. As computers’ data storage and processing capacities expanded, how people talked and thought about them also changed.

Phase 3: Adaptation In this phase, the most relevant findings of prior analytical thinking grow more cohesive and interconnected. This eventually provides a foundation upon which the organization begins to build a new conceptual framework to address the innovation or change. For example, by the 1970s, life insurers often spoke of computers in the context of “management information systems” and “databases” — concepts far removed from insurers’ earlier machine references.

As the insurance industry’s approach to coping with technological innovation reveals, analogies play a vital role and can be broadly categorized as one of two basic types: those that focus on the familiar and those that center on the novel. People and organizations naturally focus at first on those aspects of change and innovation that are similar to others with which they are already familiar — for example, thinking of the computer as a tabulating machine.

The brain analogy, by contrast, centered on substantially different attributes. Companies likened data storage to memory and equated data processing with information management. This made it possible to envision more diverse and sophisticated ways to use the computer.

Recognizing these two distinct types of analogies is critical to applying them effectively. Focusing on analogies that emphasize the familiar can greatly facilitate the assimilation of new products, systems and processes — an important consideration during Phase 1, when acceptance and interest can easily wane. However, dwelling too deeply and too long on the familiar aspects comes at the cost of overlooking the novel. And it is precisely here that the greatest value can often be realized.

Lessons for Leaders

Our findings have important implications for organizations eager to make more effective use of analogies in confronting and managing technological change. The implications address two major areas.

1. Confronting change and innovation

  • To better understand the full meaning of anything new, 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.
  • Avoid relying too heavily on certain analogies and overlooking the benefits of others. Developing a list of diverse analogies makes it less likely that any specific one will be associated with a particular individual or group, limiting its perceived applicability.
  • To build momentum during the assimilation phase, 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.
  • 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.

2. Marketing new products and services

  • Marketing communications should initially present what is novel but focus on the familiar to generate wide user acceptance.
  • Subsequent messaging should emphasize that which is novel to communicate the full benefit and value of the product or service.

Analogies can be highly effective tools for coping with significant change and innovation. Most organizations, however, engage them fairly loosely. By examining in-depth how one industry applied different types of analogies to the introduction of the computer, we see that it is possible to use analogies in a deliberate way to increase their effectiveness. In a competitive marketplace, where change is always either present or around the corner, using this tool more effectively may give companies and organizations an important advantage.



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.

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Comments (2)
Occam's Razor and Simplifying Presentation Content
[…] software works, you can liken each step to the rules of baseball. Another example was provided by Christopher Bingham and Steven Kahl. They wrote about how Apple introduced the first Macintosh computer operating […]
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.