Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Tools for Innovation II: Analogy is the Essence of Innovation

Analogy:Innovation::Heart:Body

If innovation is going to save the economy, it has to be repeatable. There has to be a consistent method for finding sources of good new ideas. The funny thing is, being creative requires using the knowledge you already have. New ideas are often old ideas wrapped in new clothing. This process of finding new outfits for old ideas is called analogy. Analogy is the ability to find similarities in two different areas of knowledge that don't seem similar on the surface.

To get started here, let's try a little exercise. Imagine you have finally started that exercise routine. You have been lifting weights a few times a week. Only now, you are going to have to travel frequently for your job. You don't want your new exercise program to collapse, and you can't assume that every hotel is going to have a fitness center. It is impractical to carry heavy weights in your baggage. What can you do?

Take a minute and see if you can come up with a solution.

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If you're like most people, when you're asked to solve a new problem, it just isn't clear where to begin. If you have never thought about this problem at all, you might be stuck. Trying to solve a new problem like this often makes you feel as if you're stuck in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, and you're not quite sure how to get around.

The trick to navigating the foreign country of a new problem is to try to find something else that is like the problem you're currently trying to solve. To do that, though, you have to do a good job of really describing the problem you're trying to solve.

What is the problem you're solving in this example?

You want to have a set of weights that don't have the weight or the bulk in them while you're travelling, but can have the weight added at the time you want to use them. Notice, that what we're doing here is to think about the problem more abstractly for a second. We're not really talking much about the weight any more except as something to be added when it is going to be used.

Does this way of thinking about the problem help you at all?

What other kinds of things that you know about collapse for storage and carrying, but are filled when being used?

One example is an air mattress. A mattress needs to support the body, but that makes it bulky and hard to carry. An air mattress removes all of the bulk for storage, and then adds that support when it is going to be used by incorporating air, which is pretty widely available.

Air doesn't have much weight, but water does. So, one way to create a set of weights that you can travel with is to have something that you can fill with water in your hotel room. After you exercise, you can just empty out the weights and store them for later.

These two solutions are analogous. An air mattress is for sleeping. It is big, and soft. It is bulky, but not heavy. Water weights are small and compact. They are heavy. They are used for lifting. They are similar only in the more abstract way that both of them can be transported because they collapse and are filled with their necessary material at the point of use.

The trick to using an analogy is to realize that there are already things that you know about that might help you to solve a new problem.

Water WeightsFinding this innovative solution by analogy requires two things. First, the problem had to be described specifically enough to solve it. You'd be surprised how often you are trying to come up with a new solution to a problem and you haven't really taken the time to make sure you know exactly what problem you're trying to solve.

Second, you have to search for something else that has already solved that problem. Be willing to search far and wide for a solution. Sometimes, the solution to a problem might be another object or product that you have already encountered. Other times, there are often solutions to problems you're trying to solve in nature.

In the book Tools for Innovation that I co-edited with Kris Wood, there are a number of chapters that talk about the importance of analogy for innovation, and make suggestions for improving your ability to use analogy. The particular example I used here comes from a chapter that Kris and I co-authored with our students Julie Linsey, Jeremy Murphy, and Jeff Laux.

I'll talk more about innovation in my next post.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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