Analogy Driven Innovation

February 19, 2008  


Creative Commons License photo credit: Peter Emmett

Here is another tip from our “Little Book of BIG Innovation Ideas.”

As adults, when we try to solve a problem, we often ask, “What does this mean?” We try to pull the answer from our knowledge bank, just like finding the solution in an encyclopedia. Solve the problem the way it has been solved in the past. This can be useful, but it provides a limited set of possibilities.

An alternative (and more insightful) way of looking at problems is to ask, “What is this like?” Make connections. Find analogies, metaphors, and associations that fit the problem you are looking to solve. Recombine ideas in new ways.

If you are redesigning a business process, you may want to borrow best practices from a different industry.

South West Airlines did this when it benchmarked an Indianapolis 500 pit crew to improve plane turn-around time. Hospitals gained new insights by studying the check-in process of hotels. An office supply company improved the return of empty toner cartridges by applying NetFlix’s DVD subscription process.

Take it a step further and look to non-business analogies and metaphors. If redesigning a product, ask what the product is really like. If redesigning a computer chip, look to racing circuits, rivers, or anything with a flow. A gas pipeline company developed a new technology for finding and sealing pipeline cracks by mirroring the clotting agents in the human body.

To find solutions from other industries, processes, products, or disciplines, ask the following questions:

  • What are the attributes of the problem?
  • What is it like?
  • Who else addresses a similar problem?
  • How could you adapt their solution to your problem?

An example of this was in today’s news. Researchers developed a new adhesive by studying the gecko lizard’s “gravity-defying feet.” This new waterproof bandage is biodegradable, sticks well when wet, and is safe to use inside the body to augment sutures or staples.

Sometimes the best solutions have been around for centuries. We just need to adapt them to our specific needs.

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7 Responses to “Analogy Driven Innovation”

  1. Frank on February 19th, 2008 5:57 pm

    Steve:

    Great post. I couldn’t agree with you more. Indeed, while I was at a major auto manufacturer, I studied the movie industry for their product development processes and practices. This work led to several very un-conventional ideas about how to develop new vehicles. We also studied the construction, toy, and restaurant industries.

    Frank

    Frank Chen

  2. James Todhunter on February 19th, 2008 8:42 pm

    There are many repeatable innovation systems built on the basic principle of solution by analogy. For example, TRIZ is a discipline in which one creates an absration of their problem, selects a standard solution based on the traits of the abstract problem, then maps the standard solution which itself is a an abstraction to a specific instance of a solution. The method is very powerful and has been used successfully by many organizations. There are many other techniques which share this common thread of reusing lessons learned in other domains.

  3. Ria Kennedy on February 20th, 2008 1:07 pm

    I have used this approach in my writing, using role-playing games as a method to develop stories and characters.

  4. links for 2008-02-21 on February 20th, 2008 7:40 pm

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  5. Karl Staib - Your Work Happiness Matters on February 21st, 2008 9:33 pm

    We do need to expand our creative solutions by looking at the things around us that have prospered for thousands of years. Science is doing it and business should too.

    Great Post!

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    [...] Goals & Performance on How to Target InnovationKarl Staib – Your Work Happiness Matters on Analogy Driven Innovationlinks for 2008-02-21 on Analogy Driven InnovationRia Kennedy on Analogy Driven [...]

  7. Analogy-Driven Innovation and Pavlov’s Fish | Stephen Shapiro on Innovation, Creativity, Goals & Performance on March 26th, 2008 9:44 am

    [...] is an interesting example of analogy-driven innovation; taking a concept from one area and applying it to another.  This idea must be gaining [...]