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The Power of Analogies

Richard Fall
January 18, 2017

What are analogies?

When faced with an explaining a new, unfamiliar, or complex concept we are often hamstrung by our inability to make what’s obvious to us clear to others. I have this problem on a regular basis–whether it’s getting a client onboard with a new process, sharing an “out of the box” idea with a development team, or explaining to your significant other what you do for a living, we struggle to share abstract ideas with others in a meaningful manner. And so, we often turn to rhetorical tool to help us.  One of the most powerful, and yet under-appreciated, is the analogy.
Analogy: The comparison of two things, which are alike in several respects, for the purpose of explaining or clarifying some unfamiliar or difficult idea or object by showing how the idea or object is similar to some familiar one.
Perhaps a more succinct definition was provided by Jerry Cahn in a piece in an Executive Street column:
They are intellectual hyperlinks that establish or reveal relationships between disparate ideas.
Though I learned about analogical forms–metaphors, similes–in high school, I did not truly understand their power until I had spent some time in the business world, where levels of experience, domain knowledge, and reasoning ability span a wide range.

Why are analogies so powerful?

As the result of millions of years of evolution, our brains are exquisitely tuned pattern-matching machines.  When faced with an unfamiliar object or event, we are wired to fit what we see to stored patterns–experiences or interactions we have had before. As sentient beings, we, of course, have other tools at our disposal:  deductive logic, or trial and error testing.  However, these methods are relatively recent developments for our species, and not as easily or automatically brought to bear. Further, some types of problems resist these formal tools.  A problem may not be novel or complex enough to warrant trial and error, nor so modular and familiar to fall to the deduction. Analogy allows us to simplify complex problems, and find familiar patterns in the remaining parts, so as to apply past solutions, properly modified, to current issues.

How can analogies be useful and when can they fail?

John Pollack, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, has written a book titled, Shortcut; How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Great Ideas. In it, he outlines what he believes to be the five characteristics of powerful analogies:
  1. They use the familiar to explain something less familiar
  2. They highlight similarities and obscure differences
  3. They identify useful abstractions
  4. They tell a coherent story
  5. They resonate emotionally
Cahn demonstrates what he believes is an example of a superb use of analogies in Darwin’s Origin of Species
First, he draws an analogy between deliberate breeding in agriculture – something familiar – to explain something less familiar – change in nature. Second, he highlights the similarities – gradual, incremental change over time – and obscures the differences – gaps in the natural record of evolution. Third, he uses a useful abstraction – how beneficial adaptions enable those inheriting them to survive and reproduce at higher rates, while those without them tended to suffer or die out. Fourth, he offers a simple, coherent and complete story to explain the origin of biological diversity on Earth, without having to address details which may not fit the pattern. Fifth, his arguments’ simplicity and explanatory power make the analogy emotionally satisfying to people who embrace logic and advances in scientific knowledge through logic.
(I would add a point here: as technologists, we often most highly value rhetorical devices that are solidly based on logic, and diminish devices that rely on more emotional methods.  I believe this is a mistake–our goal as communicators is to persuade as well as educate an audience, and to do so using a tool that appeals to them is more effective. For example, when I first read Pollack’s list, I drew up short on the “obscure differences” characteristic.  Isn’t my goal as a communicator to be transparent–not to hide or obscure information?  Perhaps the choice of the word “obscure” is unfortunate, but upon reflection I realized the concept is not.  Removing appropriate information which may be initially confusing to the recipient aids the process–that information, if relevant to the process, can be restored after the analogy has served its purpose.  How many times did each of sit in calculus class listening to the teacher describe a new concept, only to find out later (sometimes from the same teacher) that s/he had “oversimplified” for the sake of understanding?  Like any rhetorical device, this attribute of analogies can be misused, but when used properly it can be powerful.) The key, of course, is to find an analogy that is meaningful, easy to communicate, and readily understand and “taken to heart” by the listener. (To add another point, in an adversarial situation–competing ideas, for instance–the first party to provide a meaningful analogy gets to “frame the case”–often a great advantage.) To be fair, improperly chosen analogies can lead one astray. A classic example, as pointed out by Giovanni Gavetti and Jan W. Rivkin in a Harvard Business Review article titled “How Strategists Really Think: Tapping the Power of Analogy“:
The experience of Enron shows how a seductive but bad analogy can lead to flawed decisions. Many factors contributed to Enron’s startling collapse, but headlong diversification based on loose analogies played an important role. After apparently achieving success in trading natural gas and electric power, Enron executives moved rapidly to enter or create markets for other goods ranging from coal, steel, and pulp and paper to weather derivatives and broadband telecom capacity. […] But Enron’s executives failed to appreciate important, deeper differences between the markets for natural gas and bandwidth. The broadband market was based on unproven technology and was dominated by telecom companies that resented Enron’s encroachment. The underlying good—bandwidth—did not lend itself to the kinds of standard contracts that made efficient trading possible in gas and electricity.
Further dangers in reasoning analogistically come from a focus on surface similarities, and two psychological traits known as “anchoring” and “confirmation bias”. Anchoring is an effect in which, once an analogy anchors itself, it becomes very hard to dislodge.  Confirmation bias adds to this effect–the bias towards seeking out confirmatory evidence and ignoring contradictory evidence.  Of course, these biases apply to other reasoning methods than just analogies, and their avoidance is important in any case.  Specifically seeking out evidence that disconfirms an analogy is key. As powerful a tool as analogistic reasoning can be, it must be used carefully, as all powerful tools should be.

What role can analogies play in our professional lives?

  1. There are many ways in which analogies can be used in the workplace, of which these are a few:
  2. We can use analogies to find creative solutions to complex problems in architecture, design, business process, etc.
  3. We can use analogies to educate, coach, and mentor.
  4. We can use analogies to sell to clients–whether a SOW or a specific solution.
  5. We can use analogies to inspire–stories, which are often compelling, are simply complex versions of analogies.
For example, a story containing an analogy about knowing when to stop: On hearing one of his students use the expression, “I don’t know nothing about it…” a teacher took the opportunity to explain about double negatives and correct grammar to the class. The teacher explained, “In the English language a double negative makes the statement positive, so your assertion that you ‘don’t know nothing about it’ is actually an admission that you do know something about it.” Encouraged by the interest in this revelation among certain class members, the teacher went on to demonstrate more of his knowledge of world languages: “Of course not all languages operate according to the same grammatical rules, for example, in Russian, a double negative remains negative, although perhaps surprisingly, there is not a single language anywhere in the world in which a double positive makes a negative..” Image Courtesy:  

About the author

National Solutions Architect | United States
Richard has been a practice lead in the Digital Transformations (formerly Mobility) practice at Sogeti for 2-1/2 years, originally in the Des Moines office and now in the Minneapolis office. In that role, he has lead major architecting efforts at a number of Sogeti clients, resulting in creative solutions to difficult problems, winning client loyalty and business.


    One thought on “The Power of Analogies

    1. Great post. We can call it also the rebund effect. How an idea or a project can or should help for another. Relevant !

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