Think by Analogy

What if we could figure out a way to copy the way water flows off a ducks back to build a roof which never leaks, or a way to copy shark skin to create car paint work with very low wind resistance? By looking to nature for inspiration, we can solve some of our greatest problems. Let me give you an example.

The Philip’s Bio-Light uses bioluminescence to light our homes in much the same way as fireflies are able to glow at night. Having figured out a way to concentrate the level of light generated by certain light emitting bacteria, the technology promises to be able to light our homes without the use of electricity. Other uses for the idea could include vehicle display dials, kitchen appliance displays, alarm clocks or garden path lighting.

In today’s post I’ll be continuing the series on Disrupted Thinking, looking specifically at the way analogies can be used to inspire creative thinking.

Thinking by analogy has long been identified as a great way to foster creative thinking. In fact, the folks over at Private Eye Project have developed an entire school program that teaches children how to make observations and come up with analogies as a basis for creative thinking. Using the jewelers loupe (a magnifying lens with a plastic eye piece that shuts out your view of everything else around you) teachers are able to each the skill of close observation, prompting students to answer the question ‘what else is this like’, or ‘what does this remind you of’.

With thinking by analogy, our goal is to find an appropriate analogy and start making connections between it and our original challenge. For example, when looking at ways to make cars more efficient we might observe the paint work in particular and wonder if we could learn from the way shark skin provides very low drag…hmmm, it all sounds good in hindsight but how exactly do we get there, and where should we start looking for all these analogies anyway? Here are some ideas:

Conceptual Analogy

The basic principle here is to find an analogy that closely mimics the challenge at hand, e.g. thinking about the human heart in place of a water pump or maybe the way thorny devils are able to draw water from the ground using no pumps at all and some very thin capillary tubes. Here’s an example structure for a group session trying to use analogies to stimulate creative thinking:

1. Have the group identify the problem’s underlying concepts. A concept fan might be a good way of doing this (I’ll come back to this another time).

2. Choose a concept or feature and pick an analogy for it. A good way to do this might be to try brainwriting individually, selecting a few interesting analogies once the group is done. Try and go for analogies which are quite different to your starting problem. The more differences there are, the greater your chances of generating creative ideas as you work to create connections.

3. Set the room up for a multi-group idea generation session, e.g. rotating flip boards. Each flip chart would have its own analogy with subgroups spending time at each board to force connections between the original challenge and the analogy. Spend some time generating these connections to go beyond the obvious similarities, consider the connections from different perspectives and try to come up with as many links and ideas as possible.

4. Have the groups identify some favourite ideas/connections and publish to a separate ‘Idea Launchpad’ area from which point you can start taking your ideas forwards. Note that positive idea creation criteria will be much better than ‘what might work’ type criteria (which will more than likely push the group towards groupthink).

Michalko lists a number of ‘parallel worlds’ from which a group might source analogies. It’s basically a long list of professions and places, but provides for a really useful source. Examples include architecture, acupuncture, dentistry, bowling, Hawaii, plumbing, talk radio etc…

Be the Problem

Michael Michalko calls this Personal Analogy in his Rattlesnakes & Roses technique. Thomas Nagel wrote about it in his paper ‘what is it like to be a bat’. The approach is to immerse yourself so completely in the problem, that you imagine you ARE the problem. Michalko cites an example of a CEO of a company making wall coverings. The CEO imagined he actually was a wall covering, and asked himself ‘what does it feel like? what would I be worried about?’ before noticing that fear of fire would be a notable concern…this then lead to innovations in fire-retardant (and non toxic) wall coverings.

As a visualisation technique this is going to work better in quiet environments, with the person doing the imagining treating the exercise a bit like meditation.

Metaphors and Parables

Metaphors and parables can also be used as a source of inspiration. Simply pick a few examples, and start forcing connections with the challenge. Again, the focus should be on volume with participants coming up with as many links as possible. Treat these initial links as ‘launchpad ideas’ and use them to start generating high value ideas to take forwards. The name of the game here is creative stimulation, so don;t worry about trying to come up with finished answers straight away.

Some good sources for metaphors are here, and parables can be found here.


Biomimicry or biomimetics is the study of nature to solve human problems. With answers to everything from velcro to paint which never needs cleaning the field of biomimicry is a fascinating source of inspiration which I heartily recommend to everyone. See the biomimicry institute for more.

Image (c) Philips


2 thoughts on “Think by Analogy

  1. Hi Brendan,
    I enjoyed your insightful article about analogies. Great job in demonstrating the worth of metaphorical-analogical thinking.I also appreciate your thoughtfulness in referencing my book. Thank you again for your kind attention.
    Michael Michalko

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