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Analogies Are the Way of Breakthrough Innovation

By Michael S. Slocum

A Harvard State of Mind

A 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Tapping the Power of Analogy,” covered the idea of how strategists think with the power of analogy. But although certain analogical reasoning can be remarkable, it can also be harmful if done poorly, say the authors Giovanni Gavetti and Jan W. Rivkin. From a positive perspective, analogical thinking can expand the search space from where solutions are pursued. Also, atypical solutions will be identified as non-standard associations are leveraged.

The authors cite the supermarket model invented in the 1930s as an analogical driver for the success of Toys ‘R Us in the 1950s and for the kanban system of replenishing inventory. Additionally, they cite other examples of how certain strategic analogies have failed certain companies because “it is extremely easy to reason poorly through analogies, and strategists rarely consider how to use them well.”

Cognitive scientists paint a simple picture of analogical reasoning. An individual starts with a situation to be handled – the target problem (for Intel, the competition from makers of low-end microprocessors). The person then considers other settings that she knows well from direct or vicarious experience and, through a process of similarity mapping, identifies a setting that, she believes, displays similar characteristics. The setting is the source problem (the steel industry). From the source emerges a candidate solution that was or should have been adopted for the source problem (a vigorous defense of the low end). The candidate solution is then applied to the target problem.

The Truth About Analogies

There is no dispute that analogies are the way of innovation. The framework for achieving strategic innovation shown in the figure below is the same as the Theory for Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) framework for tactical innovation (specifically, contradiction theory). But there is one enormous difference – the TRIZ innovation algorithm is based on a large amount of hard data (patent database) while the algorithm suggested in the Harvard Business Review article is based only on logic. Almost all current methods of innovation, whether strategic or tactical in nature, are person-centric; they rely on the mental powers of the individual and provide no extra help in converging on the solution needed for business or technical breakthroughs.


Gavetti, Rivkin and other innovation experts do not reference TRIZ in their work. One notable exception is Harvard professor Gary Hamel who has observed a call for structured innovation, and referenced methodologies for making innovation learnable and doable by all. Innovation experts as a whole seem to be missing the power of TRIZ or have overlooked it, perhaps because it remains a method primarily used by the technical community, not the executive community.

Yet the alignment is obvious: a system of analogies rules the efficacy of innovation. The system is progressive in nature, always moving from a known problem to a known solution. In between is the tricky part – finding the ideal analogy and managing the risk of finding those not as ideal. The key is to mitigate that risk by drawing in as much convergent power as possible. Instead of diverging around an infinite number of possible solutions via unconstrained analogy, the TRIZ practitioner converges onto the right solution via structured and systematic problem solving that is based on previous analogic models derived from patent decomposition.

Most innovation strategists believe they can reason their way to greatness with only the help of broad frameworks and models. As the authors of the Harvard Business Review article say about the thinking of the cognitive scientists, the strategist “identifies a setting that, she believes, displays similar characteristics.” There is little place in business today for beliefs and conjectures. Science and analytics have come too far in all domains of business for anyone to rely solely on their own powers. There are databases, systems and methods for design, operations, quality improvement, waste reduction, marketing and so on. Yet when it comes to innovation, people seem to accept a religious rather than rigorous approach.


Where the innovation strategists are lacking, the innovation tacticians are not, especially those who use TRIZ. This is because the body of TRIZ research, and its related analogical system, provides problem solvers with the guides and templates for making the jump from what an individual or company does not know to what they do know. Using the model set up by the Harvard Business Review article thought leaders, it is possible to move through the analogical problem-solving process with much greater accuracy, reliability and speed.

About the Author:

Michael S. Slocum, Ph.D., is the principal and chief executive officer of The Inventioneering Company. Contact Michael S. Slocum at michael (at) or visit