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Take a Rigorous - and Analogical - Approach to Innovation

By Michael S. Slocum

The Basis of Analogic Thought

A 2005 Harvard Business Review article discussed how strategists think using the power of analogy.1 But although certain analogical reasoning can be remarkable, authors Giovanni Gavetti and Jan Rivkin also note that it can be harmful if done poorly. They 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. Then 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.”

The article states that cognitive scientists paint a simple picture of analogical reasoning. An individual starts with a situation to be handled – the target problem. 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. From the source emerges a solution that was, or should have been, adopted for the source problem. This candidate solution is then applied to the target problem.

The Way of Innovation

There is no dispute that analogies are the “way” of innovation. Indeed, the framework for achieving strategic innovation (as shown in Figure 1) is the same as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) framework for tactical innovation. But there is one enormous difference – the TRIZ innovation algorithm is based on a very large amount of hard data (patent database) while the standard analogical algorithm is based on logic only. This is why most 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.


For all the obvious synergies between theses two algorithms, there is yet not much of a call for a particular method of structured innovation. There has been a call for structured innovation references to various methodologies for making innovation learnable and doable by all. But it seems most such calls have either missed the power of TRIZ or have overlooked it, perhaps because it is still mostly a tool 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, moving from a known problem to a known solution. In between is the tricky part; the onus is to find the right analogy and to manage the (high) risk of finding the wrong one. 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.

Most innovation strategists rely upon 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 (italics ours), displays similar characteristics.” Again, 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 his own powers. We have 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 innovation strategists may be lacking, innovation tacticians are not – especially those who use TRIZ. This is because the body of TRIZ research, and its related analogical system, provides you with the guides and templates for making the dangerous jump from what you know to what you do not know. Compared to the standard analogical process method, TRIZ enables you to move through the analogical problem-solving process with much greater accuracy, reliability and speed. TRIZ can, therefore, function as an unstoppable engine for widespread innovation inside any organization.

  1. Gavetti, Giovanni and Rivkin, Jan, “How Strategists Really Think: Tapping the Power of Analogy,” Harvard Business Review, April, 2005, p. 54.
  2. Slocum, Michael, DeCarlo, Neil and Silverstein, David, Insourcing Innovation, Breakthrough Performance Press, 2005.

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