Shortcut: How Analogies Drive Innovation

For several decades, psychologists have been studying creative mental processes, and we have a really good understanding of what goes on in the mind when people are being creative. I summarize this research in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity, by grouping all of the research into eight “stages” or “habits of mind” that are involved in being creative. And in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I describe over 100 techniques to train your brain in these eight stages.

One of the most important cognitive processes is analogy–a comparison of two things that seem very different on the surface, but that have an underlying conceptual or structural similarity. A really fun new book, Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, tells some fascinating stories of history’s most important innovative analogies. The author, John Pollack, identifies four rules for innovating through analogy:

  • Question conventional analogies. Sometimes the most obvious analogy is a dead end. Trying to invent an airplane by copying how birds flap their wings never worked.
  • Explore multiple analogies. Usually, there are lots of different potential analogical comparisons. Don’t stop with the first one. (This seems closely related to the first rule…)
  • Look to diverse sources. The most radical innovations often come from what psychologists call “distant analogies”, where the analogy comes from a radically different industry or discipline. This is why so many great breakthroughs come from interdisciplinary teams.
  • Simplify. The best analogies make complicated things easier to use.

Pollack’s book restates much of what we already know about innovation, but it’s well written, and his stories add to our growing database of historical examples that show how innovation works.

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