Analogous Thinking

Analogous thinking dominates the sciences, looking for connections in the unknown by reference back to the known. Common analogies include:

  • Machinery
  • Biology
  • Software (e.g. Artificial Intelligence, Internet)
  • Adaptive Systems (e.g., fractals)

The mind seems wired to find these kinds of connections in disparate phenomena. It’s as though the mind needs to find a way to cubbyhole external stimuli in order to more easily access it. So if I don't want to deal with the messiness of the particulars, if I don't want to have a traffic cop at each intersection, then I develop mathematical algorithms to install automated stoplights that handle most of the (mental) traffic most of the time.

The key problem with analogous thinking is false generalization+. We see connections where there really aren't any, due to our limited time frames or our ability to exclude observations that fall outside the compartmentalization. This allows us to spend too much time pursuing false leads, to the detriment of R&D effectiveness. This causes us to miss exciting opportunities.

From the standpoint of how we arrange ourselves socially, in this case how we arrange our R&D endeavor, analogies miss the fact that generalizing about the behaviors of thinking subjects is inherently tenuous. As soon as subjects become aware of their role in the generalization, especially if it is not to their advantage, they find a way to step outside the generalization. This is the so-called self-referential challenge in analogies. The analogies hold as long as the targets of the analogies are unaware they are being measured. As soon as the measurement is revealed, clever individuals learn how to game the measurement to their own advantage. Interestingly, this is the 'next great challenge' facing the field of microeconomics. See Mesjasz, Czesław (2002). Images of Organisation and Development of Information Society

Clever individuals find that waiting at stoplights when there is no oncoming traffic to be just plain annoying. So they develop their own technologies to control the traffic lights, similar to that used by rescue vehicles. They learn when to merely ignore traffic lights. Importantly they learn to disrespect the law and the lawgiver just a little bit more. So once a scientific journal is suspected of adhering to a particular ideological bent, it becomes an easy matter for the hoaxer to perpetrate his or her act: see the Sokal Affair. Its many variants are listed at the end of the reference. Of course, clever individuals can also make an analogy succeed in situations where it should never have been considered: the human mind gets reshaped to review past problems in a new light.

The management sciences, and hence management consulting, is often replete with analogous thinkers. We’re dealing with humans, and human nature is often the same regardless of the industry within which it is found. Much of human nature comes from upbringing and education. This generality often gives license to the management scientists to be careless in their analogies. They often see a superficial connection between the needs of this client and the solutions they offered the last client.

Worse, they invested mightily in that last solution to make it more generalizable: to give it a larger market share. They have a large group of very talent individuals with a solution in search of a problem (i.e., I have a hammer and...). This is the mindset: it's the client's responsibility to know whether or not my solution fits within his or her organization. If they hire me to install the solution, then they too become invested in its success. Their reputation is now on the line.

This is the challenge with 'that next great idea.' It may indeed be the next great idea, but until we try it in a realistic industrial setting we just don't know for sure. We can pilot it, but we still only have a sense as to its applicability across the broader R&D endeavor.

Analogous thinking is great fun: it's like a voyage of discovery. It's especially attractive to researchers, who gain much satisfaction from finding that next great analogy. But probably nine times out of ten we're dealing with false analogies. It's just too easy for the human mind to find connections where there aren't any. We don't give up. We just learn to develop a greater sense of humility for how really difficult it is to generalize about the human experience.

Further Reading