“Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”
– Leo Tolstoy, 19th Century Russian Author
In their minds, strategic leaders develop the future narrative for their organization and then put the wheels in motion to make the story a reality. Some of the best stories have already been told and have already happened in other industries and organizations. To use the learnings and stories of how other industries unfolded and other organizations grew and created differentiation can often be the best path forward. Strategic leaders are masters at borrowing stories and applying them to their situations.
What is an Analogy?
An analogy is the application of meaning, information, or strategy from a non-related situation or entity to a current situation. Organizations often use analogies from different organizations and industries in strategy development, whether they are analogies to explain better their context or analogies of strategies to employ. The right analogy has the power to align the collective thinking and perspectives of people and provide clarity in the strategic path forward.
How do you find the right analogies?
The tricky part is finding the right analogy for your situation. Finding the right analogies is a function of the potential analogies you have to choose from and your ability to connect the analogy to your current situation. The potential analogies you have to choose from really come down to your base of knowledge of other organizations and industries. The first place to always start is to read voraciously. Business Week, Fortune, Wired, and a ton of online sites make their living on finding cool organizations doing cool things. And, as you read these stories, think through the lens of how they might apply to your organization or situation. The best way to think about analogies is to try to find the best ones that fit the challenges across an organization’s context.
Product or service analogies
Finding the right product or service analogy can give you a new perspective on potential strategies and paths forward. If you are in the business of making products, what are some of the leading products you admire that may have a similar context to yours? If you are in the services business, look at Nordstrom, Ritz Carlton, Starbucks, Ace Hardware, or other organizations that might be a good fit. Can you borrow some of their best practices and strategies to wow customers?
As they say, “Imitation is the best form of flattery.” Borrowing a top brand’s playbook on marketing typically creates clarity and great outcomes. Though, be sure to truly understand the differences in your brand versus the brand you are looking to emulate. These key differences should guide some nuance in your playbook.
There are some great companies with unbelievable operations out there to borrow from, including Amazon, Walmart, and Southwest. While it can be hard to get the real story of the magic behind their operations, you can often find a few feature stories or books outlining some of the key elements of their success. One of my favorite operational analogies is coconut water. In the harvesting of coconuts, historically coconut water was a waste byproduct, but now, with some entrepreneurial genius, it has become a premium health product. Are their waste byproducts in your operations that can be turned into a revenue stream?
I wish people would use analogies more in their organizational and cultural strategies. The recipe for a strong, entrepreneurial, and empowering culture has been perfected by organizations such as Zappos, Whole Foods, Google, and REI. Cultural analogies are also the easiest to understand. Just talk to associates at Whole Foods, REI, or give Zappos a call, and they’ll tell you why their organizations are special places to work and grow.
While analogies are powerful, if misapplied, they can also be very dangerous. Many companies want to emulate the success of Apple or be the Uber of their industry, without really appreciating the power, leverage, and capabilities of Apple and Uber. While I think many organizations can learn from the design elegance and simplicity Apple drives through all of their products, there is a lot more context than meets the eye to their success. When I was COO at Goal Zero, we wanted to emulate Go Pro’s TV advertising, until we appreciated the fact that their content was the best content on TV, since their product is enabling people to produce videos from unique perspectives. Once we acknowledged this fact, we went in a different direction. In using analogies, make sure they are the right ones, and you adjust the game plan a bit to account for differences between your situation and the analogous situation.