Analogies, or, likes and dislikes

Once, on a training discussion board, a colleague said, “Of all the sports, soccer / football makes for the best analogies to business.”

Bingo cards...get your nice fresh bingo cardsTo which I replied, “Of all vegetables, the rutabaga makes the best analogy to bingo cards.”

I knew the colleague well enough to borrow some of his stuff to set up a straw man.  I was leaping onto a favorite soapbox.  I feel about sports analogies at work much the way I do about those endless Jeopardy games that people are always cramming down the throats of perfectly innocent learners.

Please understand, I’m big on analogies.  But their success depends on both aptness and originality.  If you go for the first analogy that wanders across your cerebral cortex, you’re practically guaranteed to select one that’s obvious, shopworn, and insight-free.

So, business like a soccer team?  Right off, people outside the U.S. will smile (or sigh) because you’re using “soccer” when any normal person would say “football.”  And you can’t win, because if by “football” you mean “overstuffed, undermatriculated former college students earning $15,000 per play in a taxpayer-subsidized arena,” they’re still going to smile.

If business is like a football team, then are the shareholders the team owners?  And the customers, they’re…the opponents?  (Yes, it can seem that way, but that’s another day’s rant.)  What about your strategic partners: are they the beer vendors, or the cheerleader squad?

So you're saying that MARKETING is always right?I once heard Don Tosti of the Vanguard Group speak on the notion of “internal customer.”  This was another analogy with wide popularity only a few years back.  It’s fallen out of favor, kind of like the phrase “dot-com.”

Before that fall, though, Tosti was calling into question the aptness of the analogy.  In his analysis, your in-company colleagues aren’t necessarily your “customers.”  Especially if you don’t exchange money for goods or services.  (Blessed are they who lack chargeback systems, for their admin yoke is light.)

Many if not most organizations have internal relationships and power inequities that can make a mockery of the simpleminded idea that everyone’s my “customer.”  If an actual customer’s involved, you’ll be astonished how quickly subgroups will clout will say “make it so.”

All of that to say consider your analogy before you unleash it.  Your audience may include people who see a surfeit of sports analogies as a sign you’d rather be somewhere else, discussing something else.

And you want those folks on your side, if not on your team.

CC-licensed images:
Bingo-game’s worth of rutabagaa: image adapted from this photo by Suzanne Long.
“Internal customer” skeptic by imrational.