The other day a project manager was remarking on the early stages of large projects and the inevitable changes that occur as those projects unfold.
I’m no project manager, so I was doing internal translation. I see a big project’s requirements document as like the initial design for a kitchen remodeling: in the new inventory system, we want to have glass cabinets, a wall-mounted oven, an island with its own sink, and on the south wall, bigger windows (for greater visibility into the supply chain). Only later in the process do you discover you won’t have the time, or the money, or both, to move Finance’s plumbing.
If right now you’re wondering why Finance has a sink, then my analogy failed. Or, you recognized adjustments that you’ve seen, or that you can imagine, even though the project you’re thinking of didn’t involve inventory, Finance, or a kitchen, then I think I made my point.
A larger point is that, when it comes to improving performance, what’s crucial about an analogy is not how clever it is, but how effective.
The goal of an analogy is to help someone make a connection or reach an understanding that he hadn’t yet made. You can’t guarantee that your analogy will do that, though you can road-test it and modify it so that it’s more likely to.
Cleverness carries a risk that you’re focusing on surface elements, or on outside references that don’t apply to the immediate situation. Shakespeare’s plays are as full of analogies as O’Hare airport is full of wheeled baggage, but many of those analogies rely on references that in the twenty-first century we don’t understand.
Sweet are the uses of adversity
which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
— As You Like It
It might be clever to work Shakespeare in, but if this one’s your choice, you’ll likely connect only with committed theatergoers and unreconstructed literature majors.
I tried a different line once, as a lead-in to a course on vendor-managed inventory.
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me…
It might not work for you, but I managed to avoid using a stock-art photo of a warehouse dock. More important, the inventory people saw the connection to the topic.
That helped me escape the too-clever trap, although technically this wasn’t an analogy, just an indirect lead into the topic. Banquo was not in this scene struggling with inventory control–but he was interested in knowing what the future might hold, which is a true, on-the-job concern for warehouse managers.
So the real test might not be whether you’re using an analogy, a metaphor, or a simile — but whether the way you present something new makes the aha! more likely.
CC-licensed kitchen sink photo by Steev Hise