“The difficulty [in creating novel ideas] lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

-John Maynard Keynes

Now, more than ever, large organisations are trying to keep pace with nimble market disruptors.  There is no longer an implicit guarantee that what got you to the top will keep you there.  According to a study of corporate turnover in the S&P 500, the average tenure of a company in the S&P during the 1960’s was 33 years. Today, that number has declined by 60% to just 14 years.  Why, you ask?  There are plenty of reasonable explanations, including:

  • Proliferation of new technologies lowering barriers to entry
  • Young talent skipping the traditional corporate ladder for the allure of start-up culture  
  • The steady erosion of customer loyalty loosening the hold of entrenched players

But these rationalisations go only surface-deep.  If you dig deeper, you will find a lack of innovation within these companies and a meager pipeline of bold and novel solutions being developed by them. So, what’s stopping them from innovating?  To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes’ words, “it’s our inability to escape our old ideas.”  

I recently met with the CEO of an established chemical manufacturer who griped to me in private that his people weren’t innovative enough. Their ideas were stale. Every proposal pitched to him felt safe and tried-before.  However, when I gently inquired about which innovations from outside his industry that he would consider experimenting on in his company, the CEO remarked, “We don’t study what other industries are doing. The chemical manufacturing industry is unique.”  And herein lies the paradox.  On one hand, leaders demand that their people be more creative and produce bold, new ideas; however, that creativity also should not go too far outside accepted industry norms. It’s no wonder that most established companies struggle to escape their old ideas.    

The problem is rooted in what I refer to as “The Expert’s Dilemma.”  To ascend the ranks in any field, you must establish your know-how and expertise. And over time, as an expert, you accumulate a trove of experience, examples, and intuition.  This expertise establishes your credibility. It is what enables your Chief Marketing Officer, Surgeon, or Military Officer to make fast and reliable decisions and ultimately to rise in the organisational ranks.  However, this accumulation of expertise can also create a lack of flexibility.  Because expert decision making depends on selective attention and well-honed schemas, these same mechanisms can cause experts to have tunnel vision and sometimes overlook important information.  Essentially, what helps your internal experts perform their day-to-day functions so well, is the same thing that hampers their ability to look at a familiar situation with fresh eyes and produce novel ideas.

That’s where the deliberate use of metaphors comes in. A metaphor, as you may recall from High School English class, “is a literary device that creates a connection and can make a reader understand something at a deeper level than a literal description.” In business, we also want to create connections and understand a problem at a deeper level.  Metaphors achieve this by breaking our brain’s subconscious classification system, which is based on past experiences. Metaphors enable our brains to sort and recombine information in new ways to create unexpected associations.  A carefully selected metaphor can help you to look at a familiar situation with fresh eyes.  In the words of Aristotle, “A good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity of the dissimilar.”  

Consider this classic example: 

A deodorant manufacturer had a problem: Customers complained that their spray deodorant applied unevenly.  The R&D team struggled with new ways of inventing a solution.  So, they decided to employ the use of deliberate metaphors.

The team generalised the problem and asked: “Where else do things need to be applied evenly?”

The metaphors came streaming in:  Interior painting, cosmetics, ball point pens.

The R&D team was intrigued by the ballpoint pen metaphor and studied how they worked.  The pen uses a roller ball technology that evenly applies the ink.  Applying this inspiration to their specific problem, the R&D team, after a few rounds of experimentation, produced a new test product:  The roll-on deodorant.  The company, Ban, would later introduce a category innovation known as the Ban Roll-On Deodorant. 

The deliberate use of metaphors has been seen across a variety of fields, from engineering to biology to operations management.  Henry Ford borrowed the metaphor of interchangeable parts from gun manufacturing and meat packing plants to imagine the Ford Motor assembly line.  The United States Army used the metaphor of Pablo Picasso’s cubist painting style to inspire the creation of camouflage to protect troops and warships.  And it took an ornithologist to help a group of Japanese engineers to see that the beak of a kingfisher bird was a relevant metaphor in redesigning the front-end of the high-speed, Shinkansen bullet train.  In each case, the breakthrough followed when the innovator was able to step away from their specific challenge and allow for the reframing of their thinking to invite a series of potential metaphors.

The truth is that producing the next big breakthrough is not as simple as 1-2-3.  Innovation is hard.  However, just thinking hard enough and long enough by the same set of experts, is not a recipe for success.  If companies genuinely want to escape their familiar ideas, it is essential that they also escape the familiar ways of doing things.  Systematically searching for and applying metaphors can unlock the ability to think what no one else is thinking and do what no one else is doing.