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Simplify Complexity with the Power of Analogies

June 22, 2016 by Edda Mann

During the last two years in my role as a design thinking coach at SAP, I experienced the power of analogies in various design thinking projects. Again and again, I was impressed by how analogies brought inspiration and value to any design thinking challenge the team faced.

Analogies create understanding, inspiration, and identification in project management by transferring aspects from one domain to another domain and fostering learning. Whenever I talk about how I have utilized the power of analogies in projects, I find the effectiveness really quite compelling. Read about two different analogy examples and our learnings in this blog and you’ll understand my enthusiasm.

What Do Software Packages and Show Houses Have in Common?

In one project, my team and I were given the challenge of designing the next generation of preconfigured and ready-to-run SAP solutions. To gather inspiration for the topic, we decided to have a look at how other industries solve similar issues. The product analogy we used was a company that provided prefabricated houses. After the onsite visit, we started to look differently at our preconfigured software solutions. As a key insight, we learned that even in this kind of “standardized” prefabricated product, every house is still unique in design and configuration. It’s all about selling a vision to the customer that everything is possible and you can plan it “your way.” The customers start with a “showcase house” as the template for a preconfigured house, and then they customize it. This led us to think differently about our standardized solutions and we began to consider them as showcase houses rather than predefined standardized products. We learned how the house company applied standardization to the components rather than to the end product, enabling them to sell the product as something individual.

Making Wine Is All About People

In a different project, the task was to think about a new business model to motivate others to provide their software products to us so we can create a ready-to-run solution as a service for them. For this challenge, a wine cooperative turned out to be a good analogy.

At the wine cooperative, we learned about the importance of people and their attitude as a critical success factor for the business model. Good wine requires the best quality grapes. But the quality isn’t assured through regulations and processes, as we would approach it at SAP. Instead, the quality is defined by the people. For this, the wine cooperative has a quality manager in place who visits the winegrowers onsite, not only to advise them about what’s best for their specific location, but also to maintain personal relations and gain trust. To a great extent, the quality is also determined by the grape harvest, which is handled by the whole family. That’s why the quality manager not only looks after each winegrower but also takes their wives’ hard work into account. We felt this was a great example of user focus and empathy.

Overall, we were very impressed by how every person responsible at the wine cooperative was proud to be an “employee of each winegrower,” passionate about making life for their winegrowers better and safeguarding their future. We learned that the success of such a business model depends on the people, and that it’s all about empathy and trust.

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Emotional Products Require Intuitive Decisions

Once the winegrowers have delivered their grapes, their job is done and other people are responsible for the further processing of the wine. This takes place in the wine cooperative’s cellar, where the cellar master is the “boss.” The cellar might look like an unromantic place, but it’s where true value is created for the winegrowers. We learned how the different wines are seen and treated by the cellar team as if they were their children – and among them, they might have some “problem children” that need special care and attention. But we also learned that it’s very well worth taking extra care of these problem children, because they might turn out to be among the best wines later on. Based on that, we started to think about whether we needed a cellar master in our project, and we created the persona of the “SAP cellar master.” One characteristic we found important for this persona was the ability not only to decide based on processes and facts, but also to follow intuition or gut feeling where necessary.

Unpacking and Synthesizing

In both analogy cases, we conducted an onsite visit as part of our research activities. Each visit included a detailed tour through the premises, so we could see and understand the end-to-end value creation process. In addition, we had a discussion session after the tour with the people responsible, where we managed to gain insights into our main questions and into their way of solving specific problems and challenges. With much knowledge and inspiration, we returned to our SAP office and shared what we had seen with our team through storytelling. After summarizing our insights, we then started to interpret what they could mean to us, and whether and how they could be applied to our challenges. Here’s why analogies can make a difference.

Analogies Help Make Sense of Complex Problems

We experienced that analogies helped greatly in making sense of findings, especially if the issues were fuzzy or complex. By referring to the prefabrication of houses or the wine making process, we succeeded in making our complex problems visual, tangible, and comprehensible. As an easy-to-understand reference, the analogy gave us a common and shared language in the team that ensured we were all talking about the same thing and understood each other.

Analogies Inspire People to Think Outside the Box

Getting out of our everyday working environment and looking at how other businesses solve similar issues gave us masses of inspiration, new impulses, and ideas. Every analogy provided us with a new perspective on our challenge and inspired us to think in new directions. Although we are experts in our field, each of our visits showed how much we could still learn.

Analogies Help Tell a Good Story

It has always been difficult to explain the abstract project challenge and our ideas to stakeholders and others outside our project team. But telling our story by using an analogy saved us lot of explanations, because the listeners could relate to something that’s familiar to them. It therefore became much easier to communicate our challenges and ideas in an understandable way, despite their complexity.

Analogies Make People Curious and Promote Design Thinking

Talking about each analogy visit made others very interested in and curious about our project, our insights, and our learnings. The analogies helped us to attract great attention to our design thinking projects through all hierarchy levels and, ultimately, turned out to be a great way to promote design thinking.

Talking about the experiences and learnings from our analogy sessions inspired design thinking practitioners within SAP as well as beyond the company. We invited the cellar master to visit the SAP AppHaus in Heidelberg to share our project results. In return, seeing the AppHaus provided him with more insight into design thinking as our innovation approach and demonstrated how we as the Design & Co-Innovation Center team use and apply it in design and co-innovation projects.

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How to Find the Right Analogy for Your Project

First, think about the main challenges and questions you’re trying to tackle. Then brainstorm other businesses or areas where similar challenges and problems occur, but in a completely different field or context. A selection of magazines with lots of pictures could help you gather a list of potential analogies.

Second, be well prepared for your visit. For example, we collected and clustered our questions up front, so we wouldn’t miss any important aspects in the discussion. Also consider taking gifts to the participants to show your appreciation and prepare a short presentation about the value of design thinking.

Get Started Now!

Ultimately, it’s about enjoying the visit. Keep your ears and eyes open and learn as much as you can. Don’t forget to have fun! Are you now inspired to use analogies for your projects? Then it’s time for you to go out to gain new perspectives! Feel free to share your stories and your experiences about using analogies in the comments section.

This story originally appeared on the SAP User Experience website.

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