Thomas Edison famously said that genius requires “1percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Edison’s third criterion for would-be innovators is less well-known but perhaps even more vital: “a logical mind that sees analogies.”
To make an analogy is to make a comparison that suggests parallels or similarities between two distinct things and these connections have advanced some of the most important breakthroughs in history. These include the printing press, the airplane, the computer desktop and the assembly line, all of which were developed by the use of key conceptual analogies.
How overhead trolleys in a meatpacking plant unlocked the potential of Ford’s Model T
Credit for the moving assembly line is often attributed to Henry Ford, but it was actually the brainchild of a young Ford mechanic named Bill Klann. After observing butchers at a meatpacking plant disassembling carcasses moving past them along an overhead trolley, Klann conceived a similar process by adding pieces to a chassis moving along rails.
Overcoming significant management skepticism, Klann and his cohorts built a moving assembly line. Within four months, Ford’s line had cut the time it took to build a Model T from 12 hours per vehicle to just 90 minutes. In short order, the moving assembly line revolutionized manufacturing and unlocked trillion of dollars in economic potential. And while in retrospect this innovation may seem like a simple, obvious step forward, it wasn’t; the underlying analogy between moving disassembly and moving assembly had eluded everyone until Klann grasped its potential.
Similarly, Steve Jobs recognized that the digital “desktop,” first developed but unappreciated at Xerox PARC, was an analogy that could make computers accessible to millions of people—an insight he put to work when he launched the first Mac. That breakthrough machine (and the imitators that followed) quickly democratized computing and ushered in today’s informative age.
Jobs always pushed for simplicity in design because, as he used to say, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” That’s how analogies work too: They make complicated things easier for people to grasp by stripping them to their essence. The very best analogies make things as simple as possible—but no simpler.
Some analogies ring true at first but collapse on closer examination. For example, centuries of would-be aviators modeled their machines after birds in an attempt to flap their way aloft. Although the Wright Brothers adopted the curved profile of the bird wing, flapping had nothing to do with the intrinsic aerodynamics of flight; rather, it reflected challenges of propulsion unique to birds.
The Wright’s, by contrast, saw an analogy to the machine that they already designed, manufactured and repaired for a living—the bicycle. Both were unstable vehicles requiring nuanced balance and control in three dimensions; both fell if they lost too much forward momentum. The design decisions this analogy inspired enabled them to make history at Kitty Hawk.
Clearly, those of us that are most adept at seeing parallels and connections rather than just the obvious differences, compete best. But it’s never too late to learn. Given our inquiring minds, why remain permanently superficial when we can adapt the power of analogy to launch our own careers.