Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Skills: Paradigms and Metaphors

Image by Igor Putina under creative commons license
A key to innovative thinking is the ability to learn new paradigms and apply them as metaphors.  A paradigm is simply a model for how some part of the world works. This could be engineering related like reciprocal engines, capacitive touch screens, wireless communications, etc.  or about any other aspect of life, like supply and demand, bourgeois revolutions, or the macarena trend.  The important part is being able to distill something you’ve learned into a general concept.

When you read an article, a book, attend a lecture, or just have an enlightened discussion,  try to distill what you just learned into a couple of sentences that captures the essence of what you just learned. For instance, many of you are probably familiar with the urban myth of how Gillette invented the disposable razor blade (true) and also the business strategy around it (not true).  The basic story is that Gillette invented a way to make razor blades so cheaply that they could be disposable. The advantage was that you’d always have a new sharp razor blade.  But it was hard to get people to buy into this. So he started giving away the razors for free knowing that once people were hooked, he’d be able to sell them blades for life. This is the “Give 'em the razor; sell 'em the blades" strategy. Though the story may not be completely true, the paradigm behind it is very valid, and it’s the important lesson here. This is often referred to as “freebie marketing.”

Now you’ve condensed an entire story into two words. This is very powerful because you can now apply this concept to other problems and situations easily. When we apply paradigms to other situations, we are using them as metaphors.  This is an extremely valuable tool for communication.  For instance, instead of saying everything in the paragraph above, I could just say, “We can try a razer blade strategy,” and your collaborators will know what you mean.

It’s easy to see how applying a paradigm to a similar situation makes sense. It’s not much of a metal stretch to apply the razor blade strategy to other products like printers (and cartridges).  However, when you start thinking of the paradigm as a metaphor rather than a direct strategy, you can apply it more loosely to situations that are less obvious. And less obvious = more innovative.

For instance, let’s say you’re talking about trying to get agricultural growers to use less water, but no one will invest in drip irrigation because the upfront costs are too high.  Sift through the metaphors in your mind and try them out.  For instance, we could set it up “like razor blades”.  Give away irrigation systems but use proprietary hoses so that you make the money back in replacement parts.

Will this idea work?  Don’t know.  But over your lifetime you will collect tens of thousands of paradigms which you can apply as metaphors to any situation.  It’s a way to expand thinking outside of the typical solutions.  Now there’s no shortage of ideas to explore, and one of those may inspire a new line of thinking that leads to the innovative solution.

You can also use the paradigms you already have in your head to make digesting new content easier.  As you read a story, you can summarize and distill as you go. “Oh, this is just like razor blades except that they are making their money on services rather than products.”  For some people, this makes it easier to pull out the nuggets of wisdom.  But whether you do this while you read or afterwards, the goal is to take a complex concept, understand it, and then distill it into a paradigm that you can easily access in other situations.  This collection of paradigms is your basic toolset for developing innovative ideas.  Try it now.  On this Blog.  And the next one you read.