How a sideways look can help you get ahead

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For some innovation challenges, solutions already exist – it’s just that your industry doesn’t know about them yet. Dyson is the classic example – its iconic vacuum cleaner cyclonic separation technology was originally being used to separate particulates in sawmills. By identifying and linking a seemingly unrelated market opportunity with the technology for cyclonic separation, a $4.8 billion revenue vacuum giant was born.

Cyclonic separation is now considered the norm in vacuum cleaners. But it is only after the dots have been connected between the consumer’s requirement for separating dust from air and the cyclonic separation technology, that the link seems painfully obvious. Making these links is something which we do systematically through a process called technology mapping.

Inspiration by analogy – or design by analogy – is an outcome from our technology mapping process, finding broadly related industries, products or services that share a common focus yet often use a different perspective to find solutions. The idea of observing and ‘borrowing’ technology from other industries is a powerful tool for creative concept generation and tech scouting exercises.

So, what can be gained from borrowing technology? There’s a chance that someone, somewhere else is doing what you’re trying to do in a better, cheaper, more efficient way. Tapping into this knowledge opens up possibilities for radical innovation with novel solutions. But where might you start the process of searching for analogous solutions and how do you extract value from this technique?

The value of design by analogy will start with how your challenge is defined – you have to identify the right job and need to address. The well-quoted example is if you are a power tool company designing a new drill, the customer actually does not want a bigger motor or better speed control, but a better way of making holes in walls. By focusing on the job and associated needs, and abstracting their definition, you invite solutions that you may never have considered.

A well-defined challenge is essential to successfully scoping analogous fields – more difficult than you may think because it can lead to unintended consequences. You probably already know how your product should work, what it should look like, how it should be manufactured and how much it must cost to be profitable. By knowing what a product should and should not be, you can iterate, optimise and improve. While this works very well, however, it is unlikely to inspire anything game-changing.

To tap into the benefits of design by analogy, stay clear of the detail of today’s solutions. Broaden the definition of the challenge and consider the basic elements of the need you are trying to meet. The definition has to be expressed in such a way that almost anyone can understand it. Now you’ve opened up the contextual relevance to expert problem solvers from distant fields who can understand the context of your challenge. They may know nothing of how your product works, what it looks like, how it’s manufactured or how much it should cost – but fundamentally they could be doing exactly what you’re trying to do every day.

It is by framing the challenge in a way that others can relate their field-specific knowledge to – and by not getting buried in the specifics – that novel ideas are conceived and technologies sourced. The obvious candidate solution others deal with every day in their field could be a breakthrough revelation in your industry.

Let’s say you’re trying to design a coronary stent. You might look for analogy in scaffolding structures or perhaps aeroplanes or a plant lumen – all of which have engineered minimalist support structures to deal with external loads. Once these analogous fields have been identified, the right science and technology knowledge is required to develop them. You’ll need people with a deep understanding of those areas. This is where collaboration or ‘open innovation’ can become powerful.

The beauty of working within such a collaboration is the ability to explore much further afield by pooling together creative thinkers with expertise of different backgrounds versed in a range of analogous fields. Through collective knowledge and experience, you have the power to look at problems in a new light with a healthy variety of perspectives, without ingrained constraints and assumptions.

So next time you’re defining a challenge and tech scouting, it may be worth considering design by analogy. Find fresh insight beyond the usual assumptions and constraints within your industry for ideas that are truly novel and a source of groundbreaking innovation.

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Jack Hornsby

Mechanical Engineer