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Look Left & Right: Narrowing the Innovation Gap in Government Using Analogical Thinking

Scenario #1 – Imagine you are a general in ancient times leading your army in battle. Your target is an enemy fort located in the middle of a dense forest. Given the fort’s sterling defenses, you need your entire army to conquer the fort. There are multiple roads through the forest leading to the fort. However, each road is quite narrow and lined with explosive mines. If you take your entire army down a single road, you will lose many soldiers. What do you do, General?

Give up? Divide your army into smaller units and have each of them approach the fort using a different road. In this way, each unit will avoid the impact of the mines. The key is to have all the units arrive at the fort at the same time for a unified attack.

The Need for A New Way

We all know that the number and complexity of challenges facing government today are accelerating: a deteriorating physical infrastructure, a flailing educational system, recurring mass shootings, a tsunami of under-trained blue-collar workers, the severe impact of climate change, and much more.

The need for new, out-of-the-box ideas to address these challenges has never been more apparent or direly needed.

Despite these unrelenting challenges, the collective we, as government and the private sector, seemingly lack the tools needed to make meaningful advancement. And it is not due to a lack of trying. We are just trying the wrong things.

For the most part, we take a myopic approach to innovation. We look across government and across history to guide our actions. What worked for Agency X? What worked last year?

The answers we find by answering these questions are too narrow, too predictable. Instead, government leaders and policymakers should add analogical thinking to their innovation quiver. You may not have heard of analogical thinking before but you know what it is. It can come in many forms – metaphor, simile, parable, etc. At the core of analogical thinking is the ability to solve problems outside-in instead of inside-out. 

Analogical thinking changes how we view problems and innovations. Instead of looking inward to what government has done in the past for answers, we should look outward to other (even far-flung) domains. How far-flung? Think biology, sports, medicine, or manufacturing.

This outside-in approach is also known as lateral problem-solving. The idea is that similarly vexing challenges may have been solved in analogous domains. The trick is first being able to first recognize the analog. Once you spot the structural similarity, apply the appropriate analogous action to your domain to arrive upon an answer or approach.

Seem too complex? Let’s look at a few examples.

Analogical Examples

There are countless examples of innovations arising from lateral problem solving throughout history. One such example relates to the early days of Ford Motor Company. Back in 1913, the concept for an assembly line for automobile manufacturing revolutionized the industry (and many others thereafter). However, the concept for the assembly line didn’t come from the manufacturing industry. It came from one Ford worker observing the operations of a meatpacking plant. He saw how animal carcasses were dismantled and processed using a series of pulleys and overhead trolleys. Structurally, the process of dismantling a cow was analogous to the process of building a car – except in reverse. After some wrangling, Ford applied the analogous set of actions. The moving assembly line became a staple of the Model T and the rest, as they say, is history.

Another example is the invention of Velcro. While hunting in the Swiss mountains in the 1940s, a man named George de Mestral realized that cockle-burs became rather aggressively attached to his pants and even his dog’s fur. Removal required some effort. When he inspected them more closely under a microscope, he discovered that the burr’s hooks would attach to anything that was loop-shaped. Using this natural analog, Mestral was able to produce the now ubiquitous Velcro technology.

Still not convinced? Just do a little research on the origins of Kanban in the Toyota Production System (TPS). Or dig into the history of the genesis of the Andon cord. Or search Intel’s decision to produce the low-end Celeron processor after having observing the market dynamics of the steel mill industry. The same applies to Nike’s SHOX show design and the F1 racing industry. The examples of analogous innovation go on and on.

The Lateral Path Forward

Many government officials and policymakers may believe that government is unique in its challenges and structural elements. However, much can be learned by looking laterally to one’s left and right. Thankfully, government is already applying some outside-in lessons to how it operates – especially at the local level. For example, many 311 services now include the ability for citizens to report potholes through mobile devices analogous to how Waze captures traffic slowdowns and speed trap data. Its been almost 5 years since citizens have been able to post reviews of their interactions with government agencies on Yelp. And of course, social media has empowered government to engage in more bilateral dialog with constituents in addition to issuing more frequent communications.

The most vexing problems ahead of us as a country may not be solvable by analogy alone. However, simply relying on past, already-tread approaches is akin to putting our collective head in the sand (see what I did there?). We cannot rely on entirely novel ideas to fall from the sky. While compelling, these types of innovations are also exceedingly rare and unproven. Throughout history, some of humanity’s greatest innovations have emerged through the fusion of disparate pockets of knowledge. The identification of structural similarities across domains is dry powder for catalyzing creativity and the formation of new ideas. For that reason, government leaders and policymakers must expand the set of possible solutions. They should ask “what is this problem similar to?” thereby taking a broader view of what’s possible.

Scenario #2 – Imagine you are an oncologist treating a rare stomach cancer. Given the size of the patient’s tumor, you cannot operate. However, you and your team have developed a new laser technology that can destroy the tumor without surgery. Unfortunately, in order to eradicate the tumor, you need to amplify the strength of the laser so high that it also destroys any healthy tissue it passes through. This will leave your patient debilitated. Lower intensity rays will not harm the tissue but will not destroy the tumor either. What do you do?

The answer? Look left, General. Look right, Doctor.

Wagish Bhartiya is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is a Senior Director at REI Systems where he leads the company’s Software-as-a-Service Business Unit. He created and is responsible for leading a team of more than 100 staff focused on applying software technologies to improve how government operates. Wagish leads a broad-based team that includes product development, R&D, project delivery, and customer success across State, local, Federal, and international government customers. Wagish is a regular contributor to a number of government-centric publications and has been on numerous government IT-related television programs including The Bridge which airs on WJLA-Channel 7. You can read his posts here.

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