Expert View: Some buzz phrases should stay in the box

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The Independent Online

"Out of the box. I want you to be out of the box." Business buzz phrases are dangerous, particularly when issued as an instruction. But I rose to the conference organiser's challenge: "If you have a taste for lateral thinking, I shall give you a feast. My session will be on the Fall of France."

"Out of the box. I want you to be out of the box." Business buzz phrases are dangerous, particularly when issued as an instruction. But I rose to the conference organiser's challenge: "If you have a taste for lateral thinking, I shall give you a feast. My session will be on the Fall of France."

The use of analogies is crucial in human perception. The recognition of behaviour patterns in others allows us to adjust our stratagems.

My lecture on the Fall of France was based on Julian Jackson's analysis of the meltdown of an entire country in the face of the Nazi attack.

The French strategic thinking was fatally flawed. Their battle plan was rigid, with no allowance for contingencies. The allocation of resources was haphazard. They lacked proper intelligence and had poor morale. In contrast, the German planning was flexible, with authority delegated to a lower level and superior use of technology. While the Germans were a bit more efficient, their self-belief, and propaganda, magnified relatively small advantages.

The use of case studies such as this is becoming more common in business schools and the larger corporations. Snappy analogies are also central to most business gurus' books. Take Andrew Main'sOther People's Money, which deals with the scandal surrounding HIH. The Australian insurer's 2000 accounts were "starting to look like a termite-ridden house held together by wall- paper, lead-based paint and old carpet", wrote Mr Main. The company "was essentially a car with a steaming radiator pulling in at the re-insurer's hypothetical service station".

Such analogies work as they link new ideas with concepts already established in the reader's mind. For example, the development of accountancy and book-keeping was taught in the 19th century using analogies based on physics. Likewise, as the computer age dawned, early IT strategists used analogies to library cataloguing to create the early data warehouses.

Analogies in business can be what psychologists call "near' or "far". For example, if you were designing a new product, you could try to establish market demand and product specification by looking at similar, existing products - a near analogy. But psychologists have found that far analogies lead to the greatest creativity. The example has been cited of a manager creating a new road system: he has a choice between studying existing roads or, say, considering the body's circulatory system and starting afresh. The most successful product design often comes from this kind of off-the-wall thinking.

The approach has pitfalls, however. The endless sports analogies in the US have perpetutaed a clubbish atmosphere at the top of business which often excludes those who aren't white, male or into baseball. And military models can lead to business being treated as a great conflict, directed at competitors not at clients. Equally, taking ideas at the front of the public mind and applying them indiscriminately is dangerous. The current buzz in asset liability modelling is based on the Rumsfeldian concept of "regime change" - perhaps an analogy too far.

The French generals had been taught to think from rigid, out-of-date, military manuals. What if they had been "out of the box"?

christopher.walker@tiscali.co.uk

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