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"A mind once stretched by new thoughts can never regain its original shape."
-Albert Einstein

BCG's online "metaphor engine" is a Web-based interactive collection of more than 250 cognitive metaphors that foster strategic and innovative thinking by making ideas from the world outside business useful for the business strategist. The approach is based on the belief in the power of metaphor to unlock valuable insights.

Through research in non-business domains, such as evolutionary biology, history, philosophy, and anthropology, the Metaphor Engine staff assembles examples of breakthrough thinking regarding strategic dynamics and outcomes. This multidisciplinary approach lets us see familiar issues with "a new set of eyes" and generate new frameworks for thinking about business strategy.

Although the materials in the Metaphor Engine do not purport to provide solutions that can be applied specifically to consulting assignments, they do provide inspiration and a point of departure for thinking about larger strategic issues.

Publications on Metaphorical Thinking

The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors

This essay explains the theory of the cognitive metaphor and its relevance to business, demonstrating that although many managers try to draw business lessons from other disciplines, most do it badly. Rather than being seduced by the similarities shared by business and another field, managers need instead to identify places where the metaphor breaks down. This is where the process of strategic thinking starts.

Tiha von Ghyczy, "The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors," Harvard Business Review, September 2003.

Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer

Ignorance management is arguably a more valuable skill than knowledge management. Mastering it requires learning four basic principles:

  • The Principle of Deferment: Resist the temptation to fill every vacuum of ideas with ready knowledge.

  • The Principle of Prematurity: Be willing to accept and adjust to unforeseen circumstances.

  • The Principle of Irrelevance: Explore the seemingly irrelevant through metaphor and analogy.

  • The Principle of Waste: Recognize that the only way to get one good idea is to get lots of ideas and then identify the best.

Addressing these four principles is the first step to using the richness of ignorance.

David Gray, "Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer," Harvard Business Review, November 2003.

Hänsel und Gretel und die Kuba-Krise (Hansel and Gretel and the Cuban Missile Crisis)

Hansel and Gretel and the Cuban Missile Crisis, gift-giving rituals among the Trobriand Islanders, and Alexander von Humboldt's journey to Orinoco: these three events and histories provide a few of the 13 ways to see strategy from new angles. Through them we can encourage today's managers to ask questions that are not obvious but are essential for the success of their business.

In this volume, the author covers such topics as innovation, change, orientation in a crisis, human resources management, departures in business, detours, redefining the rules, space, and identity.

Bolko von Oetinger, Hänsel und Gretel und die Kuba-Krise, 13 Wege Strategie Neu zu Denken (Munich: Carl-Hanser Verlag, 2006).

Available only in German. This is also available as an audio book.

In Praise of Feedership

Calls for competitive excellence are often buttressed by grim references to the twin notions of "survival of the fittest" and the "struggle for existence." A closer look at the biological marvels of parasitism reveals that much may be gained by lowering one's defenses.

The parasite needs to be smart: it lives on the host, but it must not kill the host. This essay by Tiha von Ghyczy generates many questions for further thinking: What can we, considering such challenges as climate change and man-made environmental damage, learn from parasites? Why did the dinosaurs—in a Darwinian sense, the fittest life forms on earth—perish, while the parasites survived? And do we have parasitic relationships in business as well? If so, how can we make good use of them?

Tiha von Ghyczy and Janis Antonovics, "In Praise of Feedership" in Breakthrough Ideas for 2005, Harvard Business Review, 2005.

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