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The Audacity Of Analogy

The story begins several years ago while working on a set of values for the company1. The eight concepts we came up with were strong and meaningful. But they failed. The values did not stick. Several of them were analogies and not direct in their intentions. The most egregious of them was, “We are running a marathon, not a sprint.”

I have seen other companies use this exact same phrase for what they want from their employees, and I cringe when I see it. The problem with analogies is that they are left open for interpretation. This interpretation gap causes problems in all uses of analogies and it is definitely not what you want in your value set.

Let’s dissect the marathon/sprint analogy.

What is a marathon?

A marathon is a footrace 26.2 miles long. It is run by individuals, and won by individuals. For the most part, those individuals train by themselves as well. The training for a marathon, especially for those in a technology company who might want to attempt a marathon, is all about pacing. The key is to find the pace at which you could run pretty much forever, assuming you continuously replenished your nutrition and water. During the event, you run at this pace, or maybe if you want to do particularly well, you push yourself a bit later on. If you go out hard, you likely won’t finish at all. This is hardly the way you want to conduct yourself at a fast moving startup.

What is a sprint?

A sprint is a footrace over a relatively short distance where you go all out as fast as you possibly can. If you vomit at the end, you’ve probably hit your max. Congratulations! While this might be more the speed of a startup, it is pretty clear that if everyone sprints all the time, no one will be around to reap the rewards of success. And there might be a lot of vomit in the halls.

Is there a better analogy?

As you can see, neither the marathon nor the sprint analogy is appropriate, though they can both be molded somewhat to make a point. Many of my colleagues responded to the analogy with, “It is more like we are running a marathon at a sprint pace” and then just rejected the value entirely. And that is exactly the problem with the analogy in general. Yes, you could craft a more appropriate one, but that would not help. In a fit of histrionics, I wrote a 1000 word essay to the whole company comparing the company to a professional cycling team working to win a Grand Tour. It was an entertaining read, but the point wasn’t to convince us to use cycling as an analogy; rather the point was to convince us not to use an analogy at all. I wanted our value to be “Sustain for the long term, but sprint when needed.” Unfortunately we stuck with the marathon analogy, and now the value has been replaced entirely.

Open for interpretation

One of my favorite analogies is, “Opinions are like assholes – everyone has one.” Not only is it true, but for me, it has a double entendre in that I find most assholes are the first ones to give you their opinion. But the most important part of the phrase is that the second part explains the first – it closes the interpretation gap by explaining itself. This is required because analogies leave themselves open for interpretation.

I have seen groups of grown men start a discussion with an analogy thinking that a good point is being made, and then the conversation focused around reworking the analogy instead of making plain points and counterpoints until a resolution was agreed upon. This is not an effective way to reach a conclusion. Not only does it take longer, but at the end, it is not clear that you have all agreed on the same thing, because the analogy is still wide open for interpretation.

In these cases, as in most, it is best to use direct language when communicating. In a discussion where everyone understands the topic, there is no need for an analogy.

When should I use an analogy?

Analogies are an important tool of communication. They are so important that Douglas Hofstadter wrote a book with the premise: “Analogy is the core of all thinking.” I am not one to argue with Dr. Hofstadter.

Analogies are most useful when you are describing a complex concept to someone who does not have the background needed to fully understand it. A good analogy can be a helpful starting point to orient the other person’s understanding. Once the other person understands the basics, it is time to move away from the analogy and speak in direct terms about the concept. That will help make all points very clear.

For example, in a discussion with a non-technical colleague, it is perfectly reasonable for me to start a conversation about a queue and worker thread model by drawing comparison to an assembly line. But once the conversation starts to move towards questioning why more widgets cannot come off the assembly line faster, or why more workers cannot be added to the assembly line, the discussion needs to move towards real details. The details themselves might start with an orienting analogy (the famous “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned”2 comes to mind), but once the other participant is oriented, real details should be discussed in an analogy-free way.

  1. I was part of the management team at the time, so any values agreed upon and analogies used are my fault as much as anyone else’s. This is not an indictment of the team, merely an example of the fault of analogies. 

  2. This concept is known as Brook’s Law and is attributed to Fred Brooks and the point he made in “The Mythical Man Month.”