“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never known what you’re gonna get.” This famous analogy from the beloved Forrest Gump helps the audience gain an insight into the mysterious and random workings of life by comparing it to a more material object: a box of chocolates. The randomness of what you find in a box of chocolates is the common trait compared with the randomness of what you get in life.
So why do we use analogies in our communication?
The purpose of using analogies is to help understand unknown or more obscure concepts by comparing them to more familiar ones.
There are two main elements involved in the construction of an analogy: the concept we are trying to understand better- the target and the known concept used to explain it- otherwise called the source. For the analogy to work, these two elements must have enough in common in order to support the comparison. In the example above, the target is “life”, whereas the source is “the box of chocolates”.
Analogies can be useful to make shortcuts in thinking, but this is also what could make them rather damaging and even dangerous. If the analogy is false, relying on its truthiness can lead us to make false assumptions about new concepts we are trying to understand.
Let’s look at a classic analogy to better appreciate the significance of critical thinking.
Business is a Game. Or Is It?
An Example of False Analogy
The idea that business is a game has been repeated so many times, that most of us tend to accept it and not take the time to analyse it critically and check its validity.
To do just that, Daryl Koehn deconstructed the different attributes which make up a game and checked their applicability to business.
What was the outcome?
A Game is Played to Win
No-one can argue against this fact. Yes, we might engage in a game to have a good time, to interact with others or to spend time socially, but a game will always have a clear winner and loser(s).
A business, on the other hand cannot survive on this premise. A base for collaboration between management, employees, suppliers, partners and customers should be the name of the game.
“Viewing business as a game like poker commits management to seeing its customers, employees and suppliers as people over whom to score a triumph. […] In business, unlike in a game, human relations are likely to be permanently fractured if one or the other party loses”.
In Games, Losers Suffer Few Consequences
Koehn argues that those who lose in a game are perfectly aware of this possibility. This doesn’t stop them from playing the game, because the consequences of losing are not severe. Losing graciously should be part of playing. Of course, cases such as poker players who gamble away without being able to stop cannot be considered exceptions, because these are more addicts than participants in a game.
In business on the other hand the risks are much higher. The consequences of launching a new product without proper testing, just to be ahead of the competition can have far reaching negative effects. Employees can lose their jobs, whole communities could suffer and government taxes can also experience negative impacts.
“ In business, unlike in games, there is no “winner-take-all”, if indeed there are even winners in any conventional sense of the word.”
If right now you are thinking of “winners” like Jeff Bezos who does seem to take and have it all (contrasted by his protesting workers who demand a $30 minimum wage), consider for a minute the devastating consequences his business is creating, the environmental footprint being just one of these. Even Jeff Bezos and his offspring will one day have to face these consequences. Who will be the winner then?
A Game is Constituted by Certain Rules
In football the ball is out of play when it has completely crossed the touchlines or the goals lines. If someone asks why, the answer is simple- this is the rule! Exceptions cannot be granted.
In business on the other hand, there are guidelines which can change and could also have exceptions. As long as the practices are within the limits of the law, one could argue that anything is permitted.
“It is of little help to suggest that the businesspeople, like poker players, can do whatever it takes to win, as long as they stay within the rules, given that business lacks the rules poker has.”
The Rules of the Game are Fixed
In a game everybody knows the rules of the game before engaging in it, these are fixed and rarely change. Even if there are proposals to change the rules, these suggestions are extensively discussed and if approved, implemented and communicated before the start of the game.
In business on the other hand, things change all the time, reiterations are made, strategies adjusted. Not only are these practices accepted, they are actually encouraged for the business to evolve and improve.
“Even if there were a business rule that one could deceive competitors or customers, there would be no reason why this rule could not change tomorrow if business practitioners started to trust rather than deceive one another.”
Rules of the Game are Accepted by All Who Play the Game
In poker everyone is aware of the rules which must be respected should they wish to enter a game. Bluffing is also an accepted practice and players do not complain when they happen to lose to someone who bluffs.
However, in business should there be any deceit, not all the employees are aware of it or responsible for its consequences.
“Bluffing and lying in business are problematic in part because all parties to the transaction have not agreed to using deceit and misrepresentation in the conduct of the exchange.”
Players Act Intermittently
A game can stop and restart at any point, without devastating consequences.
By contrast, businesses cannot be put on hold without bearing an impact on the lives and communities around it.
“If the game of chess or poker were to disappear from the world scene, life would go on with little disruption.”
In Games the Scope for Bluffing is Quite Narrow and Well-Understood
When someone bluffs at poker, their options are limited: they will either pretend to hold better or worse cards than they actually do. Furthermore, all the other players are well aware of this.
In business though, “the possibilities are as limitless as human creativity”
“Overstatements, deceits and bluffs by business may have far-reaching ramifications for both domestic and foreign policy in a world in which business greatly influences the conduct of each.”
Players in a Game Risk Only What is Theirs to Risk
Even if a card game player decides to “go all in” with funds he doesn’t actually possess, he is conscious of the fact that he will need to pay back any potential debts. Similarly, athletes risk injuring their own bodies.
In business, however, management can decide to borrow against the company’s assets as part of a sham to deceive the competition that it’s planning an acquisition, thus risking assets which do not belong to them.
“Given that no ordinary citizen is morally entitled to speculate with funds belonging to someone else, it is hard to see how business management could be so justified.”
In a Game It Is Clear to Whom Any Gain Belongs
While in a game the gains belong to the winner and their team, in business an apparent loss could in fact be a gain for a deceiving CEO.
“One can well imagine a CEO who intentionally manages matters in such a way that he will be let go from the firm with a golden parachute package far more lucrative than his current salary. The firm may have been driven into the ground under his management.”
So there you have it. A common analogy- business is like a game- deconstructed and rebutted. The learning here is that a fake analogy is not always easy to spot. Critical thinking can help us with that.