The power of analogy

It is often claimed that one of the greatest strengths of people in the operational research profession is that they can look at a practical problem and draw an analogy with a similar problem in another business or commercial enterprise.  (O.R. people have many strengths, so, if you are one, pat yourself on the back for the practical skills and strengths that you possess.)  The topic of queues is often given as an example of this power of drawing parallels - relating the problems of scheduling traffic lights to the problems of stocking infrequently used spare parts to the problems of staffing call centres.  But it applies in so many other areas as well - the design of rotas for bus drivers is the same sort of problem as making a plan for locating health clinics in a developing country. 

A couple of things came up earlier this year, which were vaguely related to one another, and where I felt that the skill of drawing parallels ought to have been used.  And, thinking about why the proposed solutions were less than ideal, I recalled a text-book which we sometimes used with undergraduate students and prospective students as preliminary reading.  It was the book "How to Solve it" by George Polya.  Polya was a polymath, but O.R. people probably know him best for that popular book, and  for his writing on problem solving in general.  He encouraged readers to use "The power of analogy" to help them approach and solve problems, whether they were mathematical or commercial.  Drawing an analogy and using the skill of recognising parallels between problems are the same kind of ability. 

(amusingly, a few days after recollecting Polya's "Power of analogy", I found a second-hand copy of "How to solve it" ... coincidences happen.)

These thoughts were triggered by two news stories.  In Devon, agriculture and tourism are major contributors to the county's economy.  We have a benign climate, which is good for both.  However, tourism depends on people wanting to travel to this part of the UK, rather than any other destination.  So there must be something to attract them.  And, within the county, there is naturally some competition and rivalry between different areas.  So, inevitably, those involved in the tourism industry try to develop Unique Selling Points (USPs) for their locality. 

Anyway, investors from two towns in the county made proposals for spending money on new developments.  One proposed a land train through the town; the other proposed moving a theatre from its site on the shore to a man-made island.  In each case, the proponents claimed that these developments would lead to USPs for the locality. 

But, suppose we use the power of analogy.  Why do you choose a holiday destination?  Would I go to a place simply because it possessed a theatre on an island, or a land train?  Those were the questions that the proponents should have asked.  Do you choose town A over town B because it has a land train through the town?  A few people might do so, but the majority would simply accept it as a small piece of the holiday mixture.  And some extra people might go to town C because it would be exciting to go to a theatre on an island, but the marginal increase in tourism is likely to be slight.  The proposers should have drawn an analogy with their own holiday habits.  "Would I go to a place simply because ...?" is the analogy question. 

Now, I am not despising investment in tourism.  But changing one thing in a locality is not going to change the holiday-maker's attitude towards that place very much.  Investment, in a mixture of facilities, may boost tourism by changing the attitudes of potential visitors, but the decision-makers need to step back, draw analogies with their own attitudes, and decide whether spending money on local facilities will affect the perception held by potential visitors. 

And I recall the failure of Exeter's Maritime Museum.  It was a very nice place, with many interesting boats to see, laid out reasonably well.  But it didn't draw enough visitors to thrive.  Why not?  It was a little way away from the city centre, the principal USP for the city.  And many holiday-makers in Devon come to Exeter when the weather is wet, so they can't go to the beach or the moors.  And walking round a museum which is partly out-of-doors on a wet day is not attractive. 


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