Do the most creative among us think differently? If so, how?
ALIEN THINKING is a book about the importance of thinking differently and questioning your assumptions to come up with breakthrough solutions. I talk to its three co-authors – Cyril Bouquet, Mike Wade and Jean-Louis Barsoux – all professors at IMD business school in Lausanne (Switzerland) about their new work. Learning how the most innovative leaders step back and see the big picture, assess the underlying issue, and then approach the solutions in a systemic, realistic way helped me see things in an entirely new way. I think you will find our dialogue full of useful information to help you think differently.
Talk about the findings of a testosterone measurement study and its relationship to innovation.
Cyril Bouquet: Very early on in my academic career, I was part of a research team that was looking into the possible genetic drivers of innovation. As a junior researcher, I had the unenviable task of collecting saliva samples from dozens of participants.
A controversial finding from the study was that entrepreneurs had higher levels of testosterone than non-entrepreneurs. It seemed that there was a genetic propensity to becoming an entrepreneur. But this proved to be a false conclusion.
Subsequent studies revealed that the causality is reversed. It turns out that higher testosterone levels are a consequence of engaging in stressful innovation activity, not a driver of it.
That finding has stuck with me. It underpins my core belief that anyone has the potential to innovate – and that it is not predetermined by our DNA.
Our book reflects this notion that the ability to innovate is not a gift but rather a mindset and a set of skills you can learn and improve.
For those who haven’t read your book yet, what is ALIEN THINKING and who are some of the aliens you studied?
Jean-Louis Barsoux: ALIEN thinking is an easy-to-recall approach to breakthrough innovation. It’s a metaphor for approaching problems with an open mind and a fresh perspective. But it’s also an acronym that stands for the five core pillars of innovation: Attention, Levitation, Imagination, Experimentation, and Navigation.
Most of the aliens we studied are not household names. We tried to avoid celebrities as their stories are often too well known or too extraordinary to be relatable. Instead we studied innovators who had come up with breakthrough solutions in different walks of life: like a bus designer who trained rats to sniff out landmines; an financial services employee who used her organization’s aggregated data for philanthropic purposes to help charities fundraise; a former car mechanic who invented a safer device to help free babies stuck in the birthing canal; a psychiatrist who became the first person to fly round the world without using fuel; and a former inmate who leveraged her prison experience to devise a smarter way of assessing job or loan applicants with criminal records.
So, we draw on very diverse examples of innovation – from science through to sports and from architecture through to social innovation – and the framework is really meant to help anybody who is facing challenges and looking to come up with original solutions.
Distinguish some of the characteristics of unconventional thinkers. What are some of the traits common to them?
CB: Unconventional thinkers are often portrayed as rebels. A well-known example is Steve Jobs’ famous celebration of innovators as the “crazy ones” or mavericks who create change by ignoring the rules and conventions. And long before Jobs, there was George Bernard Shaw’s classic assertion that “All progress depends on the unreasonable [person].” But these are dangerous half-truths, especially for someone working within an organization.
While the alien thinkers we studied all had a rebellious streak that pushed them to challenge assumptions that others took for granted, they typically possessed two other qualities.
First, passion. They are “rebels with a cause”. It’s their passion that drives their curiosity, persistence, and resilience to setbacks and opposition. The changemakers we studied were not loose cannons, troublemakers or anarchists, causing disruption for personal gain or for the sake of it. They are unconventional thinkers trying to find better ways of tackling meaningful problems and coming up with truly original solutions.
The second key quality is flexibility. To successfully pursue radical innovation, alien thinkers need to be what David Gram, former head of ventures at LEGO, calls “diplomatic rebels”. In other words, their willingness to challenge existing beliefs and practices is tempered by their understanding of different viewpoints and their ability to adapt their arguments accordingly. They can read the ecosystem, understand the rules they plan to break, and find common ground with potential supporters or blockers.
The best innovators show a capacity to balance these two contradictory qualities of focus and flexibility. Typically, they are resolutely committed to the overarching goal, while remaining adaptable on the means to reach it.
How can we overcome the distortions and blinkers, developed from our experiences and training, that impede our breakthrough thinking?
Michael Wade: A lot of innovation models tell you what to do, without really explaining why it’s so hard to do it.
Before you can start innovating, you have to appreciate the cognitive biases that stand in the way at different stages of the process – and how your expertise can actually lead you to focus on the wrong problems, or to jump to solutions, or to stick too long with a bad idea.
Perhaps the most disruptive bias is what the French call “déformation professionelle”. This is our tendency to see the world through the distorting lens of our professional experience – as engineers, as accountants, lawyers, teachers or whatever. This can trip us up throughout the innovation process.
It influences what we pay attention to and how we make sense of the information. It also impacts the types of ideas we generate and what aspects we emphasize or neglect during testing. And ultimately, it also impacts how we try to convince others about our solution and what arguments we use.
The first antidote is to be aware of that bias and think through how it influences your thinking at different stages of innovation. Another remedy is to test your thinking on people with different perspectives from yours – and to heed their input. If there is no one suitable to call on, then you can try to adopt the perspective of a child, a devil’s advocate or an alien to counteract your inbuilt biases.
How do the most innovative leaders use Attention to see things from different perspectives?
CB: Innovative leaders encourage their team members to reflect on and challenge their default perspective. To identify weak signals that might normally go unnoticed, leaders can push their teams to pay attention in three different but complementary ways.
First, “zoom-in” to look at the users or the situation from close-quarters – as an anthropologist would do. For example, a decade ago Lego sent out researchers to spend time with families to observe how kids really played rather than how kids or their parents said they played. The findings contradicted many key assumptions within Lego, notably the preconception that girls were not really into construction games.
Second, “zoom-out” to take in the big picture and spot emerging trends in the aggregated data – as a sociologist would do – for example, by mining the value in customer complaints. Back in the mid-1990s, the Chinese consumer appliance maker, Haier, noticed a spike in complaints from consumers in rural areas. On investigation, they learned that some were using their machines to wash potatoes, which was clogging up the drainage hose. Haier responded by producing a specially adapted model that could handle both needs and the first 10,000 machines sold out immediately.
And third, “switch focus” to consider the perspective of communities of fringe users – people with an alternative take on your offerings. For example, SC Johnson, a manufacturer of household cleaning supplies, derived insights from the unmet needs of hygiene-obsessed OCD sufferers; and Lego started to look more closely at creative uses of their bricks by adult fans – which inspired Lego’s architectural line. Obviously, the proliferation of online communities has made it all the easier to tap into what is going on in those niche groups.
And by taking advantage of those three alternative vantage points, leaders can help their teams develop fresh insights.
How about Levitation – as most of us feel overwhelmingly busy, it is hard, but important to take time away. Talk about this.
JLB: We know that levitation is kind of an unusual term – but we feel it fits well with the ALIEN metaphor.
Levitation is really about the need to step away to regain perspective – not just once, but at various stages throughout the innovation process – whether it’s to reconsider the problem or your approach to it – or the solution itself.
This sensemaking activity is generally overlooked in popular innovation frameworks, which often emphasize speed and action over reflection and strategic breaks. To innovate, you really need to find time to consolidate your learning.
Levitation is about tapping into the unconscious capabilities of the ‘mind at rest’ which is free to roam and to make sense of you’ve experienced. Paradoxically, your mind is more active when you’re passive than when you’re performing a task.
And we identify two forms of levitation. First, you can have a “time-out” like in sport – in other words, a pause to make sense of what you’ve done, see what it’s adding up to and what needs to change going forward.
And second, you have “time-off” – which is more like a complete change of activity that helps you to recharge but also feeds your mind with unrelated ideas and new ways of looking at things. It prepares your mind to make unexpected connections.
In a relentlessly fast-paced context, restorative breaks are critical to both creativity and productivity. They are part of performance not a distraction from it. And of course, such breaks are more effective when you disconnect fully from technology. Only then is your mind free to wander.
What are some ways to fuel our Imagination?
MW: There are lots of techniques to encourage lateral thinking and creativity. For example, the musician and producer, Brian Eno, developed a card deck of “oblique strategies” to help bands and artists like David Bowie and David Byrne get out of their creative ruts. The cards could be pulled at random and gave advice like swap instruments or amplify the most embarrassing detail.
When we help executive teams generate ideas, we find that the key is not so much the specific technique but rather their mindset as they approach the task. We often start out by asking them to draw their neighbor in just two minutes. The aim is to help them let go of their inhibitions and stop worrying about the judgment of others – and to encourage them to lighten up and adopt a more playful frame of mind.
Another key, before diving into solution mode, is to focus on asking better questions. Questions starting with the words “why not…” and “what if…” help you to take a more exploratory approach and to play around with constraints or presumed requirements – for example, to discard an imperative or add a constraint. Such prompts help people let go of standard recipes and set their minds off on new tangents.
Experimentation. The process of turning a promising idea into a workable solution. What makes a good test?
JLB: Innovators engage in experimentation to determine whether their idea has merit. The big risk, as you start testing your precious idea, is that you design tests to support your thinking – you avoid tough crowds and harsh environments, you don’t look for perspectives that might stretch your thinking.
The Segway story is a good example. Based on dynamic stabilizing technology, the product itself was developed under wraps using internal feedback only. This made it vulnerable to confirmatory biases. When Dean Kamen finally invited outsiders Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos to test the prototype, Kamen’s team focused on the visitors’ amazed reactions to the cool technology but dismissed their reservations about the design and regulatory issues – or indeed its value proposition compared, say, to a kick-scooter, a bike or a moped. Last year, production of the machine that was expected to revolutionize urban mobility stopped completely.
The aim of testing is not just to show that your solution works, but that it solves a real problem. Experimentation must be designed to improve, not just to prove your idea.
Navigation is one that I loved to see because you didn’t stop with the idea, but how it is adopted. And it almost seems like a parallel process or skill. Tell us more about your findings.
MW: A consistent problem across innovation models is that the final phase is often labelled “implementation” – which makes it sound pretty straightforward. It’s like “The time for creative thinking is over – now’s the time for doing.”
We prefer the term navigation because it underlines the need for flexibility and ingenuity to get past the hostile forces that stand in the way of your innovation. A big surprise for many intrapreneurs is the level of resistance they meet from within their own organizations. We refer to this as the “corporate immune system” and it can kick in whenever the status quo is threatened. To avoid triggering it, you need to find ways of emphasizing the sense of continuity with the corporate values and purpose – rather than the disruptive qualities of your innovation.
Of course, beyond your organization, there is a whole ecosystem of players you need to engage with or neutralize to bring your innovation to market. Navigation also captures the need to adapt your pitch and your approach to the interests of the different stakeholders.
A great example is Malcom McLean who revolutionized the shipping industry with the concept of containerization. But coming up with standardized containers that could be transferred from trucks to ships and stacked on top of each other was the easy part. The real challenge was navigating between the multiple stakeholders – including trucking companies, port authorities, dockworker unions, railroad lobbies, and shipping companies – to make this a viable solution.
Unorthodox thinking is required throughout the innovation process.
For more information, see ALIEN THINKING: The Unconventional Path to Breakthrough Ideas.
Image Credit: Sergey Turkin