If you’re like a lot of people, you’re tired of being told you have biases. But you do. We all do.
Some of those biases affect the way we solve problems. They can be so entrenched that we remain stuck in well-worn patterns of thinking. The result is missed opportunities.
Three innovative professors at the Institute for Management Development can help. Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux, and Michael Wade give us a make-sense formula for solving big problems in any field. Their book is A.L.I.E.N. Thinking: The Unconventional Path to Breakthrough Ideas.
As their title suggests, the authors say people who generate truly breakthrough ideas look at their world like aliens—outsiders who are unburdened by the assumptions, biases, and conventional thinking that constrain imagination.
They provide five strategies to help people adjust their lenses to see as an alien would:
- A – Attention– look closely and with fresh eyes to observe problems that need to be solved, opportunities worth addressing, and solutions that can be dramatically improved or revised
- L – Levitation– step back from the creative process to gain perspective and enrich your understanding
- I – Imagination– recognize hard-to-see patterns and to connect seemingly disparate dots to imagine unorthodox combinations
- E – Experimentation– test ideas quickly and smartly, with the goal of improving – not just proving – your idea
- N – Navigation– deal with potentially hostile environments and adjust to the forces that can make or break your solution
This is not just an academic model. These guys report many dozens of fascinating examples where ALIEN thinking has produced eye-popping results.
Listen in on our conversation.
Rodger Dean Duncan: The five components of the ALIEN framework make for a catchy acronym. But does successful innovation necessarily unfold in a particular sequence?
Cyril Bouquet: You’re right. One of our key arguments is that innovation unfolds in unpredictable ways. It doesn’t always start with attention to an overlooked problem. It could start with a sudden brainwave or a failed experiment. For example, Wikipedia began as an attempt to rescue Nupedia, Jimmy Wales’ first free online encyclopedia, written by academics and managed by an editor-in-chief. But the fix became the breakthrough.
The ALIEN sequence makes intuitive sense and helps users understand and recall the process before we throw the curve ball that you can actually start anywhere and zigzag between activities as needed. The only imperative is that you must touch each base at least once to neutralize different biases.
Duncan: You say ALIEN thinkers question what others take for granted. Can you give us an example?
Jean-Louis Barsoux: The story of Van Phillips is a good illustration. He lost his lower leg in a water-skiing accident. He was so dissatisfied with the performance of prosthetic limbs that he decided to design his own.
Previous designers had always assumed that amputees wanted a solution that looked like a leg. What Van Phillips wanted was something that functioned like a leg. So, he approached the problem from a very different perspective—and he ended up inventing the famous J-shaped running blade used by amputees for sprinting and other sports.
Duncan: What are some of the psychological barriers to ALIEN thinking?
Michael Wade: There are dozens of cognitive biases that influence the innovation process in some way or other, so let me focus on the one that is liable to impact all phases of the ALIEN thinking process.
It’s what the French call déformation professionelle. That’s our tendency to see the world through the distorting lens of our professional experiences—as engineers, financial specialists, marketers, lawyers or whatever. That impacts what we pay attention to and how we interpret the information. But it also impacts the types of ideas we hatch and what aspects we neglect in testing. Ultimately, it also impacts how we try to convince others and what arguments we use.
So, it’s critical to be aware of that bias in ourselves as we develop our ideas and seek support for them. Whenever possible we need to surround ourselves with people who think differently and can counteract our biases—and make sure we listen to them!
Duncan: You suggest that problem solvers augment the quality of their attention by either trying to see better or trying to see differently. Can you provide an example?
Barsoux: A prime example is Lego’s former CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp (now executive chairman). He transformed the Danish toy company’s whole approach to innovation by investing in ethnographic research. Lego embedded researchers with families—to see better how kids actually played, rather than how they said they played in surveys and focus groups. The findings helped dispel key assumptions inside Lego, most notably that girls were not interested in construction toys.
In parallel, Lego tried to see differently by switching from the conventional focus on kids to observing a fringe community never before considered—adult fans. It turned out that some of these users were really stretching the boundaries of what you could build with Lego bricks. They provided the inspiration for the Lego Architecture line, which proved not only hugely popular, but also sold for twice the price of an equivalent kids’ kit.
Duncan: In this context, levitation is the act of stepping back to regain perspective. In addition to its application in problem solving, how can this be applied to daily, routine activities?
Bouquet: Periodically stepping back from the action is not just a way to boost our creativity efforts. More generally, I’d say it is an indispensable aspect of work in general. It’s like time-outs in sport. Mentally, it helps us reset. It gives us a chance to reflect on what we’re doing and to reconsider what is urgent versus important.
Physiologically, it helps us re-energize so we can be more productive, resilient and better prepared to deal with complex issues. The chance to evacuate our negative emotions also makes us more mindful in our interactions with others and more receptive to their ideas and suggestions.
In a context where many people are working from home and therefore saving on commuting time, you would expect that more would fit in a walk or a proper lunch break. But we find that people are even more likely to have lunch at their desks. And even when they do go out for a walk, they stay connected to their phones.
To really leverage your pause, you need to take a tech-break and see where your mind leads you. You need to protect your boredom!
Duncan: You say that “functional fixedness” is one of the most common barriers to original thinking. What is “functional fixedness,” and how can problem solvers guard against it?
Wade: Functional fixedness is our blindness to alternative uses for familiar objects or indeed well-honed capabilities. Prior experience creates a kind of tunnel vision that tends to inhibit our creativity. And problem-solving exercises with children and adults show that this rigidity gets worse with age.
One key to guarding against this cognitive bias is simply to be aware of it and to give yourself time to pause and reconsider your default response to creative challenges.
Another antidote is to consciously separate the object from its function. IKEA hackers have turned this mindset into a hobby. They try to find alternative uses for the company’s furniture kits—like turning their cheap, round wooden stools into a coat stand or a balance bike for toddlers.
By ruling out the current use for the object or capability you force yourself to think outside the box.
Duncan: What can leaders do to help create an experimentation-friendly work environment?
Bouquet: There are many practical ways that leaders can encourage experimentation. For example, by providing resources (especially time), incentives, training, tools, and an appropriate workspace.
But the practical enablers are often outweighed by the psychological deterrents to experimentation.
The leader influences the extent to which creative employees feel safe to test out their ideas. And will they be recognized for their efforts, even if they fail?
To develop and test their ideas, employees must often operate below the radar in “submarine mode.” They need the leader’s protection to avoid exposing the initiative prematurely to the rigors of the project approval process—at least until they have some data to validate their solution.
And if the outcome of the experiment is negative, the leader should celebrate—not the failure, but the learning generated. Others will be watching how the failed experimenter is treated before venturing out of their own comfort zones.
Duncan: How can digital tools help ALIEN thinkers successfully face obstacles in reaching breakthrough solutions?
Wade: There are three obvious ways that digital technologies can help boost your ALIEN thinking capabilities.
First, by helping you track the behavior of people in their own homes, without having to observe it. Going back to the Lego example, researchers can now monitor kids at play using tiny “life-logging” cameras that are worn around the neck and take a photo every 30 seconds for several days. It showed kids spending far longer on their computer games than their parents claimed.
Second, by allowing you to gather and aggregate insights on a scale that was previously unimaginable. By plugging in to the internet forums of its adult fans, Lego learned about their unfiltered frustrations with Lego products.
Third, by directly boosting your innovation capabilities. Lego created an online platform where enthusiasts could upload their innovative designs and get other users to vote on them. Any design receiving more than 10,000 votes is considered for commercialization and, if successful, guarantees a 1% cut of net sales for the originator.
Duncan: What role can reverse mentoring play in a person’s quest for best solutions?
Bouquet: In reverse mentoring, a younger talent mentors a senior figure. It’s one way to compensate for innovation blind spots. These could be demographic blind spots—like race, gender, age or disability. But more often they are functional or technological blind spots.
For example, the pioneering architect Frank Gehry was famously computer illiterate, and yet he led the charge on introducing digital design to architecture. He did this by bringing into the firm Rick Smith, a specialist in computer-assisted design. Although Gehry never learned to design on a computer, he sought Smith’s guidance on what could be done with digital means. Gehry began to see the possibilities rather than the constraints. He used the knowledge to explore his own creativity and it fed into many of his most daring and gravity-defying designs, starting with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Duncan: Can you provide an example of ALIEN thinking at work?
Barsoux: The story of Malcom McLean, the man who invented containerization, is good illustration of the five dimensions.
As a young truck driver in the early 1940s, he spent many frustrating hours waiting in line at the docks. His attention was drawn to the arduous process of loading and unloading individual crates and barrels from trucks onto cargo ships. What we call levitation is the process of stepping back to make sense of what you’ve noticed. In McLean’s case, it lasted 15 years! In that period, he built up a successful trucking company of his own and kept reflecting on ways to improve the inefficient transfer process between trucks and ships. He then understood the workings of the system and was in a position to try to change it.
An effort of imagination led him to envision an integrated transport system where his trucks could drive up ramps and deposit the trailer section on specially designed ships—with another set of trucks picking up the goods at the other end. But through experimentation McLean realized that each trailer would waste a lot of valuable cargo space. So instead of loading the chassis, he decided to just load the trailer box. And by standardizing the size of these containers, he could stack them to load even more cargo.
Inventing the equipment turned out to be the easy part. Making it happen required a huge effort of navigation. To steer his solution through, McLean had to contend with the powerful dockworkers’ unions and lobbying from the railroads. Also, the new containers required changes throughout the system. McLean bought an aging oil tanker and converted it to carry the containers. He found cranes capable of handling them and ports prepared to accommodate the cranes.
On its first journey, his repurposed oil tanker took hours rather than days to load, and the cost per ton was cut by a third. It proved a game-changer for global trade.
Duncan: Are organizations also prone to “functional fixedness”?
Wade: Absolutely. Companies end up identifying with what they produce rather than their capabilities. To escape that trap and stimulate new thinking the McLaren Group, best known for Formula 1 racing, asked itself: “What if we couldn’t do what we do now?” That question freed the top team to rethink how to leverage its world class capabilities in new domains. This has resulted in successful collaborations in sectors as diverse as healthcare systems and air traffic control services—and a spin-off division that has since become the fastest-growing in the group.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.