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How entrepreneurs benefit from ‘Alien Thinking’

Entrepreneurial success hinges on generating breakthrough ideas. But we have cognitive biases that keep us stuck in well-worn patterns of thinking. In the book Alien Thinking, three innovation professors at IMD Business School argue that people who generate truly breakthrough ideas look at their world like aliens–outsiders unburdened by the assumptions, biases and conventional thinking that constrain imagination.

We asked authors Cyril Bouquet, Michael Wade and Jean-Louis Barsoux how entrepreneurs can benefit from Alien Thinking:

What does it mean to think like an “alien”? 

Thinking like an alien is a metaphor for approaching innovation challenges with an open mind.

When an alien lands on Earth, it sees our world with fresh eyes–not constrained by the same assumptions and biases as we are. It can adapt existing ideas from a different world. But as an outsider, it must learn how to navigate a new and potentially hostile environment. That’s the mindset we encourage people to adopt.

Of course, we could also have talked about adopting the perspective of a child, a beginner or an outsider. But the alien metaphor serves as a neat acronym for the five dimensions of our ALIEN thinking framework:

A for Attention
L for Levitation (meaning reflection)
I for Imagination
E for Experimentation
N for Navigation

We realize that levitation is an unexpected term, but it fits well with the alien metaphor.

We’re constantly hearing about ways to fight off procrastination, but you argue that it’s key to generating breakthrough ideas. How?

Current innovation frameworks–think lean startup or design sprint–emphasize speed and action over reflection and strategic breaks. But for breakthrough innovation, you need time to consolidate learning, assess options and consider the smartest move, not just the obvious move.

When we study real accounts of innovation, we find that critical moves are often preceded by long spells of reflection or incubation–which are absent from innovation models. An extreme example is Malcom McLean, who first noticed the inefficient loading process from trucks to ships as a frustrated truck driver in the early 1940s. But 15 years elapsed before he developed the system knowledge, as the owner of a successful trucking company, and the insight to transfer entire containers instead of individual crates and barrels.

What might look to outsiders like procrastination is often the time needed to process a mass of confusing information.

Levitation is about tapping into the unconscious capabilities of the “mind at rest”, which is free to roam and make sense of experiences. Paradoxically, your mind is more active when you’re unoccupied than when you’re performing a task.

Two types of breaks can foster innovation. First, take a time-out, like in sports. Pause to make sense of what you’ve done, see what it’s adding up to and what needs to change. It doesn’t even have to be deliberate. Sometimes our finest moments of lucidity come while we’re performing other tasks on autopilot–like commuting or taking a shower.

The second type of break is the occasional time-off, a complete change of activity, more like a sabbatical. Obviously, that helps you to re-energize. But it also feeds your mind with new thoughts and new ways of looking at things. It prepares your mind to make unexpected connections.

In a fast-paced world, your willingness to step back and pause, to rethink and synthesize new inputs, becomes increasingly valuable.

You illustrate the pitfalls of experimentation through the examples of Segway and renowned architect Frank Gehry. Can you share those stories and the lessons for entrepreneurs?

Experimentation enables you to transform a promising idea into a workable solution that addresses a real need. The big risk, once you start testing your cherished idea, is setting up experiments to ratify your assumptions rather than refute them.

Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway, was so concerned about protecting his intellectual property that his team conducted multiple cycles of experimentation based exclusively on internal feedback, not user feedback. In the process, they missed many data points likely to reveal the actual requirements of the market. By the time Kamen called on Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos for their opinions on the finished product, there was no more appetite for corrective feedback—so, the team only heard the positive comments. Production of the mobility device stopped last year after less than two decades on the market.

By contrast, pioneering architect Frank Gehry goes out of his way to remain open to learning as he experiments. To avoid becoming too attached to any one idea, he proposes multiple concepts to clients–not just unusual designs but also provocative ones, what he calls Shrek models. The role of these divergent proposals is to get a reaction and learn from the client’s discomfort as well as delight. Gehry gets as much from negative feedback as from positive. But of course, this exercise only makes sense because of his willingness to heed the feedback and integrate it into his thinking.

Tell us about the importance of navigation. What must entrepreneurs keep in mind as they take this critical step?

Most innovation models refer to the final stage of the process as “execution” or “implementation”–making it sound very straightforward. More grind than spark.

We prefer the term “navigation” because it underlines the need for flexibility and ingenuity to steer between forces that can make or break your solution. We maintain that there is every bit as much scope for originality at this stage as there is in trying to find a breakthrough idea in the first place.

A fantastic example is Demis Hassabis, co-founder of the machine learning AI lab DeepMind. In 2009 he went to Silicon Valley to find seed investors.

In preparation, he spent months researching who might be amenable to his pitch. He discovered that self-made tech billionaire Peter Thiel had played competitive chess as a junior–like Hassabis, who reached world No. 2 for his age group at 12.

In August 2010, after Thiel’s annual Singularity Summit event, Hassabis lined up along with scores of other hopefuls given literally one minute to pitch their ideas to Thiel. But instead of pitching his business idea, Hassabis engaged Thiel on the subject of chess, asking him why he thought it was such an amazing game. As a former computer game designer, Hassabis had given it a lot of thought and had an intriguing technical answer.

It was enough to secure a formal meeting with Thiel, who went on to invest US$1.85 million in DeepMind, and recouped over 80 times that amount when Google bought the company in 2014.

Categories: Guest contributors INNOVATION Inspirational Lessons Learned STARTUP


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