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ALIEN thinking: innovating our way to a net-zero future

Sustainability

ALIEN thinking: innovating our way to a net-zero future

Published 31 October 2022 in Sustainability • 6 min read

How can we best accelerate our search for the new practices our planet needs to ensure its future? By adopting the habits of ALIEN thought, says Cyril Bouquet, IMD Professor of Strategy and Innovation, talking at the World Business Council for Sustainable Business on 27 October.

It’s always a pleasure to talk about what it takes to think creatively. Perhaps because I’m in innovation, I’m also positive about us being able to come up with the inventions we’re going to need in this world. 

One reason for this is that I’m now seeing a number of companies that have initiated transformations we could not believe were possible just a few years ago. Take Denmark’s Dong Energy, now known as Ørsted, which has gone from being one of Europe’s most fossil-fuel intensive energy companies to being one of its most sustainable firms. Such a transformation suggests sustainability can maybe become mainstream. 

Yet at the same time, I know that innovation is hard. In the corporate world, leaders must simultaneously manage their companies in the present while preparing them for the future. We call handling this the “ambidextrous challenge”: using one hand to maintain and strengthen what has made a firm successful and using the other to find new possibilities, some of which will drive new opportunities, others which will take us in the wrong direction. 

To give an ambidextrous organization the innovation skills it needs calls for paying attention to three aspects, in particular. The first of these is the creation of meaning. That typically calls for spending a lot of time explaining why a business exists and what its purpose is, and how in this context innovation can lead to transformation. With full clarity on direction, we can then show why we have an obligation to take action in the fight against climate change. 

Next, companies have to find ways of stimulating new thinking. Here, we must overcome the tendency to be backward looking, focused on how they’ve done things before, and look for new ways of organizing ourselves.  

Diversity in your top management team can help here. Chinese insurance company Ping An, for example, has a top management team filled with people from different countries, backgrounds, and functions. Between them they have made the company a technology giant (For more on Ping An, see the discussion between its CEO Jessica Tan and IMD President Jean-François Manzoni.) Choices like this create the opportunity for very different types of discussions, perspectives, and reasoning. 

Involving everyone is another important factor in building an innovation culture. Traditionally, we’ve believed that some people have a natural ability when it comes to being creative. From research, however, we now know that talent isn’t so important: everyone can contribute to the innovation process. 

The ALIEN model 

To achieve change in companies that opens the door for all their staff to play the best part possible the processes of innovation, I and two colleagues at IMD, professors Jean-Louis Barsoux and Michael Wade, came up with what we call the ALIEN model – named after five thinking patterns that can help all of us find innovative solutions to the most difficult problems: attention, levitation, imagination, experimentation and navigation.  

Attention is the act of focusing on a particular context or population in terms of whom you pay attention to, and what you focus on will dictate how you make sense of the phenomenon you’re trying to change. ALIEN thinkers try to enrich their attention by coming up with ways of expanding the insights that reach their attention. Doing this calls for zooming out – to see who can offer a grander perspective on whatever it is we’re trying to change, but also zooming in to focus on micro-details, and switching focus whenever possible.  Here you should identify a few stakeholders who can help you see differently. For two years in a row, I got my teams of MBA students at IMD to enter an open innovation contest (the Debiopharm Challenge) aimed at improving the life of patients in hospital. We got some of our best insights from the janitors and cleaning staff! Nobody ever asked for their observations and opinions, but they hear lots of things that help us think differently about the real issues and pains that patients experienced every day.

Levitation involves stepping back to enrich your understanding and giving yourself the time and space you need to make sense of the world, and prime your mind for inspiration. Because companies are always under pressure to keep moving with the times, innovation is often seen as a sprint. In reality, it’s more like a marathon. That means devoting time and patience to devising and shaping your new concepts, maybe even at some point blocking time off to do nothing. 

Imagination is the act of envisioning that which does not exist to generate avantgarde ideas. Often, it calls for connecting the dots in new and interesting ways. One of my preferred approaches is exploring the different combinations that can emerge through mixing and matching.  

Experimentation means turning a promising idea into a workable solution that addresses a real need. Although most organizations like to say they believe in experimentation, often they do it wrongly by looking for clear-cut evidence that their initial ideas work and will often discard whatever information doesn’t fit their initial expectations. As one executive told me, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.”  To avoid falling into this trap of validating your self-fulfilling prophecies, a far better approach is testing to improve, not to the prove that your initial theory is correct, and then using the findings to enrich your understanding and upgrade your working theory.  

Having a more relaxed approach can also make testing much quicker and cheaper. A business wondering about which of various possible directions to explore doesn’t always need to be scientifically rigorous – it can search for some rough and ready indicators by running polls on social media, then see what next step options open up. It is sometimes appropriate to build theories by letting the data speak.

Finally, navigation is about being able to persuade key decision-makers to buy into your ideas. In companies, this means building rapport with your top executive team. Keeping them in the loop is a far better idea than keeping them in the dark. Powerholders like to know what’s happening, often because if there is an interesting idea, they want to have an opportunity both to give feedback and be seen to have contributed to it. 

Another important aspect of navigation is the way you talk. Innovators tend to be proud of the uniqueness and disruptive aspects of their ideas. However, that often means they use language in ways that can sound threatening to those they have to sell their ideas to. A far better approach is to think in terms of presenting new concepts in ways that resonate with those who will have to sign off on them. 

Bridges not walls 

Pulling the threads of ALIEN thinking together, it’s about building bridges, not walls, whenever you’re trying to innovate. Companies that are successful at innovation do this by spending a lot of time explaining their purpose to people, telling them why the work they do matters, and so helping them believe they can contribute to a higher order. 

Such a mindset is vital for the change that is now required of all of us. As Mads Nipper, Ørsted’s CEO, has put it: The biggest risk of climate change is the perception that somebody else will solve it.”  Business has the responsibility to act, and we all have a personal obligation to create the necessary conditions for change. 

Authors

Cyril Bouquet - IMD Professor

Cyril Bouquet

Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Cyril Bouquet is Director of the Innovation in Action program. As an IMD professor, his research has gained significant recognition in the field. He helps organizations reinvent themselves by letting their top executives explore the future they want to create together.

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