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Alien thinkers

A brief study on the importance of looking at the world differently

by Thomas Schellen

In consumer fiction, everybody and their sibling nowadays writes novels that project human drama into the space of zombie-werewolf-vampire-x-men-viral-divergent dystopias. About time that someone applies the motif of aliens to economic drama and explains to humble earth dwellers how alien thinking can deliver benefits to, or even save, business organizations.

Infusing an ‘alien’ mindset into the DNA of corporate decisionmaking is the self-chosen mission of a collective of business scholars in Switzerland who found in their teaching and consulting work that many corporate decisionmakers experience innovation as a “very difficult journey” and “are stuck because they are complacent,” according to scholars Theo Peridis and Michael Wade.

The genre of leadership books often, and with mistaken romanticism, portrays successful innovators as superhero figures, under a notion that “being innovative requires special talents that are given to a few ‘elect people’,” says Cyril Bouquet, a French–Canadian expert on strategy and management.

The alien thinking approach, which he authored together with Peridis, Wade and two colleagues, counters this perception by asserting a nothing-is-impossible message. Alien thinking, says Bouquet, “starts right now with you. It is first an individual process, and then an attitude that can be taken to the level of the collective.”

[pullquote]“We wanted to be disruptive in using the image of an alien. People are blinded by what they see every day”[/pullquote]

Executive had the exclusive opportunity to converse with Bouquet, Peridis and Wade about their prescriptions for out-of-this-world organizational success. Interviewing the three, we discovered that preparations for a full-fledged systemic penetration of the business world with alien thinking are in full swing, and have advanced to a point where a planned planetary invasion is less than a year away.

But this is no cause for hitting the corporate homeland defense button. Apart from aiming to alter human behavior, the collective presents itself, and their signature alien, as so benevolent that it makes Steven Spielberg’s E.T. look intimidating. This impression was reinforced by the uber-calm location of the interview encounter in Lausanne, on the northern shore of Lac Léman. This lair of aspirations to penetrate the world with new leadership formulas is known as IMD, the private business school where Bouquet and his colleagues are professors.

Seeking to draw attention to their concept, the professors picked ‘alien’ as a deliberate metaphor for the ability “to think differently and accomplish great things,” says Peridis. “We wanted to be disruptive in using the image of an alien. People are blinded by what they see every day,” says Wade, who for his part defines the alien message as: “You can do it and here is how.”

Sound like a one-word prescription for a new-age confidence pill? The authors have also made the term into a backronym, codifying A.L.I.E.N. as a set of five behavior models: an anthropologist, a lateral thinker, an imaginator, an experimenter and a navigator.

Each of the five terms describes a specific behavior that can be adopted and habituated. A corporate manager who thinks like an anthropologist seeks direct and close interaction with the consumer, and goes beyond the analyses provided by others. The lateral thinker seeks to obtain inspirations from other domains than their own and hunts for ideas in unusual places. The imaginator (a neologism employed in the group’s presentations) has an eagerness to learn and retains a quality of ‘thinking like a kid’. The experimenter uses iteration to reach a solution, relying on trial and error in the knowledge that perfect solutions cannot be produced ex ante. The navigator exhibits persistence in negotiating the obstacles and pressures that arise when one seeks to establish an organization that allows people to look at the world differently.

[pullquote]If you look at all the books on innovation you could almost say that Aristotle invented all the concepts that we talk about”[/pullquote]

The joint objective of all five behaviors is the creation of a broad perspective that helps corporate decisionmakers “turn blind spots into bright spots.” In presenting their concept in a recent weeklong program at IMD to more than 50 managers and decisionmakers, Bouquet and his colleagues used an exhaustive palette of teaching methods. They involved business case studies, evidence from behavioral experiments, visual testimonies by innovators, hands-on group exercises such as the assembly of a puzzle, ad hoc discussion groups, narratives by external presenters and a Tesla electric supercar, all to demonstrate bits of alien thinking.

Old concepts, newly prescriptive 

Many of the examples and all the underlying recipes for innovativeness are not new. The metaphor of the alien was used by futurist Edie Weiner in a 2005 book titled “FutureThink,” Bouquet explains, and all those disruptive ideas on innovation go way back. “A lot of those ideas have been true for a very long time and various people have written about these ideas. If you look at all the books on innovation you could almost say that Aristotle invented all the concepts that we talk about,” he concedes.

It is of course a matter of choice if one perceives such presentations as iterations of old knowledge in new clothes or as timely deliveries of timeless management principles. The overall environment of an elite private business school — with all possible associations of the term elite — unmistakably leans more to supporting approaches that emphasize the can-do. Endless and desperate scrutiny of one’s own ideas is not what professors in executive education get hired for.

The environmental message may actually lean to the opposite. When one can influence outcomes in competitive settings — and business schools operate in an extremely competitive environment — it can be more productive to have high confidence and err by taking action than by refraining from action, as another IMD professor, Phil Rosenzweig, wrote in a recent book.

The authors of the alien formula thus exhibit no serious self-doubt about their concoction of five concepts. What distinguishes their concepts from all the others ever preached is, according to Wade, that their approach “is not just descriptive; it is prescriptive and actually showing how.” Bouquet elaborates further that they present “a holistic system” of ideas that “can support a systematic process of innovation.”

To stage the invasion of the business world with their prescriptive mindset in the coming year, the collective is working on a book whose publication is planned for March or April 2015. With novelty appeal, a mainstream orientation and an affordable price tag, Bouquet estimates that the book could generate interesting conversations for about two years. He plans to contribute blogs and articles on alien thinking to journals such as Harvard Business Review. 

[pullquote]“Thinking out of the box is a cliché, but it is amazing how few people can think out of the box”[/pullquote]

Lecturing on leadership and authoring an aspiring book on how to innovate and overcome blind spots in business does not produce immunity to having blind spots, the three academics acknowledge. Everyone has blind spots and is by definition not aware of them, Bouquet says, but seems to see no point in obsessing over their existence. “The interesting thing about the book is that it is not so important to discover your own blind spots. But I think this is more about forcing you to think about the general philosophy of life,” he elaborates.

One blind spot that the group discovered in their pursuit was that as academics, they had a defined notion of writing a book in a conventional way with a clear plan and predefined structure, Peridis chimes in. But this approach did not capture everything, and so they stepped back and said they needed to do things differently.

In seeking to expand on the book’s content, add new examples and capture what ideas resonate best with their audience, the professors — none of whom fits any stereotypes of dusty academics — thus resorted to interviewing participants in their program. They also aim to create further reach via IMD programs and, according to Peridis, by developing an online community and specific conversations.

When asked how they might be able to avoid that their alien thinking approach will over time become just another buzz phrase, like the exhausted ‘thinking outside the box,’ Peridis goes pensive. “Thinking out of the box is a cliché, but it is amazing how few people can think out of the box,” he muses. “It is not an easy journey; it requires change and if you are taken by the hand, you have better chances of succeeding.”

No one can predict whether the term ‘alien thinking’ will plague us as another hollow buzz word after the novelty and meaningful discussion cycles have run their course. But one thing is clear: this collective is keen on what Bouquet calls “the importance of looking at the world differently if you are trying to create a future and not just be a passenger in it.” Of course, if you can sell a few books along the way, better for you.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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