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ALIEN Thinking

The Unconventional Path to Breakthrough Ideas

By Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux and Michael Wade
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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ALIEN Thinking by Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux and Michael Wade

Alien Thinking (2021) is a simple guide to having great ideas. Rather than simply waiting for inspiration to strike, it lays out five key skills that enable anyone to innovate on demand.

Key idea 1 of 7

Approach problems with fresh eyes.

India was facing a problem, and it wasn’t proving easy to solve: in the end, it all came down to numbers. 

The country was using far more groundwater than it could afford to. But where, exactly, was the water going? And what was it being used for? That was the question Narayana Peesapaty asked himself.

The answer was simple, as it turned out. Thanks to government subsidies, Indian farmers paid next to nothing for electricity – meaning that there was no real reason for them to turn their water pumps off. More water led to greater yields of rice, and water was cheap, so it made little sense for them to try to use less.

So what could be done about the groundwater shortage? How could Peesapaty resolve this enduring problem?

This is the key message: Approach problems with fresh eyes.

What Peesapaty did was to look at the problem in a new way. He realized that the key reason farmers were using so much water was that it increased their yields of rice. 

Anyone else would have lobbied the government to promote less demanding crops like millet – but not Peesapaty. He recognized that the market had created this issue, and he was determined to make the market solve it.

After nine years, Peesapaty found a way of turning millet into cutlery that could be eaten at the end of a meal; instead of just trying to encourage farmers to grow millet instead of rice, he had actively incentivized growing millet by developing a marketable new product.

What distinguished Peesapaty’s approach was the freshness of his vision. So how can the rest of us, whose insights have been dulled by weekly meetings and daily routines, cultivate this ability to pay fresh, renewed attention to existing problems?

There are a couple of strategies. One of the most important things we can do is to approach the problem from multiple angles. After all, Peesapaty only came to fully understand India’s water and rice problem when he traveled around, meeting farmers and trying to understand their predicaments.

In an established firm rather than a start-up, this might mean paying attention to your most innovative and “extreme” customers. IKEA’s designers, inspired by their creative and dedicated customers, often take part in furniture hackathons – striving to create the best new products out of existing pieces.

The insights they glean from these sessions are a key factor in the fresh attention they bring to IKEA’S offerings season after season.

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