Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Book Review: A.L.I.E.N. Thinking

 As you may know, as a noted (ahem) blogger and voracious reader, I am sometimes asked to review books on strategy and innovation.  When I am approached about reading and reviewing a book, I always ask myself a couple of questions:

  • Does the book seem to advance interesting ideas or methods to improve innovation
  • Does it have anything new or novel to add to a plethora of books on innovation topics
  • Will I learn something from the book - is it worth my time or my reader's time

Based on this quick analysis, I turn down probably half of the books that are proposed to me.  Even after choosing some books to review, I often find myself asking - did the book actually meet my criteria?

All this in advance of a book I want to like, but struggle to review, entitled A.L.I.E.N. Thinking, with the subtitle "The Unconventional Approach to Breakthrough Ideas".

What this book is about

The book introduces a framework the authors have developed to improve innovation thinking to lead to better ideas.  The word ALIEN in their title is an acronym:

  • A - Attention
  • L - Leverage
  • I - Imagination
  • E - Experimentation
  • N - Navigation

Each letter represents the word following in the list above, and introduces a concept about how to think or act to create better innovation insights.  The authors suggest that individuals or teams that apply this mnemonic in their quest for breakthrough ideas and innovation will be more successful.  Each chapter opens with a story about an inventor or entrepreneur who succeeded in creating new products or a new company through the use of one of the factors in the ALIEN acronym.

What the authors have defined is a useful framework for digging into opportunities and needs and creating new ideas.  

Why I struggle to review this book

While this book presents a useful framework for idea generation and innovation, it's not clear "who" this book is for, or if the insights are really all that new.

In the case of the "who" question, it's not clear if this book is aimed at corporate innovation teams, individual innovators or entrepreneurs.  Many of the anecdotes are about individual innovators or entrepreneurs - for example, a story about an entrepreneur who created an edible spoon to reduce waste in India.  Are these skills and approaches more relevant to an individual, who should become adept at all of the tools in ALIEN thinking, or should corporate innovation teams assemble people who are adept at one or more of these skills, building a team that is complete in its approach?

The second challenge is that not much of this is "new".  While the book is heavily referenced and has a long section of footnotes, it ignores all together a book entitled The Innovator's DNA, by Clayton Christiansen and others who did good research into the characteristics of good innovators.  In fact, several of the findings in Christiansen's book (exploration, experimentation) are very similar if not exactly the same as those in A.L.I.E.N Thinking.   Good creativity thinkers like Keith Sawyer are referenced, but a lot of the references are from academic journals and research sources.  This book, like many others, picks and chooses its stories and references that fit the theme.  We aren't introduced to situations or stories that may differ from the idea or demonstrate its weaknesses or limitations.

What the authors have done is to link good approaches and ideas together in a somewhat linear fashion, and then at the end of the book suggest that good innovations and ideas can enter the A.L.I.E.N. framework at any letter, which indicates that ALIEN thinking is actually a network rather than a linear process.

The last reason I struggle with the book is that while it has good ideas, it does not describe effectively "how" to do this work.  Who are the people that have these thinking skills?  How do we leverage them and deploy them?  The authors do provide a very short questionnaire to help you decide if you have these skills, but at two or three questions per topic I don't think this is a real evaluation.

Going back to my evaluation criteria

So, returning to my evaluation criteria - if you are an innovator or entrepreneur who is unfamiliar with ideas like deeper attention (Beginner's Mind), experimentation, gaining a new perspective, then this book is a helpful addition to the books on innovation.  If you are a corporate innovator seeking to build a team to do some interesting innovation, it may provide some new ideas.

The book is in effect repackaging and re-purposing existing ideas into a new framework and giving that framework a name.  To some extent, the ALIEN framework reads a bit like a design thinking framework as well, so I'm not sure it is entirely new, but could be helpful to some who don't want to adhere to a design thinking approach.

Is the book worth your time?  If you are new to innovation, or need inspiration or a new way or working or thinking, or are just looking for a framework to follow, then possibly.  I do think the book falls a bit short in providing tools and frameworks to actually use this in a real activity or project, and should have been accompanied by a more rigorous assessment tool.  Perhaps that is coming in the future.

Reading the Innovator's DNA, or my own work on the traits that good innovators demonstrate (see the white paper on Unusual Suspects) or even reviewing good design thinking frameworks and principles will cover much of what ALIEN thinking introduces.  

If you are new to innovation, or the theories that suggest that some people, perspectives or mindsets may be more inclined to innovative behavior, then this is a good book for you as you begin your innovation journey.  The ideas are solid, if not particularly new, and the book lays them out well.


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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:53 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Innovating in the midst of chaos and disruption

 There's a great poem by Kipling that I'm sure is now out of favor, but it has a central message that we all need to hear. The poem is "If" - and if you are interested in reading the poem you can find the link here.  Go ahead and read it now.  After the Biden inaugural, poetry is on the upswing in popularity and Kipling is a good poet.  Plus, the poem has a message that we need to hear now.

It's the first couple of lines that always spark my interest - "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs..."  The poem is an ode to confidence in yourself, especially in trying times.

But, as you are well aware, this is not a blog about poetry, but a blog about innovation.  And, from my perspective, it's about time to start implementing some of what Kipling is writing about in this poem.  We need more confidence, more ability to dream, and think, and meet with both triumph and disaster.  Kipling wasn't writing about new product development, business model change or innovation, but what he is writing is entirely applicable to our situation today - first quarter 2021.

Gamestop is up, and you are down

In a time when everything is experiencing change, when disorder and disruption seems constant and profound, when people are storming the Capitol after an election, and the threat of COVID hovers over all of us, hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass would seem to be the sensible solution.  Many companies are waiting, waiting for the storm to pass, for the air to clear, for the future to be more understandable or more predictable.  I think that is a fool's game.

The folks who tell us about climate change tell us that what will actually occur is less predictable weather and weather patterns.  In the same way, I think our existing and near term business climate is much less predictable, and will remain that way for some time.  There are a number of reasons for this conclusion - more than it is worth going into here, but if the fact that Gamestop is one of the most valuable and highly traded stocks doesn't say something about change and disruption in the market, then little else does.

Markets are efficient but not predestined.  Markets are made up of people, their fears, passions and emotions.  And when we connect a lot of passionate people to the means to trade stocks, and direct them, strange things can happen.  When we create information bubbles and people are fed stories that favor one viewpoint or another, with little common ground, strange things can happen.  When we live with a virus that we refuse to acknowledge and fail to defeat, strange things can happen.  Perhaps the "normality" of the 70s, 80s, and 90s was unreasonable, and our lives are subject to more change and uncertainty than we'd like to admit.

I think we are likely to see more unexpected and difficult to interpret social, demographic, environmental and technological change that will have an impact on businesses and governments, and those changes will occur more frequently.

Doing something in the midst of chaos and change

Rather than hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass, only to be surprised by a different storm or sudden change, perhaps our businesses, organizations and governments should expect more disruption and change and learn to operate within uncertainty and change.  Waiting for chaos or disruptions to end before adapting loses ground in two dimensions.  First, you don't learn during the chaos if you don't engage the chaos.  Second, the result after the chaos ends is a new market, shaped by new forces, and a new disruption will emerge to change things again.  Hunkering down means constantly falling behind and never learning or adapting.

Rather, what we need are far more dynamic, far more agile, far more forward-looking organizations that can adapt, operate and even accelerate in the chaos and disruption.  The time to build truly agile, dynamic and innovative organizations is in the teeth of change and disruption, to learn while doing, rather than waiting until the next calm between storms.

How can a company adapt to constant chaos, disruption or change

You've been warned by experts that the pace of change is accelerating.  A simple glance at technology adoption shows that we adopt new technologies and tire of them in ever shortening cycles.  We have a far more educated populace making far more demands for new products, services and experiences.  We are likely to have far more disruptions, market shifts, economic challenges than ever before.  How does a company learn, adapt and create new operating models?

There are a number of possibilities.  First, you might take time to do more scenario planning and trend spotting, to try to understand the future changes that will unfold.  Then you can learn from and put programs and systems in place before the trend emerges.

Second, you can train people to innovate in any circumstance.  History shows that many great innovations occur during a market convulsion or downturn. Typically, the winners have been those who acted during the downturn, rather than those who waited for the downturn or shift to end.  

Third, you can create far more nimble and agile organizations that can adapt to changing market conditions far more quickly.

Fourth, you must change your corporate culture to become a learning organization, one that is more aggressively embracing change, one that is capable of engaging risks and uncertainty.  Your organizational structure and culture will become either your biggest asset or your biggest barrier to survival.

Innovate Carolina Conference

At our 12th annual Innovate Carolina conference we will be talking about these issues - trying to understand how to innovate all the time, in the face of current and constant change, disruption and chaos.  Check our our conference site here and follow up if you are interested in speaking or attending.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:51 AM 0 comments