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


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