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Cyril Bouquet: “Helping people generate truly original solutions”

So the big idea is “helping people generate truly original solutions”. Together with my colleagues, Mike Wade and Jean-Louis Barsoux, we developed an approach to innovation that we call ALIEN thinking. It captures the need to look at the world with fresh eyes, as an alien would, in order to come up with unconventional ideas. […]

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So the big idea is “helping people generate truly original solutions”. Together with my colleagues, Mike Wade and Jean-Louis Barsoux, we developed an approach to innovation that we call ALIEN thinking. It captures the need to look at the world with fresh eyes, as an alien would, in order to come up with unconventional ideas.

The way we all see things is distorted by our individual habits and assumptions, by our experiences and professional training. For example, a lawyer, a physician and an engineer may have very different takes on the same problem.

Everyone has these blinkers. So, ALIEN thinking is a set of guidelines to help you move past your blindspots and adopt a perspective that increases your chances of finding and implementing novel ideas.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Cyril Bouquet.

Cyril Bouquet is a Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD Business School and a co-author of ALIEN THINKING: The Unconventional Path to Breakthrough Ideas (PublicAffairs; March 16, 2021). Bouquet helps organizations reinvent themselves by letting their top executives explore the future they want to create together. As a professor at IMD, Cyril is doing research that has gained significant recognition in the field. His PhD dissertation won the Academy of International Business 2004 Richard Farmer Award. Since then, he’s published one book “Building Global Mindsets” (2005), and several academic articles in the most prestigious academic journals, including Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, the Academy of Management Journal, the Journal of International Business Studies, the Journal of Management, and the Journal of Management Studies.

Cyril has a keen interest for technology. He’s created a start-up & collaboration platform — Augmented Tribes — to help executive teams progress through various stages of an innovation journey. And he is part of the faculty team having launched the program TransformTech — in collaboration with EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) — to help senior leaders learn how new technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics and the internet of things are transforming the world of business.

Cyril was educated in France and Canada, having received a PhD degree from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London (Canada), and an International MBA from the University of Ottawa.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I think my interest in innovation is somehow linked to my personal journey.

Basically, I’ve been an immigrant most of my life, moving around the world from France, where I was born, to New Caledonia, where I grew up as a kid, to Reunion Island where I spent my teenage years, to Canada, where I pursued my studies, and most recently to Switzerland, where I work.

With each move I was forced out of my comfort zone, which was quite hard, especially as a child. But with hindsight, I now realize that it pushed me to question the standard or best way of doing things. You realize that there’s more than one way of addressing the problems that exist in the world. Good ideas come in many shapes and forms, if you’re open to seeing them.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

It dates back to the start of my career. To help finance my doctoral studies, I joined a research team that was looking into the genetic drivers of innovation. My role was to go around collecting saliva samples from hundreds of participants — not exactly glamorous.

Initially, the study found that entrepreneurs had more testosterone than non-entrepreneurs. And it was true for women as well as men. So, it seemed like conclusive evidence that there really was a genetic factor that drove their propensity to take risks and their resilience to setbacks.

But subsequent research revealed that the higher levels of testosterone were, in fact, a consequence of engaging in innovation activity, and not a driver of it. In fact, the only valid finding from the original study was that entrepreneurs were more stressed out than non-entrepreneurs!

That reversal of cause and effect reassured me and confirmed my personal belief that we are in control of our own destiny — that it’s not testosterone, personality factors or some genetic endowment that drives our creativity and ability to solve problems. Actually, everybody has the potential to be innovative.

And, ultimately, that has boosted my motivation to work with executives on real-world challenges for which they need strong innovation skills.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Building on what I just said, I have a strong conviction that we can all make a difference in this world. I mean, we can all do things that bring progress regardless of whether you’re working in academia, in a big company, in government, in a lab or in the social domain. And this is something that I try to apply to myself and to the education of my kids. But it never comes easy.

So the other thing is hard work. And in the specific case of academia, it’s about balancing rigor and relevance. We can’t just tell a good story. Rigor means making sure that it’s backed by empirical evidence and solid reasoning. At the other extreme, we must remain relevant. Fundamental research is important, but it can lead you down a rabbit hole where you focus on niche issues and lose contact with the very population you’re trying to help.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

So the big idea is “helping people generate truly original solutions”. Together with my colleagues, Mike Wade and Jean-Louis Barsoux, we developed an approach to innovation that we call ALIEN thinking. It captures the need to look at the world with fresh eyes, as an alien would, in order to come up with unconventional ideas.

The way we all see things is distorted by our individual habits and assumptions, by our experiences and professional training. For example, a lawyer, a physician and an engineer may have very different takes on the same problem.

Everyone has these blinkers. So, ALIEN thinking is a set of guidelines to help you move past your blindspots and adopt a perspective that increases your chances of finding and implementing novel ideas.

The reason we capitalize ALIEN is because it’s not just a metaphor but also an acronym. It captures the five key strategies that support a fresh and flexible approach to problem-solving.

Attention is about consciously switching your focus to see the world from different angles to help you notice different things.

Levitation is about retreating from the world — like taking a time-out in sports — to make sense of what you’ve observed.

Imagination is about thinking across existing boundaries and connecting the dots in creative ways.

Experimentation is about testing your ideas while remaining open to new possibilities and learning.

Navigation is about finding ways to get your solution accepted without getting shot in the process.

Our book, ALIEN Thinking, explores those dimensions in detail.

How do you think this will change the world?

People with ideas or looking for inspiration need an innovation model they can easily recall and apply. Our framework is not aimed exclusively at people in business. It’s really a tool that can be applied by anybody, in any walk of life.

We studied innovators who generated breakthrough solutions in domains from business to medicine to science and social causes. The examples we discuss include a bus designer who trained rats to sniff out landmines; a car mechanic who invented a safer device to help free babies stuck in the birthing canal; and a balloonist who became the first person to fly round the world without using fuel.

I feel we’re in a context where the world needs more original thinking, bigger ideas, and more radical solutions to address some of the vexing problems we have inflicted on ourselves, from pollution to overpopulation, as well as multiple health issues, including the current pandemic.

We face so many pressing challenges that we need to encourage innovation from all quarters, not just experts. Innovation is a shared responsibility.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Sure. Our framework is meant to support progress — both economic growth and social innovation. But it’s just a tool. It’s what you do with it that counts. You can choose to use it for any purpose — like criminals, counterfeiters, and hackers when they find ingenious new ways to beat the system.

We focus on well-intentioned innovators. That’s why we studied a lot of social entrepreneurs. It’s also why we present ALIEN thinkers as rebels with a cause. They aren’t just loose cannons, trouble-makers or anarchists, causing disruption for personal gain or for the sake of it. They’re unconventional thinkers who are really trying to find better ways of tackling problems that matter.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I think it was a convergence of two things. First, I was feeling a bit frustrated with design thinking. Although it’s a rich approach to innovation, I saw too many smart executive teams using it like a kind of recipe, which produced disappointing results. I realized it wasn’t a fundamental problem with the model but rather with its implementation. Participants were not really pushing themselves or challenging their deep-held assumptions.

That observation happened to coincide with me picking up a book from the mid-2000s, called Future Think, written by Edie Weiner and Arnold Brown. The first chapter was called “Looking Through Alien Eyes” and it struck me that this was exactly the mindset you needed to adopt throughout the innovation process, if you wanted to come up with original ideas. The idea of turning it into an acronym came later.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

For our idea to succeed, we need individuals to realize that it is not just aimed at executives, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Whether you’re a scientist, an artist, an activist or a governmental officer, ALIEN thinking can help you come up with more interesting ideas about how you can do things better in your job and in your life. It provides a simple and comprehensive template for tackling any difficult decision, problem, creativity blockage or innovation that requires divergent thinking.

Beyond that, we also need organizations to recognize the value of ALIEN thinking. Will they be willing to let employees experiment with the ideas that we develop in the book? For example, will they allow employees to spend time observing, reframing or generating additional options? In many companies, reflection time is questioned or even considered wasted time. Everything is about immediate payoffs and visible effort.

Also, will organizations be prepared to overhaul some of the internal processes, incentives, and cultural norms that suppress the most creative ideas? Collectively, these hidden blockers act as a sort of “corporate immune system” against ideas that might disrupt the existing and proven way of doing things.

Organizations wishing to encourage ALIEN thinking must first change themselves.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

There were several things I wish I’d known before setting out on writing this book, but the overarching one would be “Heed your own advice”. Ironically, a lot of the struggles we faced while writing the book were precisely to do with traps we were warning others about — like getting stuck with self-imposed constraints or targeting the wrong audience. So we learned to schedule regular lunches together to step back from the writing and question the perspective we were taking. That underpins the other four lessons.

  1. You can’t create by committee. Our initial approach was to gather several experts and to let each one write about one dimension of the ALIEN framework. That resulted in a disjointed mess. Different perspectives only help creativity if there is lots of interaction.
  2. Question the framing. The original frame was based on the ALIEN thinker. I was quite resistant when my colleagues proposed changing it to ALIEN thinking. It sounds like a trivial change, but it impacted the narrative in lots of different ways. In the end, it was the right decision. But you must be careful that ego doesn’t get in the way of a better solution.
  3. Be prepared to abandon your assumptions. When we started, our collective assumption as business professors was that we wanted to study people in big companies. But we quickly realized that some of the most interesting examples were in other spheres of action, and that the book could have much wider appeal.
  4. Expect surprises. We know that book projects are always complicated, but since I’d been teaching this material in class for several years, I anticipated that we’d sail right through. But different setbacks and feedbacks prolonged the process way beyond my original estimate. The final glitch was an extensive rewrite — two weeks after handing over the final manuscript — because one of our key protagonists was ousted for inappropriate conduct.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

I would say that if you want to be an ALIEN thinker, there are three habits or mindsets that you need to develop.

Don’t jump to solutions. We often believe that we know what the problem is and what the solution should be, but a good ALIEN thinker is willing to suspend judgment and to remain open to alternative interpretations and options. To come up with unconventional solutions, you must embrace this process of exploration, learning, discovery, and be receptive to other people’s ideas.

Be willing to surround yourself with people who think differently. Underpinning all the advice we provide is the mindset of accepting to expose yourself to different ways of thinking and doing things. That could mean inviting feedback from critics or perhaps welcoming millennials into your top team discussions. But it could also involve going to conferences that are not in your field or visiting a museum to take the time to change your ideas and prime your mind for alternative thoughts.

Manage yourself. Many of the same qualities that can help you succeed as an ALIEN thinker, can also derail you. For example, creativity is good, but too much creativity can distract you and lead you to disperse your efforts across projects. Likewise, persistence is helpful, but too much of that can lead you to ignore signals that it’s time to change course. If you’re in hyperdrive, you just want to advance and you don’t take the time to learn. To find some kind of balance between focus and flexibility, you need to manage yourself.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Honestly, I think every VC should know this framework in order to talk to aspiring entrepreneurs in terms they can easily understand. It provides a structure and a shared vocabulary for discussing and delivering truly breakthrough solutions. It also shows innovators how to leverage digital tools at every stage of the process — and reminds them of the need for divergent thinking throughout.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @Cyril Bouquet

LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/cyril-bouquet-a028a0

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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