March 8, 2021

Aliens Among Us: Anyone Can Be an Innovator. You Just Have to Think Like an Outsider.

A few minutes into our interview, Michael Wade, a professor of innovation and strategy at IMD, asks me how I would define the opposite of déjà vu.

The question takes me aback, partially because it’s always a bit of an unexpected thrill when the interviewee turns the mic back at you, metaphorically speaking. But I also struggle to string a coherent sentence together because, well, that’s a concept I’ve never had to think about.

“If déjà vu is something I haven’t experienced before but I feel like I have, then I guess the opposite would be something I have experienced before that I feel like I haven’t,” I manage to stammer out after a couple of befuddled moments.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” Wade says excitedly, as if I’ve cracked the code. “Things that you see every single day — things you see all the time — but you see it as if it were new.”

This concept — which Wade calls “vuja de” — is key to the theory of innovation laid out in the forthcoming book, ALIEN Thinking: The Unconventional Path to Breakthrough Ideas, which Wade cowrote with Cyril Bouquet and Jean-Louis Barsoux. ALIEN Thinking tackles a pressing corporate problem: Technological advances have set the stage for an unprecedented outpouring of innovation, yet relatively few industries have actually undergone any radical change. Why is that?

According to Wade, Bouquet, and Barsoux, the answer is that the tools at our fingertips are only one piece of the puzzle. What we’re missing is the right mindset. We need to learn to see the world through alien eyes, as if for the first time, if we want to start unleashing the full creative potential of ourselves and our organizations.

It sounds daunting to cultivate the opposite of déjà vu, but the good news is anyone can do it, according to ALIEN Thinking. It just takes a little practice — and a boss who’s willing to let you turn those expense reports in a little later.

Wade recently sat for an interview with Recruiter.com, where he discussed the power of procrastination, the necessity of selling your innovation in the right way, and why a pandemic is a perfect time to get creative. What follows is a transcript of the interview, minimally edited for style, length, and clarity.

Recruiter.com: Breakthrough technologies and new methodologies have set the stage for a democratization of innovation — and yet we haven’t seen such a thing come to fruition. Can you say a little more about why that is? What’s holding us back?

Michael Wade: Well, first of all, I think you’re right. We have a wealth of resources at our disposal to support innovation. I’m not sure we’ve ever had as many tools and technologies and methodologies as we have today to support creative thinking and innovation. But our view is that, if the mindset is not there, it doesn’t matter how many technologies there are, how many cool methodologies are being rolled out, how many times you have a brainstorming session or design-thinking session. The innovation won’t happen at all, or it won’t happen for very long, and the results probably won’t be very impressive.

So I think it’s mindset, and I think what’s holding us back the most is the fact that we have a very hard time looking beyond our assumptions and challenging our conventional ways of thinking. We’re just not very good at that, and it’s hard to do that. I think we just become blinded by our experiences and our assumptions. It’s hard to move beyond those blind spots that we have to see things in new ways.

For example, a lot of companies had this view that, if work is not happening in the office, it’s not really work. They had that blind spot. It was just assumed. But now, with so many people working from home, that assumption is being challenged. Organizations are seeing that’s not actually the case. Work can happen in all kinds of different locations — and not only that, but if we’re not tethered to the desk in the office, there are all kinds of other things we could be doing. So it almost took the pandemic just to free people’s minds around where and how work is done.

RC: You’ve started to touch on this already with that concept of vuja de, but early on in the book, you assert that people “must think and act as newcomers or outsiders if we want to notice and exploit innovation opportunities that are often sitting right in front of us.” Can you say a little more about why this outsider perspective lends itself to innovation?

MW: That’s why we picked the “alien” metaphor. If an alien comes down to earth, they don’t have any preconceived notions. They see everything with fresh eyes, so they would ask all kinds of questions that we would just think are really strange.

We have to get that kind of thinking and questioning back! But it’s something we lose very quickly. We get infected by the corporate virus, so we stop seeing things that we should see.

Partially, that’s because it’s not easy to be an alien. If you think about movies you’ve watched with aliens in them, how often are they the good guy? Often, they’re outsiders, misfits. They’re threatening. That’s the way it is for many innovators today.

A good example is James Dyson, who came up with the bagless vacuum cleaner. He took it around to all kinds of vacuum companies, and they all turned him down. They didn’t turn him down because it didn’t work; the product was pretty effective. They turned him down because it challenged their revenue model — no more bags to sell! They couldn’t see beyond that. The product needed to come from somebody outside the industry.

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RC: You codify that alien metaphor into the ALIEN thinking framework, which can help develop and deliver breakthrough solutions “on demand.” Can you tell us a little more about how you arrived at this particular framework?

MW: The metaphor, as I mentioned, is around seeing the world with fresh eyes as if you’re an alien, but also having to be able to get stuff done as an outsider.  Fortunately for us, the letters for “alien” very nicely encapsulated the five different stages that we see very creative, innovative people adopting to turn great ideas into breakthrough solutions.

It starts with “A,” and that is attention. Most of us have lost the ability to pay attention. Sure, we pay attention we go to new places, but normally, we don’t. It’s about trying to see the world from different angles.

Then there’s “L,” which is levitation. That means stepping back. The classic way to deal with a problem is just to jump right in, but we recommend you take a step back, take a little time to think and reflect.

In the book, we talk about procrastination as a positive thing. Most people think it is a negative thing, but procrastination can actually give your brain time to process and come up with creative ideas. If I have a difficult task to do on a particular day, I’ll always spend a little bit of time the night before acquainting myself with that challenge because then my brain has time to click away at it.

Next is “I,” which is around imagination. Kids are very imaginative, but at some point, we lose it. I don’t know when it is. Maybe it’s the education system that beats it out of us. But it helps to be playful. There are lots of great examples of very innovative people who were kind of goofy. They allowed themselves to be creative.

You can help make room for that playfulness. You can mix different people who normally don’t interact — the old Medici effect of putting science together with the arts and music and commerce, mixing everything together.

The “E” is experimentation, the classic test-and-learn. Don’t just assume you’re right. Listen to user feedback. Welcome surprises.

And once you’ve got your idea translated into a product or service, the “N” is about navigation. This is where a lot of innovators fail. They fail to convince people of the benefit of their solution. They’re not very good at getting their ideas accepted.

The classic example of this is Steve Sassan of Kodak, who invented the digital camera. We all know the story, but one hidden artifact in that story is that, when he was pitching the camera internally, he pitched it as “filmless photography.” Not “digital photography,” but “filmless photography,” which was a very poor choice of words.

It was a poor effort to navigate because it was extremely challenging to the existing business model of Kodak, which was all around film. So people were like, “No, we don’t want to be doing that. We’re gonna kill the company!” If he would have called it “digital photography” or something else, it would have been slightly less threatening. It matters a lot how you navigate the process of getting your product or service accepted.

RC: You spoke earlier about how innovation is a matter of getting into this mindset — but have you noticed that people are so ingrained in their preexisting thought processes that they maybe reject the ALIEN framework in the same way they might reject new innovations?

MW: Yes, because they’re worried! The concern is, if they’re too much of an alien, then they’re going to be attacked or shot down. Organizational processes, structures, cultures, incentives — these are very efficient creativity killers. People don’t have to get shot down too many times before they stop trying anymore, which is a real shame.

I think people naturally enjoy being creative. They enjoy the process. They don’t enter the workforce as zombies; they somehow get infected along the way.

RC: Do you have any advice, then, for how people can maybe adopt the ALIEN thinking framework with a little more ease?

MW: Yes, there are some really practical things they can do.

First, we don’t give ourselves enough time to think and reflect. We’re busy; we’re jumping from meeting to meeting. So carving out time to think and reflect is really important, and it doesn’t happen unless you put it in your agenda. Block time every single week, an hour or 90 minutes, so you know it’s there and can’t be used for anything else.

During the week, create a folder — maybe it’s an email folder, or it’s on your computer, whatever — and all the interesting stuff comes across your desk during the week, just throw it in there. Then use that time that you’ve allocated yourself — that alien time! — to go through it. Otherwise, you won’t. Give yourself the luxury of time to explore interesting things.

RC: That’s advice for an individual who wants to put themselves in this mind frame more often, but what if you’re an organizational leader or manager, someone who wants to avoid infecting your employees with that business zombie mindset? What can you do?

MW: It starts with setting up the conditions to allow people to innovate. The classic scenario is, you have a good idea, and you take it to a leader. They say, “It’s great. Go for it.” Well, can I be taken off some other assignment? “No.”

The message is, “Yeah, you can do it. Knock yourself out on a Sunday.”

So set up the conditions that give people time, space, and incentives. Make sure they’re psychologically safe in the organization. It has to be okay to fail — as long as you learn from it.

RC: Any final thoughts for readers before we let you go?

MW: I’d like to stress that all our work and all the research we’ve done suggests there’s nothing necessarily innate about creativity or innovation. Anybody can be an alien thinker if they have the right tools, the right training, the right time, and the right energy. It’s a learned behavior. It’s not magic.

And there are very few times that are as good as right now to innovate and be creative. A lot of that has to do with the pandemic. Generally speaking, the world works in these cycles of punctuated equilibrium. It’s relatively stable, then you have short periods of massive instability, and then it’s relatively stable again. Right now, we’re in one of those periods of massive upheaval because of the pandemic, so I think this is a relatively short-term opportunity to explore new things and find new sources of value.

If you’ve got that idea that has been turning around in your head, now’s the time. Get it out there and start testing. People are open right now to new ways of doing things.

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Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.