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‘Alien Thinking: How to Bring Your Breakthrough Ideas to Life’ (Book Review): Getting out of the box

An interesting read on how makeshift ideas can lead to long-lasting innovation

Bertrand Piccard created a solar-powered craft capable of flying around the world without fuel (AP photo)

The names of Billy Fisher and Teresa Hodge will not mean much to the reader when this book Alien Thinking is picked up, but will constantly be referred to as some kind of role models that the authors have presented when explaining the concept of alien thinking. In short, the authors show that there are no limits to imagination, and we can achieve a lot if we want to. For this we need to think differently. This holds for entrepreneurs, scientists, doctors or artists and hence even companies.

Alien Thinking by Bouquet, Barsoux and Wade is a very interesting book that is meant more for individuals, which when applied at the macro level will translate to affirmative action in companies. As the word ALIEN suggests, it has something to do with out-of-the-box thinking. This works better if you are not directly in the business but are able to conceptualise, take your chances and deliver the final product or service. If one is already immersed in doing any specific work, it is less likely that such thinking will come naturally as we get into a routine way of thinking and hence some effort has to be put in. This is easier said and done because otherwise all companies and individuals would be successes.

While ALIEN does mean something from outside and not part of our system, the authors use this acronym to denote the five characteristics that go into alien thinking. These are attention, levitation, imagination, experimentation and navigation. These words are quite self-explanatory. Let us put these thoughts together. We need to be attentive and see the problem as an outsider and then decide on action. Looking at things afresh is important and can also be done by us in our routine work if we really want to. While deciding on the solution we should be prepared to go forward and backward, to understand the situation and see what works. This is levitation and here they give the example of Bertrand Piccard who had to swing his thoughts in all directions to create a hot-air balloon which could fly around the globe without using any fuel and came up with the idea of solar impulse which was a solar powered craft capable of perpetual flight.

Third, one needs to be imaginative which does not come very easily because it depends on the situation and the response will be varied. Next we need to be willing to experiment with new ways of doing things and last we have to navigate the system to ensure you do what you have to. This is dealing with the external environment and adjusting to the forces that can make or break the solution.

Let us look at Billy Fisher who is a doctor sent by WHO to Guinea to attend to Ebola patients who were just dying by the day with little hope of survival. Patients did not want to go the hospital because they knew that death was beckoning them. The hospital had no air conditioning, limited equipment and doctors who were clothed in protective garments could talk only on phone which did not work. The conventional course of medication did not help. Dr Fisher keeps observing what happens to patients as they move towards death and then drew a pattern. Most of them had severe diarrhoea which led to dehydration combined with high temperatures and finally death. Put in a simplistic way, he thought differently and put the patients on saline with antibiotic and the mortality rate came down sharply and patients revived. It was quick thinking and experimentation which worked. There was no time to consult with the authorities and he had to do the best that he could and hence imagination and experimentation had to be invoked.

Teresa Hodge was jailed for an offence and when she came out decided to do something for prisoners who were released but did not know what to do. Not really a techie, she embarked on creating a model which she presented to bankers on evaluation of such people who now sought loans. The R3 Score which is a risk assessment tool was engineered by her and is used widely today.

The point being driven by the authors is that we need to be innovative in thinking and have the courage to go ahead with our thoughts to the implementation stage. This is the only way in which changes can be brought in. It holds for individuals and also for enterprise. The example of Narayana Peesapaty is given where he gives up his job as a researcher and blends his thoughts concerning India’s problem of water for farming. People grow more rice which uses more water which is given cheap due to government policy and hence lowers the water table level. A solution is to encourage new crops. This includes growing more millets which use less water. He has his eureka moment on a plane when he is eating his meal in disposable plates where the idea of using edible cutlery strikes him and he is able to develop edible spoons etc made of millets.

A mechanic Jorge Odon visualises and finally brings in an alternative to forceps used by obstetricians to extract babies with zero risk and harm. He invented a device that was similar to a cork remover that could free a baby stuck in the mother’s birth canal. These examples are quite amazing and show that people can achieve a lot when they stop to think.

The basic message of the authors is that this is something all of us can do if we are willing to put in effort to start thinking differently. We do have the capability of alien thinking but have to search for the same and use it to becoming creative.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings

Alien Thinking: How to Bring Your Breakthrough Ideas to Life

Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux & Michael Wade

Penguin Random House

Pp 292, Rs 699

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