How to Devise Breakthrough Solutions

March 4, 2021

How to Devise Breakthrough Solutions

Breakthrough innovators (intuitively or consciously) apply the ALIEN framework, which stands for: attention,  levitation, imagination, experimentation and navigation. 

ALIEN thinking provides a blueprint to escape conformity and to devise truly breakthrough solutions to important problems. There are five strategies that must be considered in turn: 

  • Attention is the act of focusing hard on a particular context or population to understand its dynamics and latent needs. 
  • Levitation is the act of stepping back or “decentering” in order to expand and enrich your understanding. Having gathered insights into the realities of a situation, need or challenge, you need space to  make sense of those findings, to work out what they mean and prime your mind for inspiration. 
  • Imagination is the act of envisioning that which is not and then generating avant-garde ideas. Though often shrouded in mystery, imagination is essentially the result of making creative connections between existing concepts—joining the dots in new and interesting ways. 
  • Experimentation is the act of turning a promising idea into a workable solution that addresses a real need. 
  • Navigation is the act of adjusting to forces that can make or break your solution. Your belief in the solution (and overfamiliarity with the context) can lead you to underestimate the effort needed to mobilize supporters and steer past obstacles. 

Unconventional thinkers need a simple, shared, and overarching framework for developing breakthrough solutions. They need guidance to escape the various psychological barriers that constrain their creativity, to leverage the digital tools that can boost their intelligence throughout the process, and to avoid getting shot down as they begin to think and act in truly original ways that threaten the standard (and safe) way of doing things. The five components are presented in a sequence that makes intuitive sense, but many successful inventions unfold in unpredictable ways, and you can proceed in any order, leveraging each component to enrich any phase of your process. 

The framework covers familiar themes—like paying attention to the world we live in, boosting your imagination and experimenting intelligently. None of these are particularly revolutionary on their own. It’s how they are implemented that changes everything. ALIEN thinkers think differently and can find effective, original solutions to almost any problem they face. 

ALIEN Thinkers

ALIEN thinkers are rebels with a cause. In addition to questioning what others take for granted, ALIEN thinkers are:

  • Curious integrators, trying to understand what drives others and to make sense of their worlds.
  • Ingenious analysts, combining their creative intelligence with the analytic tools at their disposal.

Although an ALIEN mindset can lead to breakthrough solutions, developing this state of mind isn’t easy. There are many psychological barriers to ALIEN thinking—biases that limit your ability to notice things, your creativity and your willingness to switch course. 

ALIEN thinkers and ideas are often regarded with mistrust by people with a stake in the status quo. 

Despite the digitally enabled democratization of innovation during the last two decades, breakthrough solutions remain elusive, in part because existing innovation frameworks tend to be unrealistic, incomplete, misleading or a combination of the three. 

The ALIEN framework and outlook are antidotes to orthodox thinking and drivers of innovation across domains, from business and social entrepreneurship to science and beyond.

Excerpted from ALIEN Thinking: The Unconventional Path to Breakthrough Ideas by Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux and Michael Wade. Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. 

The Authors: 

Cyril Bouquet is a Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD.

Jean-Louis Barsoux is a Research Professor at IMD and is the author of several books, including Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People To Fail.

Michael Wade is a Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD and holds the Cisco Chair in Digital Business Transformation. He is the Director of the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation and author of nine books.