Thinking in new boxes

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on January 27, 2018

Alan Iny

Fresh thinking about the future is important at a time when uncertainty is at an all time high, says BCG’s Alan Iny

The lifespan of a company is getting shorter and shorter. Last year a report by Credit Suisse pointed out that the average age of an S&P 500 company was now under 20 years – a sharp contrast from the 1950s when it was 60 years.

If you look at the Fortune 500 list of 1955 and compare it to last year’s list there are nearly 60 companies that are named on both lists. The reason they have survived so long is probably because they anticipated the future and adapted to it well. This is why it is so important to think creatively about the future.

That’s exactly what Boston Consulting Group’s Alan Iny, who is a member of the firm’s strategy practice leadership team, helps companies to do. Iny, who co-authored a book called Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity stresses the urgency for companies to plan ahead for all contingencies.

Among others, he is helping an Indian energy major map out potential scenarios of the future. Last week, Iny who is based in New York but lives mostly out of suitcases, was in Delhi – and he started off his visit by spending three-and-a-half hours training his own company to think creatively. “I was with 55 senior people at BCG India helping them discover how to bring creativity in solving day to day problems,” he says. “There are definitely tools and techniques to make people think differently. And it’s a fantastically fun technique.

Outsiders vs insiders

Iny says companies really need to start thinking in new boxes because out-of-the-box will not help – it’s too limitless and unstructured. On the other hand, new boxes create a framework for imaginative thinking.

He points out how in industry after industry, rank outsiders have come up with an idea that has changed the sector totally. Uber transformed mobility. It was Facebook and not AOL that revolutionised media. Airbnb has disrupted hospitality.

So what can an insider do to think like an outsider?

“That’s exactly the question that many of my clients are asking,” says Iny. How can we avoid falling into the trap that Henry Ford fell into when he refused to adapt? “What is required is a willingness to examine your assumptions and mental models,” he says.

It’s the job of the leadership team to constantly come up with new ideas. At the same time, care should be taken not to destroy an existing business too early. There are plenty of good ideas but the right timing is also important.

Iny cites the case of YouTube to illustrate that. When it was founded it was just another startup in the business of sharing videos. Others had done it before – but the reason YouTube succeeded was that when it came up, there was enough critical mass of users with high-speed bandwidth.

Trends vs scenarios

The big question is how do companies come up with ideas for the future. According to Iny, everybody is now into predictive thinking – forecasting the future. But prospective thinking – simulating what the future looks like – is under-used. And that’s the need of the hour.

To do so, he advocates Scenario Planning, which can help challenge existing ways of thinking. These ride on trends – but trends alone will not help as they cannot throw up “unknown unknowns”, say, a terrorist attack or a natural calamity.

Instead, the way to do it is imagine four ways in which 2030 will look like. The starting point is to ask “what if” questions. An example he likes to give is ‘What if Google Search goes paid?’

Everything hinges on the right questions being asked. For example, those in the media business have been asking ‘What if Print died?’. The question to be asked, says Iny, is “Imagine it is 2030 and print is dead. What are the reasons?” Immediately, this would lead to people coming up with possible scenarios, some believable and some unbelievable – depleting paper resources, ban on paper to save forest resources, the rise of a new reading device, and so on.

A question that Iny asks clients is ‘What is the probability that air travel goes down 95 per cent? Imagine that it has happened. How did it happen?’

He says the answers that come up range from the rise of fantastic virtual reality, nuclear war, volcanic ash preventing flights and so on.

If you start asking people what if this scenario did happen, then people look at it differently. The instinctive reaction otherwise is to say this will never happen.

One other way of prospective thinking, says Iny, is to shape the future yourself. Once you have mapped the scenarios and got some pointers on future directions you could follow, why not shape it by investing your R&D according to it? Lobby with the government and seize the initiative. Evangelise it to citizens through social media.

Another way would be to invest in a portfolio of good ideas by startups – something a host of big corporations are doing today.

Culture of creativity

What are the cultural changes required in organisations for people to think creatively? The most important one, says Iny, is to empower everyone to challenge the status quo. Non-hierarchical companies do better.

The second is to have a culture that embraces failure. If you have a portfolio of ideas for the future, it will be ridiculous to think that every one of them will work.

The third is that it should flow down from the top. Only if the leader is attuned to creative thinking will it cascade down to the rest of the organisation.

Published on January 17, 2018

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