Episode: 298 |
Alan Iny:
Thinking in New Boxes:


Alan Iny

Thinking in New Boxes

Show Notes

Alan Iny is the Global Lead for Creativity and Scenarios at Boston Consulting Group, and the co-author of Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity.

In this episode, Alan shares practical tips to unleash creativity in your business.

Follow Alan on Twitter: @Alan_Iny

Alan’s bio at BCG:


Check out Alan’s book: Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman 00:01
Hello and welcome to Unleashed the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional Unleashed is produced by Umbrex, which connects you with the world’s top independent management consultants. I’m your host Will Bachman and I’m here with Alan Eenie, who is at BCG Boston Consulting Group and the author of thinking in new boxes, a new paradigm for business creativity. So Alan is one of Boston Consulting groups like worldwide global experts in creativity. Alan, welcome to the show. Thanks so much. Well, good to hear your voice. Alan, I’m so excited for this conversation. I’ve been looking forward to it really, for years since your book came out. Tell me. What do you mean by new boxes?

Alan Iny 00:45
Well, we have been exhorted for decades, haven’t we to think outside the box. And this is such a well known phrase these days. But at the same time, a lot of the people, the leaders that I come across, are really frustrated with this and frustrated with the traditional approach to running brainstorms. Because, you know, everybody has been in some sort of session where you wallpaper the room with flip charts and post its, and then it goes nowhere. And so the point of new boxes is really to try and overcome some of those hurdles. And what we mean by this kind of new box rubric, which is obviously a play on the out of the box, you know, our claim to start with is that we all think using what I’m calling boxes, other people’s, we’ll call them mental models, assumptions, frameworks, whatever you want. And since we are human beings, and we can’t help thinking using boxes, which we can get into what are some of these examples and so on, then thinking outside the box is like just saying to somebody, well, change the way you’re thinking change the way we’re doing things, and it’s not really productive enough. If we want to actually come up with something useful, we have to find the right new boxes instead. So that’s, that’s where the title came from.

Will Bachman 01:54
Okay, so let’s make it real. Give me a couple examples of what you mean by a box or mental model or framework?

Alan Iny 02:01
Sure, well, look, we all think using these all the time, and some of them are things that stay with us her entire lives. Like, this is what we think about religion or democracy, or how to raise a child, okay, these evolve over time, but they’re, they’re usually stuck. Some of them change every three years, five years, like a corporate strategy or a marketing plan. And some of them change even more regularly. I mean, it can be as simple as a working hypothesis that’s updated whenever we get new information, like the scientific method. But the idea is, we sometimes forget that we’re using these boxes, these mental models, when we say, Well, this is the way it has to be done. This is the way everyone does it. This is how I think about climate change. This is how we think about aging population or any other trend, this is how we think about our competition. All of these are assumptions, all of these are mental models. And even though they seem pretty firm, they are all subject to change. And that, to me is the essence of creativity, changing your existing boxes and finding new ones.

Will Bachman 02:59
So give me an example of a business problem that you’ve worked with, because I know you work with clients around the world for Boston Consulting Group on you know, you know, helping them, you know, be more creative and think of new solutions. Can you give me a sanitized example, where, and then sort of explain what were the boxes that they were using? And then what were some of the new boxes that they you know, that you helped introduce?

Alan Iny 03:26
Sure. Well, if you imagine a sports drinks, think of something like in the realm of Gatorade, Red Bull, you know, one of these sorts of things. Typically, before we started working with them, they were in the same vein, as almost any sort of consumer product, we want to just sell more of our stuff, we want to sell volume. And so they were thinking about themselves in the same way that you might think about a company that sells bags of chips, or Coke, or Pepsi or anything else, they just wanted to win on volume, they wanted to sell more and more stuff. And that’s a mental model, we need to sell more stuff, we need to price accordingly. We need to distribute accordingly. We’re going to win on volume, we’re going to be the biggest we’re going to be the best all of that. And it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. But we wanted to go in and challenge that assumption with them and think about different possible new boxes. And we came up with a lot of them. You know, some of the we went through all sorts of ideation exercises, and we can get into some of my favorites. But the end result was a long list of possible new boxes. They could think about some of their core advantages and what they knew how to do in terms of giving energy and they could go into things like baby food, they could go and compete against ensure or boost their sort of senior protein shakes or whatever. They could go into exercise equipment and run their own chain of gyms because they had a good brand name. Why do they only have to sell sports drinks, they could sell flooded apparel, they could sell anyway, they could move into a lot of different things. And in the end The one they chose to focus on was one called customized sports fuel. How can we come up with, you know, based on a better understanding of every individual customer? How can we come up with the right thing based on their metabolism, their preferences, their energy level, let’s take advantage of all of these measurement of their energy levels and smart devices and sweat and all of this stuff and come up with the right formulation for them. And so it’s no longer a volume play. It’s a personalization play, which is a different business and a different box, a different way of thinking about the business. It’s it’s a fun example, as we’ve seen, it sort of rolled out to different sports teams and customers and all the rest of it.

Will Bachman 05:41
Yeah, much different than than just saying, Okay, I’m going to sell more units. So walk us through the easy talk about five essential steps to spark the next big idea. Walk me through what those steps are. And along the way, I’d love to hear about some of the, you know, ideation exercises that you particularly favor, but like walk us through those steps.

Alan Iny 06:03
Certainly, I’ll start at the beginning, which is this step called doubt. And the reason that is so important to me is because most people skip it. In other words, if you’ve ever been in some sort of ideation, workshop, brainstorm, whatever, where people say, Okay, everybody, here’s some some smart people, we’re all together, whether virtually or live these days. Let’s, let’s think outside the box, let’s get a lot of ideas on the table. You’re basically skipping doubt if you jump straight to the idea generation. So what do I mean by doubt, I mean, taking the time to actually list your existing assumptions, and thoughtfully challenged them. It’s important because as I said before, so many of our boxes are actually implicit and hidden. And if we take the time to make them a bit more clear and explicit, and then say, okay, which ones are set in stone and which ones might be ready for a challenge? It’s a really powerful thing. And I’m dwelling on this one a bit, not just because it’s it’s so often skipped. But because the word doubt is often it’s almost a dirty word. Certainly, in politics, or for CEOs, we say we want someone who’s not a flip flop or someone who’s resolute and so on. But But if you actually think about it, to be unwilling to change your mind, in the face of new information, to me, it’s not a strength. It’s not something that, you know, as the world evolves, as we get new information, we want somebody who can adapt, who is willing to doubt. So anyway, I stressed out because I think it’s really important. And in the case of the of the sports drink player that I described, it was a question of laying out some of their existing ways of thinking about their customers about who they were competing against, and how they priced and what they were actually selling.

Will Bachman 07:42
So see, says, How do you recommend that folks list out their existing assumptions? It’s a little bit like the fish trying to see the water, right. It’s it’s surrounds you and it can be invisible. So what is a way to actually identify what your assumptions are?

Alan Iny 08:01
You’re so right. This is and this is probably why it’s often skipped. It’s a little bit theoretical, and it’s not the easiest, but it’s so important. So I’m glad you asked. I think that one of my favorite exercises is, if I have a clear question that I’m thinking about how can I sell more of x? How can I reinvent my business model? How can I whatever the case may be, how can I cut costs, you can be creative in that to whatever the case may be taking the time to actually just 510 minutes for me with a blank sheet of paper, although there are surely technological solutions to and just thinking what are my existing assumptions and how might they change? And the example that I that I give for this because I love it. It’s 60 years old, but when Herb Kelleher and the gang were sort of inventing Southwest Airlines, how did they actually come up with this new business model, they, they made a sort of inventory of a lot of mental models inherent in the mind of everyone in the airline industry and thought about how they might change. And so everybody would say, we need many types of planes to serve different routes. No, we’re going to have one type of plane, everyone would say we use travel agents, we’re not going to use travel agents. We have assigned seats, we’re gonna have open seats, we have all inclusive pricing, we’re going to have unbundled pricing. We have a hub and spoke network, we’re going to have a point to point network, we fly to airports near the big city, we’re going to fly to secondary out of the way airports, we consider safety, our number one top priority. Well, okay, let’s keep that one. Right. And so it’s, it’s not a question of throwing away all of your existing boxes just because they exist, but it’s a question of listing them, and then being really thoughtful about which ones are really set in stone, and which ones might with no commitment yet. Be ready for a challenge?

Will Bachman 09:47
Yeah. So it sounds like one way to go about this is, you know, if you just ask me, What are all your beliefs about this business? It might be kind of tough, but if you sort of think about every aspect of it, so like, what do I believe about? Customers Okay, what do I believe about the pricing? What do I believe about? How I, you know, reach those customers, the channel or the promotion? So kind of go through each typical aspect of a business plan or other business and say, What do I believe about that thing?

Alan Iny 10:15
Yeah, about our people about technology. Yes, exactly along those lines. And if I use the low cost airline, or some other story as an example, and say, Now think of that analogy with all of the different from two shifts, and come back to your challenge, and all the different pieces of it, as you just outlined, and just take five minutes and lay out a long list of potential from two shifts, it’s as good a way as any of beginning to take that mental inventory.

Will Bachman 10:41
Okay, I love it. So, doubt. Okay, so we’ve questions all our assumptions, we’ve identified our assumptions, what’s the next step?

Alan Iny 10:48
So the next step we call to explore and this is what we’re probably a little bit more comfortable with, I think the idea of exploring is, look, we’re not just going to brainstorm totally out of the blue from scratch, but we’re going to gather the relevant facts, we’re going to gather, maybe it’s customer research, or competitive intelligence, or trends that are relevant, all of this stuff, this is what we sort of know how to do. And the only trick here, again, is to be willing to look at this stuff with fresh eyes. I mean, if you look at the data and the customer research the same way, you’ve always looked at it, it’s it’s an okay, start. But if you’re willing to actually look at things in fresh ways, and recognize that there’s multiple ways of interpreting the same facts, which is not the same as alternative facts, then then you can actually make a lot of progress and how you’re thinking about what’s next.

Will Bachman 11:36
Okay, so we explore we examine it, and what what do we do next? What’s step number three.

Alan Iny 11:42
So then comes the heart of the creative process. And, you know, the next two steps, the divergence and convergence mean, this is what if you ask typical business person, what is creativity, and they know a little bit about brainstorming, they would say divergence and convergence. And so the real ad, in my view, is adding the doubt step at the beginning, as well as then explore and what’s going to come after, but now now we’re at the part that people are more familiar with. So this is the divergence and convergence. These are the two fundamental steps. And they’re totally different. From a mental perspective. You know, divergence is really about going for a lot of ideas, withholding your judgment, going for quantity not worrying yet about which are the good ideas, and which are the bad ones. And there’s a lot of different techniques to do that which I can dig into. Whereas convergence is really the prioritization and selection. And I think, from an individual perspective, you have to be in one or the other, you can’t be doing both at the same time. But from a group perspective, that’s even more important. Because if you find yourselves with, you know, if you’re in a team of people, and half of them are in divergence mode, coming up with wild and crazy things, and the other half is just systematically saying that’ll never work. We tried that once the bus won’t like it, and so on. It’ll be frustrating for both sides, actually. And it’ll, it’ll lead to nothing, because the divergent people will stop coming up with ideas and the convergent, people will say, Why are you being so ridiculous, and it’ll just go nowhere. So both individually and for a group, just really clearly laying out time for divergence, whether it’s 20 minutes, or three hours or two weeks, or whatever. And separately, having time for convergence? And it can be an interesting as well.

Will Bachman 13:21
Yeah, I guess that really, that helps me this idea of being explicit about what stage you’re in. Because I’ve certainly felt that where you’re with a team member, you’re kind of at loggerheads, because, you know, maybe you’re in the mood of coming up with ideas, and they’re shooting them down is a well, I’m just still kind of brainstorming, you know, or vice versa. That can be very frustrating. Okay, so I do want to come back to these and hear about some techniques for both divergence and convergence. What’s that? What’s the final step?

Alan Iny 13:52
The final step, then is, is re evaluate. And all I mean by this is really being willing to go back to the beginning. And the logic here is that no good idea lasts forever, which is, which is easy to say. But what do I mean by that? If we accept, the world is constantly changing, which is clearly true, maybe it’s changing more quickly in the last couple of months, than in a while. But the world is always changing. You can’t swim in the same river twice is the old Heraclitus loves philosophical way of saying it. But our mental models change in much more of a step function way, the idea of changing a box from this is how we think about something to that’s how we might think about it. It’s much more of a step function thing. And so all I’m saying with that is that at some point, every one of our boxes will become out of date. And it’s really just a question of when it’s another way of saying, no good idea will last forever, whether it’s the Model T Ford or the iPhone or Coca Cola secret formula, or anything like this. No good idea will last forever. And so the interesting thought exercise here for a CEO, you know, if you ask if you ask somebody in math In a perfectly well run organization, where every department is doing their job and everything is running smoothly, what’s left then for the CEO to do, and people can joke and say, Well, she should just go play golf, then but, but what’s left for the CEO to do? In fact, her only role is to think about what’s next. And when to reevaluate, to think about what the next big thing is. And when and both of those two things are super important. But really, what it means is going back to doubt going back to the beginning, and being willing to sort of just reevaluate and think what’s next,

Will Bachman 15:35
on an ongoing basis. Let’s, let’s talk a bit about divergence. What are some of your favorite techniques to get a group to come up with a lot of a lot of ideas?

Alan Iny 15:47
Sure, well, all of these are going to be premised on the fact that we are all well intentioned, human beings. And that’s a wonderful thing and a challenging thing. And so any sort of approach to to ideation to divergence phase in particular, will be premised on some of the ways our minds work. So let’s put it this way. If we gather 20, people from an organization all of whom have, I don’t know, two months, two years, 20 years of experience in the organization tasked with coming up with new ideas, of course, we want to take advantage of that experience that they have in the industry and with the company. But we also need to push them a little bit away from their existing boxes, and their existing ideas that they walked into the room with. Otherwise, we’re not going to come up with anything new. So how can we manage that? And there’s a couple of ways. Actually, there’s an infinite number of ways, but they’re all the same? Because all of them are premised on? How can we nudge people a little bit away from their traditional mindsets? So one of them taking the perspective of a different company? How would Apple tackle this challenge? If they were here in our shoes? How would Disney tackle this challenge if they were here in our shoes? And if it’s a question of delighting the customer, or thinking about new ways of marketing, those are good companies to choose. If it’s a cost cutting exercise, how would Ryanair tackle this challenge? If they were here in our shoes,

Will Bachman 17:11
you know, if we’re on that, because it, you know, it That reminds me of something that Steven pressfield talks about, in one of his books that, you know, obviously the author of the War of Art, and an a novelist, and he talks about how it’s very strange how he calls it, the Muse can help you write the thoughts of a character who is smarter than you. So, heels, you know, sometimes they’ll have a character that he says is smarter than he is. But he puts himself in the mind of that character and writing that character, it comes out and he doesn’t have no idea where it comes from, or wiser than he is. And that that roleplay idea can be so powerful of just imagining that you are like you say, Disney or Coca Cola or Apple or, or what would you know, a younger person do or old wise person do is a fascinating creativity technique. Thanks for sharing that one. That’s very cool.

Alan Iny 18:06
I think that’s lovely. Because again, thinking about, you know, what would Disney do? What would I mean? They would, they would think about using technology in cool ways behind the scenes, Apple would think about a Genius Bar, how could that apply to my business? How could anyway, all of these different sorts of things? How would Starbucks think about personalization, if they were here, instead of me and, and really replicating some of that. But another one that’s also related to what you what you mentioned, there is not only taking a different company perspective, but picking some stakeholder, whether it’s one of your I don’t know, factory employees or one of your customers, or a political figure who was affected by your business? And not just saying, What do I have to do in order to please this customer? Who might be I don’t know, a 23 year old student in Peoria or a 76 year old retired woman in I don’t know where Seattle? Yes, by all means, being specific about them is is helpful. It’s a good start. But not just what do we have to do to get them to be excited about our product, but imagine, it’s three years from now. And they are excited about our product? Imagine three years from now. And the mayor of our town is raving excitedly about our factory. Imagine it’s three years from now and our employee is refusing to leave even though they’re getting more lucrative offers from the competition. Why? What specifically did we start doing now in order to get on the path towards that happy future? And I think that this this mindset of, of not how can we make such a thing happen as them being delighted, but imagine they are delighted three years from now, what did we do to make that happen? It really unlocks something for people and opens minds up a little bit to get new possibilities on the table. So it’s Yes, taking a stakeholder perspective, as you mentioned, and also allowing people to look back from afar positive future state.

Will Bachman 20:01
I love that, you know, I’ve heard that technique used before, for what’s called like a pre mortem, where you say, assume this project fails, like two years from now, like, why did it fail? But you know, but this is a nice twist on it of saying people are, you know, thrilled and delighted explain why that was somehow just almost assuming that it happened. And trying to explain it puts you in a different frame of mind.

Alan Iny 20:27
Yes, I’ve done the sort of nightmare version as well as the sort of positive future dream version. And they both have their place. I think the pre mortem is great for these sort of, you know, absolute can’t fail sorts of initiatives and trying to be creative and coming up with Well, how could it fail, and then trying to avoid that, of course, avoiding the nightmare is good. But thinking about how to achieve the dream when it comes to new creative product or service or business model ideas or even cross cutting ideas, whatever you want. It’s, it’s, it’s more aspirational in some sense.

Will Bachman 20:58
Alright, cool. So what any, what other techniques that you love for ideation,

Alan Iny 21:05
some of the others are even around. One of my favorites is taking different analogues of business model innovation, and thinking, Okay, how could these sorts of business model innovations apply to our business? And so we’ve seen Apple do these sorts of products to experience shift, we’ve seen many players do the low cost shift. We’ve seen players like Google and Facebook give their product away for free and monetize through other means. We’ve seen anyway, a lot of different examples of business model innovation. How could each of these archetypes apply to us? That’s another favorite one that I use a lot. And I’ve got this long list of 25 archetypes. Another one is changing the question, even even sort of reformulating the question, sometimes without using keywords can be a very powerful thing. You know, people have this sense that, oh, to be creative, we need an unconstrained blue sky, no guardrails type of thing. But actually, sometimes adding constraints can make you more productive. The the the analogy here is that if you know any poets or musicians, and I know you do, you know, sometimes a blank slate or a blank canvas is harder than saying, write a haiku or write a sonnet which has very specific rules to it. Creativity sometimes thrives when there are constraints. So the constraint I’m proposing in this case, is actually describing the question or describing the business without using any of the most important keywords. So let me give you an example. If I ask someone to tell me some random person on the street, what is Starbucks? Let’s say, well, it’s a coffee shop, or a chain of coffee shops, or an American coffee shop, depending where I am. Fine. What if I asked you to describe Starbucks without using the word coffee? Or tea? or Java? I mean, it’s not about being a thesaurus here. Well, then people will say things like, I don’t know, you will would probably have some creative ideas. What would you say? If you had to do this?

Will Bachman 23:06
I call it it’s the third place?

Alan Iny 23:08
Yeah. Okay. Third place is how they want to be known after your, your, your home and office. Other people might say, well, it’s a place to do my work, it’s a place to hang out, it’s part of my routine. It’s, it’s the epi headquarters, it’s a place to go get free Wi Fi, whatever. Okay, so there’s a lot of ways you can describe it. And actually, if you are thinking about it as a coffee shop and trying to come up with new ideas, then you can come with different flavors, and different sizes of cup and Madagascar versus Costa Rica, whatever, fine. But if you’re thinking about it as a place to work, then maybe you should install printers and sell that for $1 page or conference rooms in the back in select locations. Or maybe if it’s a place to hang out, you should start selling music, which is what they did 1015 years ago, and, and so on and so forth. You’re coming with ideas that are no longer just about the coffee. So often, you know, if you’re a bank, describing yourselves without using the words mortgage and lending, and all the rest can be quite interesting.

Will Bachman 24:05
Yeah, no, I mean, that’s a good point. So what would be some ways on divergence? So let’s talk about that a little bit.

Alan Iny 24:16
I think that the most important thing here is to really go for quantity, whichever techniques you use, you want to wallpaper the room virtually or live with a lot of different possibilities. Because you have no idea which ones will work well, it might be this spark of an idea, combined with something we tried two years ago that was before it’s time, that’ll that’ll be the answer. Or this spark combined with a spark from the next exercise, that’s the winner, or this spark combined with something that we think of on our right home tonight, or in the shower tomorrow morning. And so really just going for quantity. It was Linus Pauling, the double Nobel Prize winner who said the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas and so really going for corn Today and politely banning judgment, those coupled with the with with a range of different techniques to try are the best way I know to sort of handle this divergence phase and get a lot of things on the table.

Will Bachman 25:14
Yeah? And how? What’s the very practical tips that you found, you know, running many, many of these sessions on, mechanically how to get those ideas together? Like, what do you like sort of the yellow stickies on the wall? Or do you have tips on making sure people do it silently on their own first or shouting it out? One at a time? Like, what are some of the actual very tactical recommendations you have when you’re leading, you know, facilitating a group session? To get the ideas? And how do you put them on the wall? To put them on them? Yeah. How do you mechanically do it?

Alan Iny 25:52
Yeah, great. So there’s a lot of there’s a lot of techniques. Now some of these might might be sort of the the realm of facilitators choice type thing where there’s more than one correct answer. But some of these, and I’ll try to elucidate which are which are based on, you know, my, based on academic research and all the rest of it, right. Because in the end, you know, posted versus flip charts or in the online world, we’re in now Miro versus Lino versus Trello versus whatever else, okay, they’re all they’re all reasonable tools. And I don’t mind that much, although I have my own preferences. But I think there are definitely some guidelines that make sense overall. Number one, if you’re going for quantity, much better to have people sort of think for themselves first for a minute or two and lay out their ideas, and then start sharing them back, but not even sharing them back in a sort of judgy way of shooting down others and all the rest, but sharing them back in a yes, and let’s build on everybody else’s ideas sort of way. So that’s number one. Number two is if we can find a way to, at least for most of the sorts of people that I work with, if we can find a way to motivate them with a little bit of friendly competition, you know, the table that has the most ideas wins a copy of the book signed, or the whatever it is something to just push them for friendly competition. It works. I’ve done experiments where, you know, we’re split into three breakout groups, and I go and whisper to one. Okay, you have 10 minutes, and I need you to come up with at least 40 ideas, and I whispered to the next table, I need you to come up with at least 60. And the next table are my guinea pigs where I don’t say anything. Well, the group that I told 40 came up with 42. And the group that I told 60 came up with 63. And the group that I didn’t say anything typically will come up with less than 40. And I know it’s not a statistically significant sample, but but some form of motivation, target setting friendly competition, all of that helps to, I think, also setting up not only just making sure everybody has a clear view of the question and how to participate, expect to be cold, called whatever it is, keep your video on if it’s an online, brainstorm, whatever it is, these kinds of rules, making them really clear, upfront, but also, the most senior person there sometimes requires a little bit of coaching in advance, in the sense of saying, Hey, this is not a regular meeting, we are forgetting about hierarchy here, you need to either just participate like everyone else, put wild ideas out there, or keep your mouth shut. Because if you and of course, as a client service person, you you know, the right diplomatic ways to say that, but this person either needs to not be there or just participate like everyone else, because if they in the first few minutes, shoot something down and say I’m not sure about that one. Not only will that idea be dead, but everyone else will be nervous for the next two hours to raise anything remotely outside the realm of the ordinary. So preparing the senior person ensuring there’s no hierarchy, ensuring that everybody is politely empowered to enforce the no judgment rule, and so on and so forth. All of that helps.

Will Bachman 29:03
You mentioned some online tools. So for someone who’s doing a session like this over over zoom, let’s say or video conference, what are some technical tools that you found work well, for, you know, getting a group of people to generate some ideas? Sure,

Alan Iny 29:21
yeah. This is one of those where I think there’s a lot of good answers depending on the need. But for starters, on the communication front, I do happen to like zoom. I find it cooler for this sort of thing than some of the more traditional approaches like WebEx, but they can both work. One reason why is that breakouts are easier on zoom, although they’re still possible on WebEx for example. But another one is that you know, if you start off in gallery mode, and you know, tell everybody turn off your your mute button, and everybody yell Good morning or good afternoon on the count of 123, something like that. Or you Just ask people to all make the same face on the count of three, everybody looks scared, everybody looks surprised whatever the case may be, it can be just a 32nd exercise in making people feel like this is not just another meeting among my 47 hours of zoom this week. So things like that are can be kind of fun on zoom. You can also do like virtual high fives to the person in the next box or something like that kind of a good idea. So, but then when it comes to the ideas themselves, right, yes, you can do some form of idea collecting and zoom, because there is a whiteboard function. And there is a polling function and a yes, no, and a chat and whatever. But I actually usually prefer having a secondary platform than the communication one for the actual idea collection, and idea prioritization. And the reason why is just that that there, there are other tools. I mean, zooms whiteboard and chat function are fine for a communication tool, but they’re a little bit simplistic sometimes for brainstorm. And there’s a variety of things that I like a lot for, for the ladder. Fun, retro is one that I liked, because it’s the most idiot proof from a tech perspective. So if I’m with a new client, and we only have 30 minutes for a brainstorm, so I don’t want them to have to download a tool and set up a login or whatever else, then fun, retro is a great way to go. It’s, it looks a little bit like a project management tool, in a sense, but the idea is you have a bunch of columns. And these columns could be different categories of ideas, or it could even just be person a person B, person C, person D, and each is the header for each column. And then when it’s time, everybody can just punch in all their ideas, new card, new card, new card, new card all going down the column. So I’ll have one column of ideas from john and one from Mary, and, and so on, and so forth. And then we can just talk about the ideas look at them, we can move them around easily. And we can also vote on them because there’s a sort of heart function for like, so everybody gets five hearts, or 10 hearts or three hearts. And we’re able to do a rough and simple prioritization and convergence as well. There are other tools that so that’s the simplest possible one, there are others that are a bit more complex, like Nero or Leno, which I liked a lot. And in both cases, the things that those add are the ability to sort of have multiple categories of voting, like the best short term ideas, the best out there ideas, not just the simple heart or not heart, you can elaborate on the ideas a little bit more, you can group them into different sections, more like a virtual whiteboard. So they add a lot more functionality. So if it’s a deeper exercise a bit longer, and you might try one of those, but they, you know, they setting up an account and all the rest, it’s a little bit more of a thing. So I don’t know if that helps.

Will Bachman 32:53
It does. While we’re on the top of technology, any technology tools that you like, for an individual doing some brainstorming? Do you just see pencil and paper? Or do you like any kind of Mind Mapping type software?

Alan Iny 33:13
recognizing that that’s a question of personal taste. I am the Luddite who still uses paper and pencil and post its and, and whatever else. I do use Trello from a sort of project management perspective, and you can also use it for ideation. But I know you will, and many of your listeners are probably much more tech savvy than me, I tend to be a little bit of a, of a Luddite in that particular regard for myself.

Will Bachman 33:38
Yeah, I don’t know about being tech savvy. But I I’m a pencil and paper guy, mostly I actually have two desks. And I have one desk with a computer and one desk with without a computer when I just want to work in my notebook. So I almost feel it sitting in a different spot, you know, helps. Let’s talk a little bit about the convergence. So once you have a bunch of ideas, what are some of the tips that you have for narrowing those down, I always find that this is one of the harder parts of facilitating, because you get a bunch of ideas. Now you’re trying to now rank them in a typical consultant is saying, Okay, well impact and feasibility or something like that, but and then it’s always Okay, what’s the how do we judge feasibility? So, what are some tips that you have for convergence of narrowing down and prioritization?

Alan Iny 34:29
You are so right, because you can debate impact in terms of size of the prize, short term, long term, whatever you want. You can debate feasibility in terms of our capabilities or, or ease of implementation or whatever you want. But but in the end that Okay, let’s suppose it’s some combination of those or, or maybe some constraints like we absolutely can’t spend more than x or it has to be done in less than x years or months, whatever, fine. All of these criteria, hopefully is not a two hour discussion to have. But you can get them out there. The reality is, let’s suppose you’ve just done a divergence where you’ve wallpapered the room with ideas virtually or live, you’ve got hundreds of posts, or virtual posts, whatever you want. That’s wonderful. That’s great. Now, the reality is that those will be apples and oranges in a number of dimensions, some of them will be easy, some will be hard, some will be short term, some will be long term, some will be clear, some will be half baked and and need more thought. Some will be incremental, some will be out there transformational ideas. So there’s a lot of different criteria, there’s a lot of different categories of these ideas, even before you get to good or not good on whatever convergence criteria you’re after. So what I have found, what tends to work well, if I’m given only two or three hours for a brainstorm, I want to spend as much of that as possible on the actual divergence phase to get a lot of ideas on the table. But I do still think it’s useful to have a quick convergence at the end of that session. Because a it makes people feel better mentally, they don’t want to end on a very open note, they want to express their preferences. And it’s also directionally useful. I mean, let’s let’s face it, after a three hour brainstorm, there will be plenty of work to do afterwards, in terms of organizing and collating and removing duplication of ideas. And ultimately making business cases before landing on the three or five or seven, that we’re really going to dig into, that’s fine, some of that can come after the meeting. So the best way that I know to do a quick and dirty convergence, which by the way, I think typically will lead to the same results, roughly roughly, as a more thorough one where you have points assigned to every idea on four different criteria and take a longer time to do it is I tend to say, let’s split the ideas into two categories, the ones that are clear and ready to go, and we should get on it tomorrow. So these are the ones that are impactful, feasible, ready to go, I can’t believe we’re not doing it already. Let’s put a team on it. Which by the way, doesn’t mean necessarily short term, or small or quick, it just means clear and ready to go. And the second category is the ideas that are a little bit more out there, a little bit more half baked, like in the old days at Google where people had some proportion of their time to devote to their passion projects. This is something I think could be the next big thing, this is something I would be excited about for a passion project, I don’t think we should let go of it. And the reason I like having that in there is because if I just say go and pick your top three or top fives that are ready to go, we won’t have anything out there, we won’t have anything transformational. And so I say to people, you know, pick your top three in the first category and your top three in the second category, which could be you know, three green stickers and three blue stickers, or it could be three virtual hearts and three virtual Thumbs up for I don’t know, whatever it is, but some form of let’s pick our top sort of ready to go ideas and our top out there wild passion project type of ideas. And that to me is the sort of quick and dirty version of convergence. After that. Yes. Okay, we take the ones with the most votes, and then we refine them, we reward them, we elaborate on them, we make the business cases we we do a lot. Okay, so that’s the stuff we know how to do. But hopefully that helps in terms of how to do it quickly in the in the setting of the workshop?

Will Bachman 38:35
It does. Do you recommend doing the convergence sort of at the same day? Or is there some value in letting everybody sit on it for a day or two?

Alan Iny 38:46
It’s a great question. Because if you sit on it for a day or two, not only will will you let the ideas percolate for lack of a better word. But you’ll also have more, you know, people often have great ideas on their commute home or the next morning in the shower, or whatever over a drink in the evening. So more ideas will come. That’s fine. But I don’t think it I liked the idea of a 1020 minute Quick, quick and dirty convergence, as I described at the end of a workshop. And then if you do that, then during the course of the next couple of days, yes, get more things on the table or the next week or whatever. And then come back, as you say, and you can as part of the process of refinement and more detailed prioritization, you can then go ahead and think about what it would take to get going and who needs to be involved and what additional data do we need before making a final decision. And you can get into all of that after, but I still don’t mind the idea of a quick and dirty one at the end of the workshop because it gives some useful direction for what comes next.

Will Bachman 39:48
Let’s talk about the pandemic. Now. Boston Consulting Group has put out a ton of great content on you know, helping clients think through how to respond And I’m sure that you’ve been in part of a lot of the thinking, what sorts of creativity and innovations and, and new ways of doing work? Have you seen coming out? And obviously, we’ll keep it sanitized here. But what have you seen over the past couple months, as people respond to the pandemic?

Alan Iny 40:22
Well, there’s two really important things. One is the world of creativity and innovation. I mean, you know, recognizing the challenges and all of the issues that so many people, human beings and organizations are facing. This is a massive time of challenge, but it’s also a massive time of opportunity. And so from a creativity perspective, let’s find ways to challenge our business models, let’s find ways to find new boxes and break assumptions that we’ve never done before. So, so absolutely, I’m having a lot of conversations like that. But one of the other dimensions of my work that we haven’t gone too deep into is this realm of scenario planning, which I define as, how can we think creatively about what’s coming in the future? And these days, when you hear the word scenarios, there’s plenty of great and important thinking from BCG and others about, you know, the epidemiological stuff, is there going to be a second wave? How bad is it going to be? And the economic stuff? What’s the recession going to look like? And when is demand going to recover? And when can we and then of course, the workplace stuff, when can we reopen? And and how can we reopen? And how’s it gonna work and Bubba? And the reality is that, of course, all of that short term stuff is important. And it’s not what I’ve been involved in, what I have been involved in is what’s next, the medium term, this the sort of new reality that we all might have to operate in. And it’s a fantastic thing. Because if you, if you ask somebody who’s been sort of really heads down in crisis management for the last couple of months, which could be about the balance sheet, it could be about cash management, it could be about their people, it could be about how do we stuff, whatever, all of that is legitimate. But then when you say, Okay, what about the new reality, the medium term that we might have to upgrade in? And they say, Well, I guess they’ll probably be more virtual than before, because it seems to be working. And, and then they might pause, because there’s, there’s not enough thought yet about that. And to me, there’s still so much amazing uncertainty. You know, we don’t know what the world will look like in terms of globalization versus protectionism, or in terms of income inequality, or in terms of climate change, or in terms of which technologies we’ll be using the role of government, federal versus state versus local, or EU versus national versus whatever other depending on the place you’re in. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty still. So we’ve been laying out these kinds of different scenarios for what the new reality might look like. And it’s a fun creative exercise. But it’s also a powerful one to increase resilience. Because you can sort of immerse yourselves in each of these scenarios and say, Alright, how would we prepare for this one? How would we prepare for that one? And then are there some no regret moves that make sense across all of them are some contingent moves we should plan for, but not pull the trigger on? And it’s really quite an interesting way to apply creativity to, to thinking about the future.

Will Bachman 43:20
Have you had any clients, you’re going through an exercise like this, and where they will then take a set of scenarios and, you know, put a team against each one of them and say, okay, you’re responsible for planning and starting putting in place steps two, you know, in case scenario B happens, and you have, you know, you have scenario F, you know, is, how do companies at once you come up with a scenario, what do you do with these set of scenarios?

Alan Iny 43:49
Yeah, I think it’s, um, the issue is how deep to go into all of this, right? So the answer to your question is, yes, I have done that. But the question is, do we split into four teams tackle the four scenarios and come up with a detailed plan for what we would do if we had a crystal ball and knew this one was going to happen? Okay, but then what, then we have four strategies, that by itself doesn’t help. So then we have to come back together and say, Are there some no regret moves that we need to make regardless, so in every scenario, we need to be prepared to I don’t know, have temperature checks and have Team A and Team B when we reopen the office. And, you know, in every scenario, we need to tighten our relationship with local government in every scenario, we need to become more agile, and use these tech tools and think about acquisitions of X or Y. But there are some other moves that will only make sense if X or Y happens, and then we can also be better prepared to pull the trigger. If it turns out that there is a massive second wave if it turns out that this particular election goes that way or this way, if it turns out that the regulator issues this sort of requirement, etc, etc, and so on. It’s a question of better preparedness, as well as a clearer view of no regret moves.

Will Bachman 45:08
Could you talk a little bit about how you became one of the creativity gurus at Boston Consulting Group? It’s not a standard consultant path. Right. So, you know, so how did how did that happen? Well,

Alan Iny 45:26
so many answers to that question. But the short answer is, one starts out by being a left handed mathematical musician. And whatever sort of interest in creativity that that ultimately leads to, in my case, one decides to go get an MBA at Columbia, in my case, and point, you know, yes, learning more about the world of business, but also digging into a world of creativity, and how can we think about what we want the world to look like and how our role in that happens. And then, I joined BCG in 2003, for what I thought would be a year or two before I went back to the nonprofit world of classical music and arts management. But it turns out that I liked the people. And I liked the culture. And I liked the idea of solving business problems. And so I spent five, six years there on the regular track in the sort of heading heading close to the partner direction, before realizing that it wasn’t what I wanted, that from a motivation perspective, the thou shalt sell x million a year mental model was not the right one for me. But the right mental model for me was the thou shalt be the global expert on creativity. And so I started spending more and more of my time digging deeper into it, and thinking that there was a real opportunity here for how to think about it. My co author on the book is somebody I started working with then he’s now a 70 year old, eccentric Belgian philosopher. And when I met him, of course, he was a 60 year old eccentric Belgian philosopher. And we did a lot more work together, we started writing bits and pieces together, which ultimately turned into a Random House book that’s in 12 languages. And, and so then, really shaping this expert role that didn’t exist before, as the global creativity guy kind of emerged from that the book, in a sense, replaced my business card, and has been a way to really deepen the relationships. And so, of course, my clients are all sorts of Fortune 500, or equivalent types of players around the world. But in some sense, my clients, my customers, could also be seen as BCG Global Partnership as the sort of 1600 or 2000 partners around the world, who, who are my partners who bring me in to this project or that project. And I have this amazing pleasure of working really across every industry and sector last year in 18 countries, although this year, it’s probably 18 countries as well, but not live. And it’s just a massive variety, which happens to be a good fit for someone like me.

Will Bachman 48:07
So beyond kind of going out and consuming, and you know, research, the research that had been done, to what degree Did you kind of test out different techniques to see what worked in practice in a real business setting? As you develop the book

Alan Iny 48:25
all the time, I mean, this, this is the essence of it. I mean, thinking in new boxes, is something that I have found tremendously useful for a lot of clients. But it’s not an academic tome. It’s a tome based on practical client experience and research, we tell stories about the work that Luke and I have done with clients. And in the same way that for the last two, three months, I’ve been experimenting with virtual tools in ways that I never really had to before. But the same principles of how we think and how human beings can come up with new ideas still apply? Well, I mean, that’s what it was. Then it was thinking which stories which energy anecdotes, which examples do we want to give to illustrate these principles of how we think and come up with new ideas. And so if we were writing it today, sure, there would be more about virtual brainstorms and all the rest, but the principles of how we think and how we work together, and how new ideas are generated remain the same.

Will Bachman 49:21
Alan, for anyone who hears this episode and wanted to follow up with you or get in touch, what’s the best place for people to go online if you want to give, you know, I can also include it in the show notes?

Alan Iny 49:35
Sure, I think the easiest is thinking in New boxes.com which will take you to plenty of short articles and videos and all the rest about the concepts. And I’m also easy to find on LinkedIn and Twitter for anyone who wants to engage more directly with the stuff, but maybe that’s a good start.

Will Bachman 49:50
Fantastic. Alan, it’s been so fun to talk to you about this and thinking in new boxes. five essential steps to spark The next big idea, a new paradigm for business creativity. It’s been great hearing about the book. Thanks so much for joining the show today. Thanks well, lovely to talk with you.

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