Alan Iny is the global leader and director at Creativity and Scenarios at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). He has trained thousands of executives and consultants, runs workshops across industries, and speaks around the world about coming up with products, services, and other ideas for an innovative future. Iny is the author of the bestselling book Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Montreal, Canada, with music, cousins, and community as big parts of my life. I had no idea how important those things would always remain for me – not only is there always a tune running through my head, but it’s amazing to work on music with my daughter now and to take lessons from music to the corporate world. It is also pretty special to have some hundreds of wonderfully close cousins all over the world.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I struggle with attempts to eliminate uncertainty! I accept that we are all human beings who dislike uncertainty: we don’t like not knowing how long a quarantine will last, or what our business will look like next year, or what our health will be like in five years. And so we get tempted to try and reduce uncertainty – certainly eating healthy and exercising can improve the odds of good health, and there are similar things you can do to help improve the odds for your business or even for quarantines in your community. But in the end, the uncertainty will remain, at some level. And we all have to be careful not to succumb to false prophets who say they have a beautiful model that can help you predict your revenues out 10 years, or tell you they’ve run millions of simulations and this is what the economy will be like next year. By all means, let’s engage – but let’s remember that uncertainty is inherent to our world, more now than ever before, and the best we can do is become better prepared and help shape the future in a constructive way.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
It is a default of saying “yes” when asked to do something in my professional life, and wherever possible, assuming positive intent on the part of those I’m interacting with. If this becomes too much of a challenge, then I ask myself what I am learning from the interaction.
What is your morning routine?
My natural rhythm is early-to-bed, early-to-rise…typically 9:30 pm-5:30 am. And I have not used an alarm in decades to wake up – if I’ve got something important in the early morning, I set one just in case, but invariably wake up a couple of minutes before it goes off. And so my morning routine would be to catch up on reading or email and do the daily New York Times crossword, before breakfast with my ten-year-old daughter.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
My wife, daughter, and I all try to be aware of the pull that screens and mobile devices have on all of us in my family. But sometimes awareness is not enough – and so we put in some rules as well. We started with no phones at the dinner table and no phones in the bedroom. But it’s also been quite powerful to have no alerts on my phone or desktop for new email messages – I check when it suits me.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I try to block out time on my calendar for whatever needs doing – not just meetings, which appear there all the time, but time to think and write, time to walk or have a family lunch, and more.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
When I joined Boston Consulting Group in 2003, I expected to stay for 1-2 years and then go back to running nonprofits in the classical music space. But I loved the people, the culture, and ultimately the chance to dig deep into the creativity space. And so perhaps it seems silly to mention my own book here (Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity, Random House, 2013) – but in terms of influencing my life, there is certainly no parallel. I never planned to write a book, but doing so has changed my life in terms of exploring why business leaders are frustrated with the traditional approaches to creativity, and then developing some prescriptions to help. Since the book came out, I have worked with clients around the world and in every industry to stretch horizons and ponder new possibilities, which has been an amazing gift.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
There are two that that guide me professionally: “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas”, from Linus Pauling. This is a great reminder to suspend judgment and get a lot of possibilities on the table before worry about which ones are good. And secondly, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”, from Dwight Eisenhower (and others spoke similarly). This one helps make the case for thinking prospectively about what might happen, and preparing for a variety of contingencies – while also remaining ready to adapt at all times.
The quote I really attempt to live by, though, is about life being a journey, not a destination. Or put differently, to enjoy the process because then the outcome will not be an issue. This is a powerful thing, especially these days when we are being pulled in so many directions. Finding opportunities to really do things that I enjoy, personally and professionally, is so important. Put yet another way, if I flip a phrase around from the US’ Declaration of Independence, I believe life should be much more about the “happiness of pursuit” than the “pursuit of happiness.”