Why business is like ... Searching for aliens

If the search for new business has been about as fruitful as looking for life on Mars, you may be in luck.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Paul Davies, a leading cosmologist, reckons he knows the root cause of our failure to find alien life - an insight that might be just as helpful in commerce as it is to the cosmos.

Speaking at the Royal Institution last month, Prof Davies claimed that we have yet to find evidence of extraterrestrials not because they don't exist but because we look for them in the wrong way. We are, he says, 'bedevilled by the trap of anthropocentrism - a tendency to use 21st-century human civilisation as a model for what an extraterrestrial civilisation would be like.' So we see only what we are looking for.

We fall into this trap in business. We fix in our mind what a commercial opportunity looks like and we set out to find it, blind to anything that doesn't conform to our ideal. For years, the big music companies couldn't conceive of an opportunity that didn't resemble a square plastic envelope with a CD stuffed inside. Yet opportunities in music were plentiful - just ask Apple, MTV or Jamster.

So if new business ideas are as thin on the ground as aliens with big foreheads and ray-guns, don't give up. Do as Davies suggests: widen your search terms and you may find that there's life out there after all.

- Jennifer Harris is director of JRBH Strategy & Management, www.jrbh.co.uk.

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