“Innovation and creativity do not have to be mysteries,” says Rowan Gibson, globally recognized innovation author and consultant. Gibson says that modern business innovation is no longer “management theory” but has evolved into “management science” -- proven processes, methodologies and tools successfully used by some of the biggest companies and most creative small business entrepreneurs to generate hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. He is on a mission to change attitudes and assumptions and prove that “innovation can be an all-the-time, everyday, everywhere capability that anyone, in any position, in any company, can use.” In a recent webinar to discuss his new book, The Four Lenses of Innovation -- A Power Tool For Creative Thinking, Rowan outlined the four ways to spur innovation.
His commonsense approach in developing the methodology came from having spent 15 years working globally with companies and entrepreneurs across industries, distilling the most successful elements of hundreds of real-world business innovation cases. He also spent years studying the history of successful innovators. He has analyzed the thinking processes of both modern innovators such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Anita Roddick and Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and innovators from history, including Einstein, Edison and Leonardo da Vinci (Rowan offers an insightful dissection of the Renaissance). Through this inquiry and analysis, he says he has uncovered discrete, consistent patterns of thinking common to all innovators, including the steps they’ve taken that led them to their insights. He has also looked at ways of emulating their successful thinking.
What he found were “profoundly simple and elegant ways to free people to think in new ways.” He fashioned these into “the four lenses,” or ways to look at challenges.
1. The first way is to challenge orthodoxies. A core trait of successful innovators is that they are essentially contrarians -- rebels -- willing to question the status quo and conventional wisdom and to rethink everything. What if we zig while others zag? Like Columbus, who asked what if we travel west instead of east? Finding new solutions means challenging your thinking, assumptions and the current established practices of your firm and industry, and asking yourself, “What if I do it differently, or do the opposite?” It is important to apply this perspective and line of questioning consistently in all planning and implementation meetings. Ask tough, challenging questions.
2. The second method is to harness trends. Successful innovators do not bury themselves into their daily activities but apply a wide-angled lens. They make sure that they are aware of major changes going on in the business and cultural environment in which they operate and actively keep asking how they can bring those changes into their business model to create new value.
3. The third method is to leverage resources. While all companies have a specific set of skills and strategic assets, innovators keep looking to use their resources in different ways -- stretching, reformatting or using outside partners’ resources to create new value for their customers (like Lego does in licensing Star Wars and Marvel characters). Corning is another great example of a company that has continuously been redeploying and stretching its core competencies, finding new opportunities in things like fiber optics and iPad touch screens. The company has never stood still, and it has looked for new ways to use its knowledge and resources, consistently expanding its business model into new growth areas.
4. The fourth way innovation comes about is when people uncover unmet needs. Most customers did not ask for Uber, Skype, Airbnb, etc. True innovators are able to spot unmet, unvoiced needs by proactively digging deeply and getting “under their customers’ skins,” into their thoughts and feelings, to discover the customers’ underlying pain points, then finding ways to turn these into “bliss points.” But to do that, you need to go beyond surveys and focus groups and become more like anthropologists.
Being effective does not mean following each lens in order. (There is no specific hierarchy.) The power, he states, is instead in the cumulative effect of using all four approaches. Many companies may be doing, to some extent, No. 2 (studying trends in their industry) or No. 4 (doing some kind of customer research), but few companies go deep enough and systematically apply all four approaches.
Rowan makes a key point: Instead of just sitting down and doing generalized brainstorming, innovators using these specific lenses focus their thinking on real trends and real customer needs. These approaches allow you to discover and challenge your specific assumptions and look at your real resources in new ways so you can harness them in your business model. These methods also uncover organizational patterns, ways of doing things that we don’t even think about anymore, that might no longer work and need changing.
Rowan was asked during the webinar if it was really possible to change the way a person thinks. He explained that while we cannot turn people into natural reflexive innovators, we can teach them to deliberately and systematically use the proven thinking patterns of top innovators. As he’s taught employees and managements at all levels of different organizations to see these patterns, he says they have started coming up with ideas that amazed even them -- because they had never previously thought of themselves as creative. This can be a very empowering experience and create a greater sense of creative confidence and engagement in the participants.