Rowan Gibson is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on business innovation. The media have labeled him “Mr. Innovation”, “the Innovation Grandmaster”, “the W. Edwards Deming of innovation” and “a guru among the gurus”. He is the internationally bestselling author of three major books on business strategy and innovation which have been published to date in over 20 languages. Rowan’s new book – The Four Lenses of Innovation (Wiley, 2015) – provides a practical tool for radical business creativity.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you talk about the importance of developing the ability to view the big picture?
Rowan: Yes, it’s critical to avoid the kind of “business myopia” that afflicts so many people and organizations today, where we find it incredibly difficult to see beyond our current success strategies. You know, the world around us is changing in very non-linear and exponential ways. So the future of any given industry is not going to be a linear extrapolation of the past. It’s going to be different from the past, perhaps in radical ways. Which means that today’s success recipes may actually turn out to be recipes for disaster tomorrow. And this can happen sooner than we think.
Did Kodak foresee the lightning-fast adoption of digital photography by Gen Y, and its implications for the future of film? Did Blockbuster foresee the rapid shift to on-demand streaming media via the Internet, and what that would do to Main Street video rental stores? Did the world’s taxi services foresee the overnight shift to private transportation startups like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, and how this would potentially disrupt their traditional business model? So we have to keep lifting our view from the things we’re currently doing and looking at what is changing in the world. We need to continually ask ourselves how our industry might be fundamentally different in five to ten years from now, or even very much sooner.
We have to learn to see the big picture. What are the nascent trends and discontinuities that have the potential to profoundly impact the future of our industry, or that could be harnessed to substantially alter the rules of the game? How can we exploit those changes instead of being disrupted by them?
BusinessInterviews.com: Do you believe that anyone can develop their potential to become more innovative?
Rowan: Absolutely. There has long been this erroneous notion that only certain people possess the magical skills to be creative and to come up with innovative ideas. But it’s simply not true. Clearly there are individuals who, either thanks to nature or nurture (or the fortunate interaction of both), have developed this skill to a much higher degree than others. But all of us have the mental capacity for idea generation and imaginative problem-solving, and all of us can improve our creative abilities.
One thing we know now is that the cultural environment can be a very powerful catalyst for creativity. Big ideas tend to be born and nurtured in “fertile” environments—cities, markets, campuses, online networks, technology hubs, or industry clusters like Silicon Valley—where there is a rich ecosystem of connections to make recombinant creativity possible. Or in companies where people are free to challenge the status quo and suggest different ways of doing things – where they encouraged to experiment with new ideas, and to take risks without fear of punishment.
But culture is not the only thing. There are also very effective creative thinking methods and tools that can be used to enhance the imagination and to increase the odds of coming up with a breakthrough. One of those tools is “The Four Lenses of Innovation,” which is the subject and the title of my new book.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you talk about the process behind identifying and outlining 4 different lenses of innovation?
Rowan: Yes, this comes out of some research into hundreds of cases of business innovation, but also numerous examples of technological invention throughout human history. The objective of the study was to analyze and identify the thinking patterns that led great innovators to their breakthrough discoveries. And basically, what I found was that innovators do not come up with their ideas by sitting there staring out of the window waiting for a Eureka moment. They find their inspiration by looking at the world, or at particular situations or problems, from a completely fresh perspective.
What emerged from this research was that there are four specific perspectives that are common to all of these innovation stories. Without exception, we find that innovators came to their game-changing ideas either by challenging conventional assumptions, or by exploiting a trend that was gaining momentum, or by using an existing skill or asset in a new way, or by addressing a need that was going unmet. These four mental perspectives, or angles of view, are the perceptual “lenses” of innovation I am referring to. And the great news here is that all of us can deliberately use these lenses to discover insights that were previously hidden from view – opportunities for innovation that were, so to speak, “hidden in plain sight.” In essence, the Four Lenses of Innovation enable us to see the world differently – to emulate the mind of the innovator – to think like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, or these other champions.
BusinessInterviews.com: What advice would you give to an executive to who is feeling stuck and disillusioned? Do you have any tips for strategies that can help encourage a breakthrough in inspiration?
Rowan: The best advice I could give executives is to start looking at the world and at their own businesses through these four lenses of innovation. It’s understandable that we sometimes feel stuck and disillusioned. On occasion, we need a jolt of energy or some fresh inspiration to move the business forward and to get us excited about pursuing a new opportunity. That’s what the Four Lenses can do for us.
I advise executives to sit down with their teams and use the first lens to start challenging their assumptions about what drives success in their own business. What if they turned conventional wisdom on its head? How would this benefit the customer? Then there’s the second lens for harnessing trends. It’s about asking which, if any, wave of change the company is riding. What will be the tsunami in their particular industry? How can they make sure they are surfing that tsunami rather than being washed away by it? With the third lens, executives get to redefine their organization not as a set of business units but as a portfolio of core competencies and strategic assets that could potentially be redeployed, repurposed, or recombined to create valuable new growth opportunities. And the fourth lens enables them to “get into the customer’s skin,” and to spot unmet needs and “pain points” they could address before the competition. By working with these four lenses systematically, executives and their teams can come out with a whole new vision about how they might drive new growth and perhaps even revolutionize their industry.
BusinessInterviews.com: Do you think that schools and educators should/could be doing more to foster and encourage innovation in children?
Rowan: Well, actually I believe they should be doing more to foster innovation in adults. Children are not the problem, really. We’re all very creative when we are young. To quote Pablo Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” It is school that in many ways diminishes our creative skills as we grow older by teaching us that there’s always a right way and a wrong way of doing things. We learn what can and can’t be done. We learn to put limits on our imaginations, and not to ask “dumb” questions. We learn to memorize facts, figures, and formulas, and to use books or the Internet to find all the existing answers, because that’s the way to get higher grades. We learn, in other words, that creativity is silly and naïve, and that it’s not valued or wanted from us anymore. So we gradually leave it behind us, just like the toys we once played with. It becomes nothing more than a cute and even embarrassing characteristic of our early childhood that we have now grown out of. And we start taking on a more rational, structured, and noncreative mindset to prepare ourselves for adulthood. Then, of course, the challenge becomes how to bring out our innate creativity again in later life, which requires the measures and interventions I mentioned earlier. Walt Disney once said that “Our greatest national resource is the minds of our children.” We should take those words to heart.
BusinessInterviews.com: The nature of innovation means that things can unfold in unexpected ways or fail. What are your tips for dealing with uncertainty and the fear of failure?
By definition, any departure from convention involves a degree of uncertainty and risk. Some things will certainly fail. But some of those failures may eventually become the basis for big success stories. The “Gorilla Glass” we now use every day as the touchscreens on our smartphones and tablets came from a failed experiment at Corning (somebody literally left glass in a furnace all night and came back next day to find it rock hard). Coca-Cola originally failed as a remedy for headaches. 3M’s Post-it notes came from an adhesive that wasn’t sticky enough. Kleenex was a failed makeup remover for women. Bubble wrap started life as a new wallpaper concept that nobody wanted. Viagra was the unexpected side-effect of a drug that was being developed to treat angina. So innovation is very much about trying a lot of new things, knowing that some of those things may not pan out as expected, but other experiments could lead to surprising new opportunities. To overcome the fear of failure, we need to develop the other hallmarks of great innovators – their courage and entrepreneurial spirit. Again, these are characteristics that companies can help their employees to nurture by creating a supportive cultural environment where risk-taking is valued and celebrated, and by empowering their people to try new things without fear of punishment if they fail.
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