Bill Hortz's picture

“Innovation and creativity do not have to be mysteries” says Rowan Gibson, globally recognized innovation author and consultant. In fact, he clearly states 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 ThinkingRowan proceeded to outline the four best ways to unlock your ability to innovate and addressed some of the toughest questions on innovation.

Before launching into the Four Lenses, Rowan discussed his common-sense approach in developing his methodology which comes 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, and years of research studying the history of successful innovators. His source work is exhaustive in analyzing innovation successes, and more importantly, the thinking processes from modern innovators, such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, all the way back through the history of innovation including Einstein, Edison, daVinci and an insightful dissection of the Renaissance. All this inquiry and analysis he states uncovered discrete, consistent patterns of thinking that spanned them all, common to all stories. They provide us a roadmap, steps that they took that led them to their insights, and, ultimately, a way of emulating their successful thinking. He then set on reverse engineering a tool, a methodology, that can be used deliberately and systematically to discover great ideas on an ongoing basis. What he found were “profoundly simple and elegant ways to free people to think in new ways”. He fashioned them into what he calls “the Four Lenses of innovation” – four ways to look at challenges or goals from fresh perspectives:

  1. Challenge Orthodoxies – A core trait of successful innovators is that they are essentially contrarians, rebels, willing to question the status quo, conventional wisdom and rethink everything. What if we zig while others zag? Like Columbus who asked what if we travel west versus east. This key lens in finding new solutions starts by challenging your thinking, assumptions and current established practices of your firm and industry, and asks 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. Harnessing 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. Leveraging 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 connecting them with outside partner’s resources to create new value for their customers like Lego does in licensing Star Wars and Marvel characters. Corning was offered as a great example of a company that has continuously been redeploying and stretching their core competencies into adjacent and new opportunities like fiber optics, iPad touch screens, and basically never stood still in looking for new ways to use their knowledge and resources and consistently expanding their business model to new growth areas.
  4. Uncovering 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 underlying customer pain points and finding ways to turn them into “bliss points”. But to do that you need to go beyond surveys and focus groups and become more like anthropologists.

Rowan pointed out that the key to being effective with the four lenses methodology is not in the order that you follow with each lens, as there is no specific hierarchy. The power he states is in the cumulative effect of using all 4 approaches. Many companies may be doing, to some extent, #2 (studying trends in their industry) or #4 (doing some kind of customer research), but few companies go deep enough and systematically apply all four perspectives.

A key point that Rowan makes is that versus just sitting down and doing generalized brainstorming, following these 4 specific pathways of inquiry efficiently focuses your thinking on real trends, real customer needs, directs you to discover and challenge your specific assumptions, and look at your real resources in new ways that you can ultimately harness into your business model. They also uncover organizational patterns, ways of doing things that we don’t even think about anymore, that have become almost like folklore and invite us to start challenging them deliberately and systematically to find new opportunities.

Rowan addressed many questions during the webinar with the following bringing out key insights behind his 4 Lenses methodology:

In addressing the question of is it really possible to change the way a person thinks, Rowan explained that while you cannot turn people into natural reflexive innovators, we can teach them to deliberately and systematically use proven thinking patterns of top innovators. In his experience, after teaching these patterns, employees and management at all levels of an organization started coming up with ideas that even amazed them as they never previously thought of themselves as creative.  This can be a very empowering experience and create a greater sense of creative confidence and engagement by the participants.

Why are these thinking patterns so effective? Rowan believes that the four lenses methodology and thinking patterns behind them basically enhance our mind’s natural capabilities and innate ability to be creative. He is just channeling the inherent human capabilities to question, observe, analyze through a particular series of perspectives or exercises that have proven to be the most efficient and effective and used very successfully by great innovators.

As to how do you jump start this process and get people to embrace this new way of thinking, Rowan has found that the very first thing you need to do is to demystify innovation and what it is all about. Obstacles and confusion are created from the many myths attached to innovation – that it is based on serendipity, bolts of lightning or random chaos. So he starts by breaking down innovation, unpacking it, into a simple series of steps. This way people can understand how to be innovative, realize that it is a process that is doable, and shown that innovation, as an activity, is not as complex as it originally seemed.  He then drives them down into each of the four main components or lenses with exciting case studies, exercises, and tools to start them down the road.

Rowan used a very interesting analogy that his innovation methodology is very similar to how Jaime Oliver or any popular chief on TV has successfully shown people that cooking amazing dishes from around the world are not as complex as they seemed. The popularity and wide spread success of cooking shows rests on how chefs can break down cooking into a series of simple steps and demonstrate that anyone can do it.

So there you have it. The 4 Lenses as a recipe for innovation…

Previously posted on Financial Advisor Magazine Online.


The Institute for Innovation Development is an educational and business development catalyst for growth-oriented financial services firms. We position our members with the necessary ongoing innovation resources and coaching to drive and facilitate their growth, differentiation and unique community engagement strategies. The Institute was launched with the support and foresight of our founding sponsors--Innovation Equity Partners, Pershing, Voya Financial, Ultimus Fund Solutions, Fidelity, MeridianIQ/AdviceIQ, and Charter Financial Publishing (publisher of Financial Advisor and Private Wealth magazines). For more information and to be a Founding Innovator member  click here.


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