Power Your Creative Thinking With the 4 Lenses of Innovation

  • Do you want to create a culture of innovation in your business?
  • Do you want to tap into your inner creative voice?
  • Do you want to power your creative thinking?

Power Your Creative Thinking

I love reading about the world’s greatest innovators. Whether it’s an innovative individual or a company, I am fascinated with the stories behind history’s greatest breakthroughs and inventions. Recently, a terrific new book on the subject crossed my desk and captured my attention. After reading it, I had the opportunity to converse with the author. The insights in this book can help any company improve its innovative culture and any individual become more creative.

That author, speaker, and consultant is Rowan Gibson. Rowan is one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on business innovation. He is the internationally bestselling author of three books on business strategy and innovation – Rethinking The Future, Innovation to the Core, and his latest, The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking.



Challenging Orthodoxies

You share four lenses or perspectives on innovation. The first is challenging orthodoxies. There are many examples of people who stand up and say there is a better way. Perhaps that child with a rebellious streak may have a great future?

Almost by definition, innovators tend to be contrarians and nonconformists. As Steve Jobs put it, they “think different.”



I just saw the movie “The Imitation Game” about the work of Alan Turing during the Second World War. This guy was obviously a genius, and a pioneer in the field of digital computing. He almost single-handedly built a machine that broke the German Enigma code, which undoubtedly helped the allies win the war. But Turing had no regard for prevailing wisdom, or for military authority, or for anyone else’s way of doing things. He believed only in his own revolutionary ideas.

Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission
Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission

So, yes, maybe that rebellious school child has a great future. Turing’s headmaster told his parents he was wasting his time at school because he wasn’t willing to be educated in classical thinking. Einstein was so rebellious he was actually expelled from school. But it was that rebelliousness toward authority that led him to question Newton’s seemingly unassailable laws of motion. Richard Branson was another rebel at school and eventually dropped out at age 16—going on to create Virgin Records.

If you recall some of the other famous individuals who were featured in Apple’s “Think Different” ads, such as Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Thomas Edison, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Martha Graham, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pablo Picasso, they were all misfits and rebels. The saw things differently from others. They wanted to challenge and change the status quo.

There are just so many examples of companies that have innovated very successfully by challenging deep-seated orthodoxies: Swatch in the watch industry Dell in the computer industry, Southwest in the airline industry, IKEA in the furniture industry, Enterprise in the car rental business, Zara in the fashion industry, Chipotle in fast food, IT’SUGAR in candy retail, and the list goes on.

A recent example is Beats by Dre. They asked themselves why every other field of consumer electronics—TVs, laptops, smartphones—was being dramatically improved, while people were still listening to music with cheap, low-performance earbuds. What if there was a market for premium headphones, costing hundreds of dollars, that would reproduce music the way artists wanted their songs to be heard? And what if those headphones could be marketed as a fashion statement, not just as an audio accessory? Luke Wood, CEO of Beats by Dre, told the press, “People thought we were crazy. They said the marketplace would never support a $300 headphone.” Well, once again, here’s to the crazy ones. Today, premium headphones are one of the fastest-growing categories in the consumer electronics industry, making up over 40 percent of all headphone sales, and Beats owns over 60 percent of that market. Last year, Apple acquired Beats Electronics for $3 billion.

Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission
Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission


2. Harnessing Trends

The second lens or perspective is harnessing trends. How do you spot the trend in time to ride a new wave?

Well, you have to be very sensitive to what is changing in the world. It’s not about having a crystal ball and trying to predict the future. It’s more about having a wide-angled lens that allows you pick up important trends and then exploit them in some way.

Innovators don’t have to be futurists. They just need to be able to recognize and harness the potential of things that are already changing. Jeff Bezos wasn’t a futurist, for example, but he read a report in the early nineties about the explosive growth of the Internet and wondered what kind of business might make sense in the context of that growth. He didn’t have any proprietary information that giant retailers like Walmart didn’t have. It was all in the public domain. But he saw the trend and harnessed it, whereas Walmart chose to ignore it. He rode that wave, so to speak.

Netflix is another example. Did CEO Reed Hastings know something about the future of movie rental that Blockbuster didn’t? Anyone could have seen that Internet video streaming was eventually going to change the whole movie rental business. So Hastings decided to shift his entire business model from home DVD delivery to video on demand. That was a very difficult thing to do. But he made sure he was riding that wave rather than being buried by it. Today Netflix has more than 33 million paid subscribers (that’s more than HBO) while Blockbuster Video has disappeared from the scene.

That’s why you really need to use this second lens of innovation. You have to regularly ask yourself how your own business might fundamentally change over the next five to ten years, or even sooner.

What are the driving forces that are most likely to impact the future of your industry, or that you could harness to gain a strategic advantage over your competitors?



You need to get busy figuring out how these change factors might be utilized to create new value for your customers and to grow new sources of profit for your company—before your rivals beat you to it. Innovators are always trying to imagine whether particular trends, or clusters of trends, might open up significant new growth opportunities in the future, and then they move fast to acquire the skills and assets that will enable them to capture the maximum share of those opportunities. The only way to get to the future before the competition is by working hard to develop a better understanding about how things are changing, planning the appropriate strategic response, and then doing whatever it takes to quickly close the gap between today and tomorrow.


 3. Leveraging Resources

Number 3 is leveraging resources. It may be more challenging to understand this one. Would you share an example?

What this refers to is the ability to look at your company not as a collection of business units or as an organization chart but as a portfolio of core competencies and strategic assets that could potentially be leveraged into new growth opportunities.

We talked earlier about Richard Branson, who is a good example of this. He has managed to leverage Virgin’s unique set of skills and assets into 400 different companies in a multitude of diverse market sectors. In fact, he has built a total of eight billion-dollar companies in several different industries.

ESPN is another. It started out as a small cable TV channel. But its leaders masterfully leveraged ESPN’s core competencies in sports coverage, its special relationships with industry associations and franchises, and the equity of its own brand to stretch the business into all kinds of new growth opportunities, including additional TV channels, radio, a magazine, video games and mobile apps, films and documentaries, fan apparel, competitions, and so on. Today, ESPN is the world’s most powerful sports media company, with over 50 business assets and an empire that distributes content in 16 languages and more than 200 countries.



There are many more examples – Disney, Amazon, Google, to name just a few. All of these companies have significantly extended the boundaries of their original business model by repurposing, redeploying, and recombining their resources to stretch into profitable new spaces.

That’s what innovators do. They don’t like to compartmentalize things. They think of a company not in terms of what it is or what it does but in terms of what it knows—its skills and unique capabilities—and what it owns—such as infrastructure, proprietary technologies, standards, patents, brands, customer data, and so on. Rather than developing a narrow self-image that pigeonholes a firm in a particular market sector, or locks it up in a certain product or service category, radical innovators are able to expand the way they define their business based on its collection of core competencies and strategic assets.

Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission
Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission


 4. Understanding Needs

The last lens is understanding needs. Whether a frustration or an unmet need, innovators solve problems. They are, as you and Tina Seelig say, incredible “noticers.” It seems this is a crucial skill, not only for innovation but also for satisfying and delighting today’s customers. Tell us more.

Yes, innovators have the ability to really empathize with the customer. They are able to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, to see things from the customer’s perspective, to feel what the customer feels. They notice unmet needs that others tend to overlook or ignore. This is not just about conducting focus groups and consumer research. Any company can do that. Rather, it’s about learning to live inside the customer’s skin, trying to understand unarticulated feelings and needs, and then addressing them before the competition.



P&G has taken great efforts over the last years to become “noticers.” They send out researchers to actually live with consumers in their homes. They film people performing normal household tasks or taking care of their beauty and hygiene needs. They try to notice the little frustrations, the unsolved problems or inefficiencies, the needs that customers don’t even know they have yet. And then they look for smart ways to innovate around those consumer insights.

That’s a very rigorous and scientific way of doing things. Others have a more intuitive approach. Steve Jobs was a very good example. Nobody told him they wanted a translucent desktop computer, a cool MP3 player, an online music store, a revolutionary smartphone, an App Store, or a tablet computer, but Steve Jobs somehow knew we needed these things. And pretty soon, we couldn’t live without them. Likewise, nobody was crying out for YouTube or Amazon.com or Facebook or Skype or Twitter. Yet visionary entrepreneurs gave us these things by solving problems or addressing needs we were not even aware we had.




A few years ago, IBM ran a great ad with the headline, “Stop selling what you have. Start selling what they need.” This is precisely the spirit of the fourth lens of innovation. It’s all about starting with a customer need and then designing a solution from the customer backward. It’s the principle that gave birth to Uber in transportation, AirBnb in hospitality, and Nest in home appliances. We were all sick of bad taxi services, expensive hotels, and complicated thermostats. But we just accepted these things. We never voiced the need for some alternative. We never envisaged a solution to these problems. But innovators notice our frustrations and they look for ways to alleviate them.



Myths and Misconceptions

Any creative myths or misconceptions that you want to correct?

I believe there’s a big misconception around the role of insights in the creative process. When you talk to cognitive scientists, they generally define an insight as the moment you suddenly grasp the solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. So in their classical laboratory experiments, they typically ask students to solve a creative puzzle like how to connect nine dots in a diagram using just four straight lines and without lifting the pencil from the paper or how to attach three candles to a wall and light them up using just three tacks and three matches. And when a person finally figures out how to crack one of these brainteaser puzzles, they call it the moment of “insight” – the moment you move from an impasse state to a solution state.

But then if we go and talk to business executives, marketing professionals, innovation practitioners, R&D managers, or creative people in the advertising and design business, we find that they define insights very differently. They will tell you an insight is a new piece of information or a new understanding that fundamentally shifts your perspective, acting as the spark that can create a big idea.

I find this all very confusing because the first group is basically saying that breakthrough thinking leads to insights while the second group believes that insights lead to breakthrough thinking. In other words, how can an insight simultaneously be the input and the output in the creative process?

Either millions of people from many different fields are incorrectly using the word insight, or it’s a term that has been spread so thinly that everyone is using it correctly to describe different things. These varying definitions of insight are now so deeply entrenched that I suppose everyone is right at some level. But in terms of developing a workable theory of innovation and then using that theory to improve our ability to actually innovate, I believe we need to agree on a practical definition of insights and on exactly how and where they work in the creative process.

In The 4 Lenses of Innovation, I define an insight as a new and penetrating understanding about a particular situation or a problem—something you previously didn’t know or didn’t yet think about that has the power to surprise and inspire you. A great example of an illuminating insight is Professor Theodore Levitt’s famous remark, “People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.” This statement creates a fresh understanding that drastically shifts your perspective, allowing you to see the challenge in a completely different light.

Thus, I like to think of an insight as a striking realization that fundamentally changes our thinking. It can often come from a new piece of information that either prompts us to look at an issue from a completely different angle or that connects with existing information in a way that brings us to a startling new conclusion.

So I definitely see insights as the input in the creative thinking process rather than the output. They are the triggers that inspire big ideas—the stepping stones to new thinking. Insights are the raw material out of which breakthroughs are built. And the Four Lenses of Innovation give us a power tool for generating these insights by helping us discover important new understandings.


Understanding the Flash of Illumination

In all of your research on creativity, what was most surprising to you?

I think the most surprising thing to me is that scientists, psychologists, and practitioners have been studying how creativity works for over a hundred years, yet to this day nobody has really explained what actually happens in that so-called “flash of illumination” when we come up with a new idea.

So we have all these standard models of the creative thinking process with several linear stages, like the one from Graham Wallas: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.  Now we know how to prepare by gathering information; we know how to incubate by letting the subconscious mind take over; we know how to verify an idea once we have it, but none of these models gives us any real understanding about what happens in that magical illumination stage. What exactly turns on the proverbial light bulb in our heads?

Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission
Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission

In the book, I make an attempt to unpack the creative process in more detail by applying systems theory—input, throughput, and output—to this illumination stage. In my model, the input is a new and penetrating insight. This causes a shift in our thinking patterns—a leap of association that connects existing facts and concepts in a totally new relationship. So that’s the throughput. And the output is a new idea, which is essentially a new combination of thoughts that suggests an original, exciting, or better course of action. The recognition of that idea and its breakthrough potential is the moment when we suddenly “see” the answer with all certainty and clarity. This is what I believe to be the Eureka moment. But it all happens so quickly in our minds that it feels like a single, instantaneous event.

When we put this all together, what we have is a new model for understanding the flash of illumination that we have all experienced at various times of our lives but have so far found difficult to explain and even more difficult to replicate or to induce. I believe it gives us a workable theory of innovation from which we can begin to build a methodology for systematically generating high-quality insights and then using these insights to provoke breakthrough ideas.


The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking


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