The 4 Lenses of Innovation by Rowan Gibson


The 4 Lenses of Innovation by Rowan Gibson

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]Rowan Gibson, author of Innovation to the Core, provides a manual full of graphics, illustrations and photographs, with numerous pages tinted different shades to suggest that you can change how you see even ordinary things. Gibson proposes a system of innovation that incorporates various models of the human brain. He provides a broadly applicable set of tools to help you innovate by using four points of view or lenses: “challenging orthodoxies,” “harnessing trends,” “leveraging resources” and “understanding needs.” His examples are numerous and vivid. The clear style and jazzy – though sometimes a bit busy – design elements make Gibson’s ideas easy to apply. getAbstract recommends his guidebook to those seeking a boost in their creativity and ability to innovate, and to readers looking for tools to share with their entire organization.[/text_block]

In this summary, you will learn

  • Where innovation comes from,
  • Why patterns can be both essential and dangerous, and
  • How you can learn to innovate better.


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The Innovator’s Mind

People living in different historical periods held varying beliefs about sources of creativity. Ancient cultures like the Sumerians believed that new ideas and creativity sprang not from their actions but came as gifts from the gods. The Judeo-Christian perspective regards God as the creator, with human innovation stemming from divine grace. The Greeks saw inventions as coming from the Muses or from a pantheon of gods – both beyond the human realm. The Romans believed “in a tutelary deity” who inspired people. But after the Roman Empire collapsed, the Catholic Church preached conformity, dogma and the suppression of individual ego.

Everything changed with the Renaissance, which had roots in the emergence of city-states as hotbeds of culture and innovation, urbanization, the rediscovery of classical learning, and an expansive new mind-set. The Renaissance mind joyously explored the world. The great thinkers of the Renaissance established the models for four tools – or “lenses” – that still inspire innovation: “challenging orthodoxies,” “harnessing trends,” “leveraging resources” and “understanding needs.” Use the four lenses to fuel innovation by learning to see in new ways.

“There’s an innovator inside all of us – literally everyone on Earth has the potential for creative thinking because it’s an innate human capability.”

Patterns Can Help or Hinder

As your brain matures, you organize the world into patterns. Driving a car for the first time is stressful, but smooth and automatic skill as a driver comes as you recognize and apply useful patterns. Yet, patterns also contribute to “functional fixedness,” a noncreative state that afflicts you when you get stuck in familiar patterns and stop noticing variations. This happens to individuals, groups and entire companies. Avoiding and resisting change is natural and common. Firms expend tremendous effort repeating whatever worked in the past, grinding patterns into place to forestall change. Some people even fear serious reflection because it leads to disruption, but that fuels innovation. You can’t have a breakthrough without breaking out of existing practices. Disrupt old patterns and learn to see them anew, instead of taking them for granted. To apply the four lenses of innovation, you face having to change how you think. These tools will help anyone trying to see ideas in new ways.

“Creative ideas don’t just occur to us spontaneously. (Our minds actually build them from a unique chain of associations and connections, sometimes over a considerable period of time.)”

The First Lens: Challenging Orthodoxies

“Orthodoxy” means “right belief.” Orthodoxies are ideas that almost everyone thinks are accurate depictions of how things have to be. Like individual patterns, orthodoxies are useful for codifying on the collective level. They organize group activities, promote shared identity and eliminate the need to think. Orthodoxies narrow vision. Examples abound of industry leaders who kept doing what always worked only to see their markets disrupted by newcomers with fresh eyes.

Innovators challenge orthodoxies by looking at how things actually are, rejecting the concept that they must stay the same and asking if they can devise other approaches. Michael Dell reconceived how companies sell computers, Southwest Airlines rethought how airlines organize service areas and Rolls-Royce shifted from selling airplane engines to offering TotalCare engine service contracts. The long-range maintenance package now brings in 55% of the company’s business.

“Whereas the medieval mind had been severely suppressed, the Renaissance mind was set free to discover the beauty and the wonder and the significance of every possible phenomenon.”

When you encounter someone who holds a deep belief about your industry or someone who says that things have always been done a certain way, step back and re-examine the situation. Is the status quo the only possible strategy? What would happen if you conceive, assemble, sell, service or market your product differently? If a new firm recently entered your field and started to disrupt it, ask if they’re doing something you could adapt. What ideas seem crazy? Can you apply them? Analyze what your company believes and ask what it could change.

“Our brains save mental energy by learning and storing familiar patterns for automatic recognition and use.”

The Second Lens: Harnessing Trends

Harnessing trends is one way to challenge existing orthodoxies. You don’t have to be a futurist or have an explicit vision of the future. You do need a visceral understanding of change. Innovators are better than most people at noticing and deciphering signals of upcoming change. Such awareness is crucial today, because change is unfolding at a blinding pace. To become more aware of the forces that can reshape your business, change your focus.

Many executives look mainly inside their organizations, trying to get internal processes to run smoothly. That’s necessary, but it leaves them vulnerable to shifting forces beyond their walls. Instead, learn to read the signals. Pay attention to the larger world and the changing nature of change itself. Change is now “increasingly nonlinear, discontinuous and unpredictable.” Change builds on itself, enabling more change. The future will be neither like the past nor like what most people expect. The future will unfold waves of discontinuity; any single company’s dominance will be short-lived. Monitor and synthesize change to derive a strategic picture of the future.

“Many executives are afraid of the kind of reflective thinking that could lead to disruption.”

Pretending the challenge doesn’t exist won’t protect your firm from the waves of change reshaping the world. It won’t give you the information you need to innovate and compete. For that, you need a system for monitoring the trends that are most likely to influence your firm or industry. Innovative leaders regularly try to imagine how specific trends will affect their organizations. These innovators surf the waves of change to dramatic effect. Try to become at ease with change; embrace the new. Eat in new restaurants, meet new people, visit new places and research new technologies.

“Try to identify and systematically question the fixed patterns that exist inside your own company and across your industry.”

The Third Lens: Leveraging Resources

All companies use specific resources to create products or services that others buy. Industrial-era firms emphasized executing this transformation from raw material to finished goods efficiently, but modern firms also want to use resources innovatively. McDonald’s already serves burgers efficiently; now it’s changing its menu to reach buyers who want healthier food and good coffee.

Such shifts can originate with corporate founders who rethink what their firms should do and be. Google’s leaders see it not as a search engine and not as a company that does only one thing. They understand what they own and what their organization knows. To apply this mind-set to your firm, examine your competencies and assets. What skills does your company have? What does it know? What data, technology or patents does it own and what else could you do with them? How can you innovate to take advantage of changing markets?

“Innovators try to solve common problems and frustrations in ways that make life easier, more convenient and more enjoyable for the customer.”

Sometimes the answers will be variations on existing specialties. Corning developed its Ribbon Machine process to make lightbulbs and then used it to make radio vacuum tubes. Re-evaluating your resources can open new markets. The Walt Disney Company built on its theme-park expertise to launch Broadway shows and Disney on Ice tours.

“An insight is a new and penetrating understanding about a situation or problem.”

The Fourth Lens: Understanding Needs

Shift your focus by working to understand your customers’ needs more deeply. This means “innovating from the customer backward.” Stop trying to sell what you have. Instead, find out what customers want and provide it.

A.G. Lafley guided P&G (Procter & Gamble) through this kind of change when he became CEO. Previously, P&G had poured effort into developing new products through lab-based research. Its sales success rate ran about 15% to 20%. Lafley introduced a new mantra to guide a fresh corporate orientation: “The Consumer Is Boss.” This concept drove P&G employees from the labs and into people’s homes – literally. Researchers participated in the “Living It” program, living with customers to see how they washed their clothes and cleaned their homes, and using that information to shape products. P&G also redesigned its websites, making them less static and more interactive. This comprehensive shift resulted in a jump in market share and in the number of P&G’s market-dominating brands.

“Insights restructure the normal patterns of thinking in our minds.”

A range of approaches can help you understand your clients’ needs better. Firms differ on whether they find focus groups useful. Sometimes consumers themselves don’t know they want a particular innovative product until they experience it. Put yourself in the customers’ place. Ask what’s difficult about your product. What doesn’t work as well as it might?

“An idea is simply a combination of thought elements arranged in a particular pattern.”

Identifying a frustration means finding opportunities for innovation. Some frustrations will be individual; others stem from recognizing underserved groups or communities. For example, the founders of Curves, a chain of women’s fitness centers, started their company because most gymnasiums were male oriented. You can innovate by responding to the needs and preferences of specific regions or cultures. In India, McDonald’s introduced items like Paneer Wraps to match local tastes. In making such a shift, don’t abandon your technological advances. Always seek ways to apply high-tech breakthroughs to fulfill unsatisfied market needs.

“A Flash of Inspiration”

The belief that big ideas arrive suddenly, in a spark of illumination and inventiveness, is a myth. That’s not how your mind works. Instead, you build a distinctive, connected pattern of linked ideas over an extended period. The moment of inspiration comes when the last piece of the puzzle snaps into place after you work on all its elements. Insight proceeds according to a pattern you can apply. To develop new ideas, follow these eight steps:

“The best way to apply the ‘Four Lenses’ methodology is systematically.”

  1. “Frame a specific challenge” – Select a specific problem to solve. Identify it as precisely as you can; define it clearly. Commit to a solution.
  2. “Research the subject” – Examine it exhaustively. Review ideas you’ve already tried.
  3. “Immerse yourself in the problem” – Thomas Edison tested more than 3,000 filament materials while working on the lightbulb and did almost 50,000 experiments while working on storage batteries.
  4. “Reach a roadblock” – Keep working on your problem until it feels like you’re pushing against a stone wall.
  5. “Relax. Detach from the problem” – If your research stalls, relax. Get away from your challenge, and let your unconscious take over. Edison’s team shared meals and sang funny songs. Edison himself took numerous brief naps.
  6. “Come to an illuminating insight” – The classic flash of inspiration strikes. A new vision for solving this problem hits you and changes how you see it.
  7. “Build the insight (or insights) into a big idea” – The insight is the starting point – a spark of possibility. Examine, feed and develop it. Combine your insight with what you already learned about the field.
  8. “Test and validate the new idea” – Does your idea really work? Test it for practicality.

“To spot opportunities for innovation, we need to change our patterns of thinking.”

Initial Insights Versus Lasting Ideas

Distinguish between your initial insight and a lasting idea. The eight-step process can happen so quickly that the mind blurs the distinctions among the steps, but the difference matters. The leap separates a genuine, significant insight from just another thought that zips through your mind. A real insight triggers further development, or sometimes a development triggers the next breakthrough insight. Consider the chain of discovery and development: The initial blast of insight reveals a new association or sparks a shift in your thought patterns. This takes you to a new idea that generates a moment of revelation.

Many companies invest in innovation, talk about its importance, and end up producing only minor breakthroughs or incremental upgrades. Most leaders don’t understand the insights developers must generate to produce new big ideas. Start with this essential bottleneck, and gauge the power of your insights. Use the four lenses system step by step. To innovate more effectively, apply them on a large, extended scale.

“Innovators are not just better at picking up signals. They are better at reading them.”

If you can, commit weeks or even months to an innovation project. At the onset, select a group to focus on your innovation challenge, and divide it into at least four teams, one for each lens. If you can, assign multiple teams to each lens. Each team uses its assigned lens to generate meaningful, fresh ideas. Combine these sparks into a “portfolio of strategic insights.” The creative thinking should really get going as you switch your teams’ emphasis from generating sparks to building them into revolutionary new ideas. To help with this process, reorganize your teams or add more people. Combine ideas to generate additional creative chemistry.[/text_block]

About the Author

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]Rowan Gibson, co-founder of, also wrote Innovation to the Core.[/text_block]
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