The Innovation Engine Podcast: Breakthrough Insights from Rowan Gibson – Part 1

by Rowan Gibson

Four Lenses of Innovation Here’s the transcript and audio file from the popular podcast “The Innovation Engine”, hosted by Will Sherlin, featuring an interview with Rowan Gibson, author of “The Four Lenses of Innovation.”

Listen to the podcast here.

“Welcome to the Innovation Engine podcast, I’m Will Sherlin, and on this week’s episode, we’ll be looking at the 4 lenses of innovation – what the 4 lenses are and how they can be used to drive corporate innovation, and how they can be employed to emulate the mind of the innovator.

Here with us today to discuss all that and more is Rowan Gibson, a world-renowned innovation expert who has served as a keynote speaker on the subject of innovation in 60 countries around the world. Rowan is the internationally bestselling author of the forthcoming book The Four Lenses of Innovation. He has previously written two major books on corporate innovation and business strategy: Innovation to the Core and Rethinking the Future, which are published today in over 20 languages. Rowan is also the co-founder of Innovation Excellence.com, the most popular innovation website in the world, built on an international group of over 26,000 members from 175 countries. And if you’ve been a long-time listener of this podcast, you’ll remember him from the 13th episode of “The Innovation Engine,” when he talked about Building a Blueprint for Innovation.

1. Let’s start off today talking about your latest book, The Four Lenses of Innovation, which will hit bookstores the day this podcast goes live, March 2nd. What are some of the main takeaways you hope readers get from the book?

Well, first that we can all be innovators. We used to look at the people that sort of make it to the front cover of Fast Company and think they’re just kind of special, right? They’re more creative than the rest of us. They have this entrepreneurial gene – this ability to spot big new opportunities before anyone else and then take these huge risks to make them happen. You know, someone like Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson, or Elon Musk. So there’s this guy grinning at me from the front cover of Fast Company or Forbes or whatever and looking all superhuman – you know, the super achiever. But it turns out that innovators are mere mortals just like you and me. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. When you look behind the curtain you find out there’s this little person sitting there who is just as human as we are. So what’s their secret sauce? What are the innovators doing differently? And how can we do what they do?

The great news is that it’s really quite simple. It’s all about developing the right mental perspectives. It’s essentially about the lenses we use to look at the world around us, and at particular situations or problems. So the main takeaway from the book is that we can all discover great opportunities for innovation if we can learn to look at the world the same way innovators do. And that’s nowhere near as hard as it sounds.

You know, one of the things that strikes me when I read all these after-the-fact stories about great cases of innovation in the business press is that nobody tries to analyze the thinking processes that might have led to them. They don’t ask “What was this person thinking? How did he or she spot some big opportunity that nobody else seems to have seen? What was the innovator’s angle of view?”

So this book is essentially about understanding the thinking patterns that lead innovators to their big ideas and then emulating those thinking patterns – actually using these perspectives (or I call them “lenses”) systematically to uncover new insights and ideas that are out there just waiting to be discovered. It’s about reverse-engineering the mind of the innovator.

I have come to believe that you can learn to innovate, just as you can learn to play the piano, or learn to cook, or learn anything else. For some people it comes more naturally, of course. Either by nature or by nurture (or some fortunate interaction of both), some individuals have managed to develop their innovation skills to a much higher degree than others. But creativity is not some rare mystical power that’s possessed by only a few specially gifted people who were simply born different from the rest of us. It’s a skill that is innate in all human beings, and always has been, from the time somebody first picked up a stone and figured out how to use it as a tool. So all of us have the mental capacity for idea generation and imaginative problem-solving, and all of us can improve our creative abilities.

Think about the implications this has for companies. If you can really teach people the skills and the tools of innovation – if you can teach literally anyone, anywhere to develop the mind of the innovator – imagine how that would unlock the brainpower of the whole organization. Imagine how that would unleash creativity. And that’s the promise – the key take-away – of this book. The subtitle is “A power tool for creative thinking”. And that’s what I believe it is. I think it’s going to dramatically enhance our capacity for innovation – both as individuals and as companies.

2. The book looks at innovation through something of a historical lens. What do today’s innovators owe to our predecessors from the Renaissance?

Yeah, the first part of the book actually goes back in time. I mean, there was this period of tremendous creativity and invention and innovation in Europe between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and you look back at that and go “Woah! What happened there?” And of course a lot of it had to do with the cultural environment. It all started in those booming city states in Northern Italy – Venice, Florence, Milan – where these rich merchant families like the Medicis became the patrons of some of the best artists, and scientists, and thinkers of their time. So these brilliant people all came together and had the opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and insights from their different fields, disciplines, and cultures. It was a real intersection point. And out of that came so much that was new and revolutionary. But, again, I think there was much more to the story than culture alone.

Some modern writers on creativity and innovation have pointed to the Renaissance and they kind of say, “Well, that’s the answer. It was all about creating this network effect. It was all about building the right environment for creativity and innovation to flourish. So if we can do that in our organizations today we’ll be fine.” And, of course, I agree that this is important for companies to do. But I wanted to dig deeper into what happened in the Renaissance. I wanted to try to figure out what those innovators – like da Vinci, or Galileo, or Gutenberg – were thinking. Because if we are going to solve the mystery of where new ideas come from, we need to understand not just the environments that enhance our capacity to dream up and introduce new things, but also the thinking processes inside the human mind that lead innovators to their “Eureka moments.”

And what we find out is that the Renaissance was a special time in history when western Europeans were beginning to throw off the mental constraints of the medieval era, the Dark Ages. Prior to the Renaissance, the prevailing attitude was “You can’t think this, and you can’t think that, and you can’t ask questions or you’ll be burned at the stake as a heretic.” But then western Europeans found themselves embracing a completely new philosophy called humanism, which encouraged people to tap into their own intellectual and creative capacities in unprecedented ways. So it wasn’t just about the cultural change and the ability to network with others, it was also about the mental change – the fundamental change in outlook and perspectives that opened people’s minds to new ideas and opportunities.

And what I discovered was that there were four main perspectives that became prevalent in the Renaissance period. First, was the tendency to challenge conventional wisdom. You know, “What if the Earth is not the center of the Universe? What if it revolves around the Sun along with the other planets? What if everything we know about human anatomy, and medicine, and chemistry, and physics is nonsense? What if we challenged our traditional understandings of these things – the theories that have been around and uncontested for a thousand years, since the times of ancient Greece and Rome?” Or it was Columbus saying “What if we could get to the East Indies much faster by sailing west instead of east and circumnavigating the globe?” And then Amerigo Vespucci asked “What if these new lands Columbus has just discovered are not the Indies at all, but in fact another whole continent—a New World?” So these were very contrarian questions – very different ways of thinking that challenged a lot of orthodoxies.

The second perspective had to do with trends. You know, the Renaissance period was an age of the new. There were these new philosophies, new kinds of art and music and architecture, new scientific breakthroughs, new industrial methods, new trading routes, new influences from the East, new methods of transportation, new countries – and even a whole new continent – on the map, new kinds of food, new styles of clothing,.. there was just this whole explosion of newness. And the innovators were people who saw all this change going on around them and were able to spot and exploit the opportunities inherent in those trends.

The third perspective was about looking at skills and assets in new ways and figuring out how to stretch them, or recombine them, or repurpose them in order to do totally new things. Prior to that, if you go back to the Middle Ages, people used to learn a trade and that was that. You were a carpenter, or a goldsmith, or whatever else, and that’s basically all you did your whole life. But then people started to ask, “What else could I do with these skills? How could I stretch them into new opportunities?” So somebody like Gutenberg, for example, studied to be a goldsmith just like his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before that. But he said “Maybe I don’t have to spend the rest of my life making coins in the royal mint like all my ancestors. Maybe I can something else with these metalworking skills.” And his big idea of course was to create metal, movable type for use in a printing press which literally changed the world. But it was also about using assets differently, too. Once Gutenberg had cast all those individual metal letters, he needed to build some form of press. And he got his inspiration from a device that had been around for thousands of years – one that was used commonly back then in the Rhineland region of Germany where he lived: and that was the wooden wine press. So this third perspective is about redeploying skills and assets in completely new ways or new contexts.

The fourth mental perspective that became really prevalent in the Renaissance era was a kind of rampant curiosity about how everything worked – the human body, the natural world, the universe itself – and a desire to use this new knowledge to make the world a better place. That’s always been quite fundamental to innovation and to human progress, this attempt to better understand the mechanical forces of nature and then to manipulate these forces in an effort to improve quality of life or productivity in some way. But the medieval era had been a time when people were very much constrained from doing that by the Church – that’s why they call it the Dark Ages. Progress effectively came to a grinding halt for a thousand years. And then along came the Renaissance and the humanist movement, and people suddenly felt mentally liberated to kind get out there and study everything and make things better for themselves and for the next generations. So they were able to discover innovative solutions to important human needs and problems – some of which we still benefit from today.

So it turns out that there are these four perspectives or thinking patterns that seem to drive great leaps of creativity and innovation. And the basic premise of the book is that they have been the catalysts for innovation throughout human history. And they are exactly the same perspectives that have allowed modern-day innovators to discover their big ideas. So there’s really not that much difference between Renaissance innovators like Galileo, Gutenberg, and Leonardo da Vinci, and some of our innovation heroes today, like say Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson. They are all using exactly the same perspectives, whether they’re conscious of it or not, to come up with their breakthrough innovations.

These four perspectives are the four lenses of innovation that I’m referring to in the title of the book. And the rest of the book is about using those lenses to drive your innovation efforts and to infuse creativity into your organization.

3. You talk in the book about the importance of building an “all the time, everywhere” capability for innovation within a company. What do you think is the fundamental building block of establishing that kind of culture?

Well, first, you have to believe deep down that literally everyone has the potential to be an innovator, and that creative thinking can come from any part of the company – not just R&D or new product development or marketing, but also from the HR function, or Finance, or IT, or wherever else, including the janitors.

In fact, there are a lot of anecdotes about interesting innovations that were originally suggested by the janitor. One was the idea of putting elevators on the outside of buildings. That actually came from the janitor of a hotel in San Diego – the El Cortez – which became the first building in the world to put an elevator on the outside wall of the building. By the way, that’s an example of challenging orthodoxies, the first lens of innovation. Then there’s Flamin’ Hot Cheetos – you know, the chili-flavored Cheetos – which was an idea that came from a young Mexican janitor in one of the Frito-Lay plants. And that was a case of leveraging resources in new ways, which is the third lens of innovation. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are now Frito-Lay’s biggest selling snack and one of the most successful snack products of all time.

So what’s fundamental to building an “all-the-time, everywhere” capability for innovation is this belief that there is creativity inside all of us, and that all we have to do is somehow unlock that ability to innovate. For too long, we have kind of venerated innovators as if they have some magical skill that we don’t have. But that’s simply not true. Creativity is part of what makes us human. All of us share the same basic DNA. So the starting point for turning a company into an innovation powerhouse is the belief that literally everyone, everywhere can develop the mind of the innovator. If we use the right environmental factors and we teach people to use the Four Lenses of Innovation, we can help them bring out their inner genius.

4. Let’s talk about the power – and danger – of patterns. How do patterns become so ingrained in our daily lives, and what is it necessary to break them in the name of innovation?

Yeah, this is the second section of the book, “The Power of Patterns”. It basically looks at why most of us are not actually using those innate creative skills that we’re born with – or at least not using them to their full potential. And we really have to understand this problem if we’re going to overcome the barriers to creative thinking that all of us experience – not just individually but across our organizations. You know, what exactly is it that’s getting in the way?

And again, you could argue that it’s just the corporate culture. That it’s not conducive to new thinking and experimentation and risk-taking, so people just shut up and get on with their jobs. That would be an extrinsic barrier – the cultural environment, and it can be – and very often is – a real roadblock to innovation. But we also have a powerful intrinsic barrier to creativity, and it’s a neurological one. It has to do with the way we think.

What neuroscience teaches us is that the human brain is an incredible pattern recognizer. So when he hear someone’s voice, or we hear a piece of music, or we see a familiar face, we instantly recognize it because it’s a pattern that’s stored in our heads. When we see a chair, or a car, or a piece of toast, we recognize these things immediately. We know what they are, and we don’t have to think about them anymore. They are patterns. Language is a pattern. Images and icons are patterns. Stories are patterns. We even see patterns where they don’t exist. Did you ever look up at the clouds in the sky and see what looks like a dog or a horse or some other shape? That’s because your brain is constantly trying to recognize patterns.

Now, that’s very good in one way because it’s how the brain saves energy. If it didn’t work like that, we would literally be overwhelmed by everything that is going on around us all the time. Every piece of sensory information would be like a completely new and bewildering experience that we would need to identify, interpret, and analyze in order to understand our environment. And that would make life unbelievably complex. But by storing familiar patterns for spontaneous recall, we don’t have to consciously think about these things anymore. Our pattern recognition system simply takes over the job—kind of like the automatic pilot on an airplane—to reduce the cognitive load and free our minds to focus on other things.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that once we have formed those patterns we never really question them anymore. We come to accept them the way they are. So when you pick up your toothbrush to brush your teeth you never ask yourself how you might make that product different or better. It’s just a toothbrush. This is a cognitive condition called “functional fixedness,” a kind of mental block that limits us to understanding and using the things around us only in the traditional ways we have learned. The more fixed our patterns become, the more difficult it is for us to mentally move beyond them—to look at something conventional and reimagine it in unconventional ways – like, say, imagining a toothbrush you wear on your tongue. Or a toothbrush linked to a smartphone app. Or a singing toothbrush that plays hits by Lady Gaga. By the way, these products actually exist, and we can argue about their usefulness. But they could only be envisaged by looking at something familiar from a fresh perspective. Innovation is very much about breaking out of these established patterns in our minds and looking at things in new ways.

Do you know why we’re all so much more creative when we’re in Kindergarten? It’s because we haven’t yet learnt all these fixed patterns. So our minds are open to all kinds of possibilities. We look at an empty cardboard box and we imagine it as a space rocket. We actually show no signs of functional fixedness until about age seven. But, then, as we grow up, we encounter and memorize more and more patterns. We narrow our perspectives in terms of what is possible and what is not. We learn to view things and do things in particular ways, and before we know it our thoughts and actions are habitually following the same old established paths over and over again.

Then we join a company and we learn even more patterns – rules and regulations, standard operating procedures, codes of conduct, traditional industry practices and so on – and these patterns subconsciously guide us in how we think and act in our daily business.

And that’s the danger of patterns. They stop us from thinking creatively about familiar objects and situations. They induce a kind of mental laziness. We find ourselves running on autopilot and we stop noticing or questioning things. This is what blinds us to new opportunities.

The Four Lenses of Innovation help us overcome that blindness by giving us new ways of looking at the world. So we begin to see objects and situations from a new angle of view. Once we break the established patterns in our minds we can start to see new patterns, and exciting new opportunities that we have perhaps never noticed before.

5. You say that it’s important to change the way we think in order to be truly innovative. That’s a relatively tall order. What are some ways listeners can go about changing the way they think?

You’re right. It’s very difficult to break those ingrained and habitual patterns of thinking. That’s why we need a tool to help us. You know, if you have to drill a hole through a concrete wall, you can’t do it with your fingers. You’re going to need a powerful drill. Likewise, if we want to break through these mental walls and see what’s on the other side, we need a systematic tool or methodology that can help us do that.

Thankfully, human beings are toolmakers. And so I like to think that of “The Four Lenses of Innovation” not as a book but, as I said earlier, as “a power tool for creative thinking.” You might remember that in the early days of Apple, Steve Jobs used to think of the computer as a “bicycle for the mind,” in the sense that it acts as an enabling tool that vastly amplifies our natural capabilities. So, again, I think of the Four Lenses as “a power tool for creative thinking” because of the remarkable way these lenses extend our capacity for creativity by helping us to think along completely new lines.

To access the audio of the podcast please click here

© Rowan Gibson 2015. All rights reserved.

image credits: 3pillarGlobal, Rowan Gibson TM, Wikipedia
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Rowan_GibsonsRowan Gibson (rg@rowangibson.com) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on innovation. He is the internationally bestselling author of 3 major books, an award-winning keynote speaker in 60 countries, and a cofounder of Innovation Excellence. His new book is The Four lenses of Innovation. You can follow him on Twitter @RowanGibson