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The Four Lenses of Innovation

Rowan Gibson wrote a book called “The Four Lenses of Innovation: A power tool for creating thinking” that came out earlier this year.

This is a book well worth obtaining and working through. Why? Well, it provides an understanding to the thinking patterns that lead innovators to their big ideas. By emulating these thinking patterns Rowan suggests you can really teach people the skills to improve all of our creative abilities for idea generation and imaginative problem-solving.

The return on your investment and your organization is the potential to unlock the brainpower and that is the promise of the book. It can enhance our capacity for innovation and that has real value.

The key is developing the right mental perspectives, looking through the different lenses on how we should see the world around us, and in particular situations or problems we might be having. It is discovering the way innovators see the world and how they have learned to discover great opportunities by recognizing these thinking patterns.

Putting forward a different perspective about our mental capacity to generate idea

The argument is that all of us have the mental capacity for idea generation and imaginative problem-solving, the key is how to reawaken those innate capacities. Much of what we are taught tends to run counter to thinking and being creative. The school environment often places extrinsic barriers in our way; it forces us to follow a given route of learning, of responding, of being tested. Then as we move into a corporate culture it often shuts down the creative sides within us, it constrains risk-taking and experimentation and often people just shut down and simply get on with their jobs.

Coupled with this we have the intrinsic barriers in the way we think. We have what is called “functional fixedness”, a kind of mental block that limits our understanding and tends to only use the things around us in the traditional ways we have learned. We get into “fixed patterns” and it becomes increasingly difficult for us to mentally move beyond these, as much as we try, it needs a structure, practice and some guidance.

We struggle to look at something in a more unconventional way, we miss seeing it from a fresh perspective. We need to find ways to break out of our established patterns in our minds and look at things in new ways. Then you layer on all the new patterns (routines, procedures, rules, regulations) and the ‘standard’ operating procedures, industry practices and all these consistently influence the subconscious and guide us to think in ‘certain ways’ in how we act in our daily business.

This all adds up to blinding us from different opportunities, we stop noticing or questioning things and then along comes the innovation initiative, demanding these fresh perspectives. Often it takes us significant time to break old habits and thinking patterns before we can truly see things from a ‘new perspective’.

The unpacking of creative thinking through the Four Lenses approach

The Four Lenses is all about explaining this and teaching you to see objects and situations from a new angle. It is learning to break the existing patterns in our minds so that we can start seeing new patterns and out of these come the exciting opportunities that we have often not noticed as possible before.

Rowan has studied what ‘makes-up’ creative genius and has built the book around these four. Four particular perspectives or patterns of thinking make up the lenses and they get fully explored in part one of the book – “the Mind of the Innovator”, where he begins to unpack his four lenses:

1) Challenging Orthodoxies

Questioning deeply entrenched beliefs and assumptions, and exploring new and highly unconventional answers

2) Harnessing Trends

Recognizing the future potential of emerging developments, and using these trends to open up new opportunities

3) Leveraging Resources

Understanding our limitless capacity for redeploying skills and assets in new ways, combinations or contexts

4) Understanding Needs

Paying attention to issues and frustrations others have ignored, and experimenting with new solutions to problems

In each of these lenses you work through the detailed explanations; at the end of each part is a set of “lessons to take away” that provide excellent ‘triggers’ to keep thinking about and practicing the approach.  In these four valuable pages you begin to recognize and then learn to practice the new ‘seeing patterns’ that the majority of us may not see.

The end result of working through the Four Lenses is you get a perceptual power tool for recognizing, rethinking and reinventing patterns. They reawaken, amplify and extend our innate natural creative thinking capabilities as individuals and as teams to really catalyse our innovation efforts.

The starting point of each of the Four Lenses

Each of these four lenses starts at a given point to delve into the thinking patterns of the innovator.

  • Challenging Orthodoxies starts with “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” which picks up on Steve Jobs and his iconic “Think Differently” Apple campaign and brings out the famous quote of: “the crazy ones, the round pegs in the  square holes, the ones that see things differently, the rebels, the troublemakers” . This is where you think through being the ‘contrarian’ being discontent with the status quo. The ones that challenge conventional thinking. They dare.
  • Harnessing Trends is where you welcome change and you work at making change work for you. You look to turn discontinuity into opportunity. It is not being a futurist making long-term predictions, it is rather establishing that knack for recognizing and harnessing the potential of things that are already changing but others still do not ‘get it’. To quote from Martha Graham “No innovator is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that others are behind the times”. It is simply picking up the signals and getting better at reading them.
  • In Leveraging Resources it is asking how to take skills, core competences and strategic assets and saying “how can we repurpose, redeploy or recombine these to open up new growth opportunities”. We need to look to stretch what we have, how to break out of the way we define or pigeonhole ourselves.  How can we exploit our existing capacities and capabilities? “How can we extend the boundaries of our business” and develop a more “elastic view of the company”? The tough part is recognizing the unique skills and competencies already available, and to then combine these with the competencies and assets of other companies to produce new solutions which customers will value.  Andrew Hargadon outlines in his book “How Breakthroughs Happen” as “Innovation is a process of taking apart and reassembling these elements in new combinations”.
  • For Understanding Needs, the forth lens, the question to really ask today is “how much do you really know about your customers’ unsolved problems, unmet needs, and wants?” The radical innovator seems to have a natural skill at spotting deep, unmet customer needs and then building them into new business opportunities. They seem more ‘empathetic’ than others and often put themselves in the shoes of the customer, to feel what the customer feels and to see from their perspectives. Then they set out to address those needs by designing solutions from the customer backward. You begin with the consumer value creation perspective

The book provides exceptional illustrations of past and present innovators to relate too, as well as offering the steps to rethink building for breakthroughs and offer different routes to big ideas that add to your thinking. All of these offer those precious lessons to take away at each step of this learning journey for building your creative process.

So you get in this book a clear unpacking of the mind of the innovator, the clarity over the power of patterns and how big ideas are built by applying these four lenses.

It is making these new combinations and connections between previously existing thoughts, ideas and your domain of knowledge and experience, and building these into new patterns and new insight potential, so as to deliver a new understanding that shifts our perspective in some often significant way. It is firstly looking for new insights that are the raw material out of which big ideas will be built.

That is why the Four Lenses of Innovation has a real value to you to read, absorb and experiment and then to continually apply to your own innovation thinking needs. It will, perhaps, help make you a better innovator- something we all need to be.

See Rowan explain the Four Lenses:

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Paul Hobcraft

Paul Hobcraft

Paul Hobcraft researches and works across innovation, looking to develop novel innovation solutions and frameworks where appropriate. He provides possible answers to many issues associated with innov