The Four Lenses of Innovation by Rowan Gibson

Four lenses of innovation for post3Every now and then, a book comes along that completely surprises me in terms of my own reactions to it, forcing me to unglue some of my preconceived ideas, and then stick them back together again into a whole new pattern. It threw me into a loop, trying to figure this out.

To be honest, I still have not fully figured out why I keep pondering over Rowan Gibson’s “The Four Lenses of Innovation: a power tool for creative thinking”, which will be published in early March, and why it is forcing me to reconcile different thoughts in my mind.

Rowan Gibson’s previous book was “Innovation to the Core- a blueprint for transforming the way your company innovates”, which he co-authored with Peter Skarzynski. It has been one of my favourites since it came out in 2008. I often dip into this book, refer to some of its thinking and frames that have emerged following its publication. One of those frames was the “The Four Lenses of Innovation”, outlined in Chapter Three, which became the basis for Rowan’s new book.

Here is the first thing that threw me

Rowan decided not to do a sequel to “Innovation to the Core”. In many ways he wanted to step away from what he calls “enterprise innovation” and make this new book simply a very different kind of book, delving a little deeper into the front end of the innovation process.

The “four lenses” tackles the subject of creativity far more than its predecessor; it explores how the human mind works and encourages readers to recognize their own creative genius. Rowan takes the reader on a significant journey, even going back in time to consider historical examples that show how we all can discover great opportunities.

The four lenses is a tool to provide us the ability to find and explore fresh perspectives. He calls these “four perceptual lenses” and when he went back and studied successful innovation it uncovered and reinforced his belief in this tool for each of us to uncover insights and opportunities.

Without doubt this book reflects Rowan’s current focus

I decided to ask him a number of questions to clarify some of my thinking after I had been through the manuscript he sent to me for providing a review. He states “writing a book is an expression of what interests you personally at a certain point of time in your life and career” He believes he is “baring his soul a little bit” and looking to help people understand creativity and innovation a little better, by joining the dots between a few things. I certainly think he helps us understand him and how he has gone about this ‘creative process’ himself.

Rowan sets about to unpack the creative process a little more. Ideas are built within our minds. We collect many thoughts that initially may be random, but as these connect they become the kernel of a new idea. Rowan defines an idea as a “new pattern of thoughts”. The book is about exploring and explaining the thought processes that lead to new ideas by mapping them through these four lenses back in history, from ancient times, through the Renaissance period, telling some stories of Edison, Einstein and bringing us more up to date with a host of contemporary ones of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in this exploration journey of how big ideas are actually built.

He is embarking to take us on a journey, a quest to discover the creative genius that is inside us all.

So what are the four lenses that the book is built around?
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”:

  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

Part two of the book turns towards “the Power of Patterns”

Here Rowan really starts to explore the neuroscience stuff as the place for us to understand some of the many mental barriers to innovation. It looks at why most of us are not using those innate creative skills that we were born with but seem to file away after childhood. The way we think – as “pattern recognizers” – often holds us back. We are taught certain patterns of thought and behaviour as we grow up, and we recognize these patterns all the time, but we often don’t question them anymore.

As Rowan suggests, this is a cognitive condition called “functional fixedness” and often becomes the mental block that we have to unlock so we can regain a fresh perspective. He argues that many of us are running on a kind if mental “autopilot” and we simply stop noticing or questioning things. We become blind to the changes, the new patterns and the new opportunities that are all around us.

Part three takes you into “Looking Through the Four Lenses”

This is the part that takes you through each of the four lenses of challenging orthodoxies, harnessing trends, leveraging resources and understanding needs. Each has brief “lessons to take away” within their dedicated chapters to help distil each of the framing messages.

This part of the book does really climb into current examples to reinforce the lenses and their value. Rowan introduces the 3R in the “leveraging resources” section but in many ways the question to keep asking throughout the book is “how can we repurpose, redeploy or recombine our skills and assets in order to open up to new growth opportunities?” and “how can we extend the boundaries of our businesses?”

Part four is all about “How Big Ideas Are Built”

There is a definite thinking process involved in constructing a breakthrough. Rowan provides views on Archimedes, and suggests that Einstein provides us with an excellent model of the master idea-builder as he used his creativity to rethink the universe.

Then he considers Thomas Edison – perhaps the most prolific innovator of all time – describing his approach and then suggesting that in each of these cases “their genius seems to have followed a formula” and layers on many more examples to underpin this, bringing us back through the four lenses and describing Rowan’s eight-step model of the creative process.

The book keeps asking and raising questions about this creative process

As I suggested earlier, this is a personal journey of looking at creative genius through this four lenses framework. Rowan wanted to write a very different kind of book, and he wanted to project some of his own vibrancy, passion and excitement about innovation.

The finished book is in itself very creative in its layout, design and presentation.

It contains 304 pages of full colour illustrations, really bringing the whole subject of creativity and innovation to life. I firstly read the manuscript, and then I received a copy of one of the finished chapters and went “Wow!” What a transformation. The book’s design made that creative distinction. It complimented and really helped to break down this amazing journey in pursuit of creative genius.

So why does it leave me still with questions about the book?

I wrote to Rowan that I needed to firstly separate before I recombine. I was not a lover of his Preface – it is a little over hyped, over worked, it forced me to judge far too early and I have needed to keep peeling away at this and get deeper into the structure and messages to resolve this reaction. I like to discover more as something unfolds, not to be confronted with it. In some ways, I’m not sure the preface and opener fit the journey of what lies within the book but that, of course, could simply be me.

I was reading in his Preface that the ‘four lenses’ has had such an impact on companies over the last two decades, with the result that “thousands” have already seen its value as a technique, yet with many people coming up to Rowan at his events and asking about the four lenses, he chose not to start the book with the “here and now” but significantly with the historical route and that equally threw me. Was this a case of simply retrofitting or providing its real value through this growing recognition of applying these lenses across history and in this way, showing its underlying value?

In some ways I wanted to immediately get my hands on the “here and now” stuff raised up in the Preface as proof, making it more contemporary, relevant and applicable to take hold of this technique in today’s world and why so many were adopting it as a creative tool. But Rowan told me, “I wanted to give a more historical basis to the creativity and innovation thinking patterns, reflecting much of my thinking and research over the couple of years”. Fair enough, he does make up for the contemporary stuff in later parts of the book significantly well, with plenty of modern examples, less of his own though, I felt a pity, as it was this demand that seems to have partly pushed him into writing this book. Yet I did get to satisfy my need for ‘red meat’ but it was the promise within the Preface that raised my expectancies, perhaps forcing my “need to separate before recombine” remark as the book unfolded.

• Actually I really liked the Renaissance discussions – they form the heart of the book for me, they triggered my thinking. I think we are in need of a new renaissance period, especially here in Europe, so I welcomed that part.

• In many ways I think the book has challenged my own need to shift my mental perspective. Perhaps this was my struggle. If a book prompts this then it is doing its job. It is not just informing, it is raising your awareness within yourself. It stretched me and brought out some emotions as well.

• I would certainly have liked to see more depth in the summaries of each chapter. The “lessons to take-away” were fairly short and lacked the ability to encapsulate much within the chapters. Again, I would have liked a little more meat on the ‘take-away’ bone.

• Rowan has researched and written a very different type of innovation book. You can be in danger of trying to box it with countless others, all offering their take on “how to”, but this book strives constantly to go beyond that.

• Then, as Rowan’s previous book, “Innovation to the Core” was so radically different, and for me, a consistent reference book, this had certainly influenced me when I was working through this “Four Lenses” manuscript.

• The two books stand at opposite ends of the innovation book spectrum and maybe I was not able to let go of one end to enjoy the other end, and I still cannot fully figure out why. It is good to appreciate different spectrums to alter your own perspectives.

It is a book I certainly recommend. It took me on my personal journey. It did its job. It challenged my thinking patterns. It broke some. It reinforced others. It helped describe the creative journey we all need to travel, which can be full of surprises and we do need to stay open to rethink everything.

Reflecting back through history does often open up the future. Can we have another Innovation Renaissance period please, this book reminded me of our constant need to be creative and keep pushing for breakthrough ideas to advance and renew?

** the book is released on March 2nd, 2015.

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4 thoughts on “The Four Lenses of Innovation by Rowan Gibson

  1. Pingback: The Four Lenses of Innovation by Rowan Gibson |...

  2. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | Reviewing the Four Lenses of Innovation by Rowan Gibson

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