Innovation's four lenses

By Rowan Gibson

Where do innovations come from? How do you generate an idea that is so radical – so compelling – that it fundamentally alters customer expectations, or reinvents the cost structure in your industry, or redefines the basis for competition? Despite all the attention innovation has received in recent years, the innovation process itself remains little understood. There is still a sense that innovation is a mysterious mix of happenstance, individual brilliance and the occasional bolt of lightning.

Clearly, intuition and creative ingenuity – as well as serendipity – are part of the innovation equation. But what if we could unpack the discovery process much more precisely by getting inside the mind of the innovator? What if we could open up that mysterious “black box” and take a good look at how it works? What if we could find out how radical innovators – people like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Bill Gates – came up with their breakthrough ideas? And most importantly, what if we could actually reverse-engineer this process?

The fact is, if we look at case after case of successful business innovation an interesting pattern begins to emerge. What we find is that, time and again, innovation came not from some inherent, individual brilliance but from looking at the world through a different set of “lenses”. It came from a fresh perspective, an alternative way of seeing things, a particular angle of view that enabled the innovators to look through the familiar and spot the unseen. In fact, there are four specific “lenses” that seem to dominate most successful innovation stories. Next time you sit down to innovate at your company, try using these lenses to spot opportunities that are “hidden in plain sight”:


Radical innovators are, almost by definition, contrarians. They take conventional thinking and turn it completely on its head.

For example, the people at IKEA asked, “Why does home furniture have to be delivered custom-made and fully assembled? Why can’t we create standardized products that customers can pick up and assemble themselves?” The people at Dell asked, “Why does an assembled computer cost five times as much as the parts that went into it? And why do computer companies need a huge network of dealers to sell their PCs? And why do they manage their own inventory when they could let their suppliers do it?”And the folks at Southwest Airlines asked a series of contrarian questions that were not only about dramatically lowering the price of flying, but about dramatically changing the airline industry’s traditional business model.

Exploring and challenging orthodoxies – overturning conventional beliefs about what drives success in your company and your industry – is a key way to surface opportunities for profitable growth. It’s a lens that allows you to see new industry rules, new structures, new offerings and new competitive space.


Radical innovators are not forecasters or scenario planners. They are not trying to predict the future or imagine how the world might be 10 years from now. Instead, they tend to be people who are aware – at some deep level – of things that are already fundamentally changing, and who understand the revolutionary portent in those things, in ways that others do not. Think about how masterfully Steve Jobs has harnessed technology trends, design trends, lifestyle trends, and social trends to generate a series of winning strategies for Apple.

So forget about grand corporate visions of the future. Instead, focus on identifying changes underway in the external environment that your competitors have either underestimated or ignored. Then try to understand how the momentum of these changes can be influenced – or amplified – to  drastically alter the current rules of competition and create new growth opportunities.


Radical innovators tend to view their companies not as business units or organization charts, but as portfolios of competencies and strategic assets. They have the ability to decouple particular skills and assets from the existing business model, and then leverage these resources in their own right to generate growth opportunities.

Take Disney. Back in the 1990s, the company successfully leveraged its core competence in three-dimensional entertainment beyond the Disney theme parks by turning some of its most popular movies into Broadway theatre productions. Similarly, McDonalds discovered an untapped strategic asset – the parking lots around its restaurants – and decided to leverage it into retail space by teaming up with Coinstar to launch the now ubiquitous Redbox DVD vending company.

To discover opportunities like these, you need to stop looking at your company as a provider of specific products or services for specific markets, and start viewing it as a reservoir of competencies and assets that can be leveraged in different ways (or different contexts) to create new value.


Radical innovators are deeply empathetic; they understand – and feel – the unvoiced needs of customers. They recognize needs that customers don’t even know they have yet. Or they solve some common frustration in a way that people could never have imagined.

For example, most of us were not crying out years ago for an online book store, or an online music store, or a web-based auction platform for selling all the unwanted junk in our attics or garages, or a way to peer down from space at any part of on earth and zoom in on streets, buildings and local features. Yet visionary innovators gave us, iTunes, eBay and Google Earth. These are all ideas that people didn’t know they needed but today can’t live without.

Try to uncover some of these unsolved problems, unvoiced needs and market inefficiencies. Learn to live inside the customer’s skin, empathizing with unarticulated feelings and identifying unmet needs.

Here’s the big news: innovation has less to do with increasing personal creativity – long the accepted wisdom – and more to do with using the right “lenses” to provoke a business breakthrough. Instead of simply leaving innovation to chance, or trying to grab ideas out of the air, you and your company can systematically generate game-changing opportunities by developing the mind of the innovator.

Rowan Gibson is a global business strategist, a bestselling author and an expert on radical innovation. He is also one of the world’s most in-demand public speakers. Rowan’s books have been translated into over 20 languages. His latest book, Innovation to the Core, is published by Harvard Business School Press. Rowan is now partnering with Imaginatik to offer advanced “Innovation-as-a-Service” solutions to the world’s leading corporations. For more information, visit Rowan will speak more about "The Four Lenses of Innovation" at the Innovation Leaders Forum Feb. 16 in New York City.

Creativity is the key to

Creativity is the key to innovate regardless of what and who you are. Everyone could have an opportunity of a life time with regards to this one. Such an interesting article.

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