Thursday, April 23, 2015

Learning from the Innovation Leaders

Guest post from Rowan Gibson:

Not since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has there been a greater need to learn the art of innovation leadership. In today’s hyper-accelerating, value-based economy the churn of “creative destruction” has become more intense than even Joseph Schumpeter could have imagined. Successful products, services, strategies, and business models now have a shorter shelf-life than ever before in business history, which means that “innovate or die” is not just a cute bumper sticker; it’s a brutal reality of twenty-first century competition.

As innovation moves from interesting to urgent on the corporate agenda, many leaders are recognizing that they feel much more comfortable with improving execution than with the creative challenge of industry revolution. Generating new ideas, recognizing those with breakthrough potential, and then mobilizing an organization to drive those ideas from the mind to the market – often in the face of substantial risk and uncertainty – is not something every CEO feels cut out to do. But as execution capabilities become commodities, and the life cycles of new offerings get increasingly shorter, it’s precisely these innovation skills that need to be learned. And who better to learn them from than the innovation leaders themselves?

Who do we think of as innovation leaders? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was the industry-builders like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. In our own day, it’s industry disruptors like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson. But what exactly can today’s business leaders learn from these iconic innovators? What if individuals like these are simply wired differently from the rest of us, making them capable of innovating in ways that mere mortals, or ordinary companies—cannot possibly hope to match? This is certainly what folklore, and often the innovators themselves, would have us believe. But it turns out not to be the case. In fact, any leader – and any organization – can learn to emulate the thinking patterns of the world’s greatest innovators.

If one looks deeply at hundreds of examples of business innovation, an interesting pattern begins to emerge. Specifically, what we find is that, time and again, innovation came not from some inherent, individual brilliance but from looking at the world from a completely fresh perspective. It came from an alternative way of seeing things – a different set of “lenses” – that enabled the innovators to look through the familiar and spot the unseen. In fact, four essential perspectives or “perceptual lenses” seem to dominate most innovation stories, and often also characterize the entrepreneurs behind them:

1. Challenging Orthodoxies: Questioning and overturning common assumptions inside companies and across whole industries about what drives success. Innovation leaders never accept that there is only one “right” way of doing things. They take a contrarian stance. They are willing to challenge even the most deeply entrenched beliefs, and to explore new and perhaps highly unconventional answers.

Recall how Nicolas Hayek trashed traditions in the Swiss Watch industry by introducing Swatch. Or how Ingvar Kamprad turned furniture retail on its head with IKEA’s radical self-pick-up and self-assembly model. Or how Herb Kelleher upended air travel with Southwest’s low-cost, no-frills, fun-in-the-air approach. Consider James Dyson’s bagless vacuum cleaner, or Michael Dell’s rejection of computer dealer channels in favor of manufacturing and selling individually configured PCs directly to customers.

2. Harnessing Trends: Spotting patterns of change that could substantially change the rules of the game. Innovation leaders pay close attention to nascent trends and discontinuities that have the potential to profoundly impact the future of an industry – changes that others often ignore until it’s too late. Innovators make sure they are riding these waves of change rather than being washed away by them.

Jeff Bezos recognized the revolutionary portent of e-commerce back in 1994 when he read a trend report about the explosive growth of internet usage. He asked himself what kind of business model would make sense in the context of such exponential growth, and his answer was Amazon’s original online bookstore. Soon afterward, he expanded this business to become the “Wal-Mart of the Web” while Wal-Mart itself hesitated to grab this opportunity. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix understood what Internet-based video streaming would eventually do to DVD-based rentals. At the right time he shifted his business model to ride the oncoming wave of on-demand media while Blockbuster video got hit by the tsunami.

3. Leveraging Resources: Thinking of a company as a portfolio of skills and assets rather than as a provider of products or services for specific markets. Innovation leaders look for ways to repurpose, redeploy, and recombine various resources to create exciting new growth opportunities.

Consider how Walt Disney – or the folks from ESPN – leveraged core competencies and strategic assets to build global entertainment empires. Or how Richard Branson turned a single record store in London, UK, into a conglomerate comprising over 400 companies in a range of different industries. Or how Larry Page and Sergey Brin stretched beyond search, expanding into productivity software, operating systems, hardware, self-driving cars, advanced robotics, and even life-extension technologies.

4. Understanding Needs: Learning to live inside the customer’s skin, empathizing with unarticulated feelings and identifying unmet needs. Innovation leaders put themselves in the customer’s shoes and are able to feel their “pain points.” Then they design solutions from the customer backward.

Gary and Diane Heavin noticed that gyms were not catering to the needs of women. Their answer was Curves—a women-only club which is now the world’s largest fitness franchise chain. Fred Smith saw the need for a global, overnight courier service and turned his idea into Fedex. Nobody asked Steve Jobs for an iPod, an IPhone, or an iPad but somehow he knew that we would want – and need – these things.

So what can we learn from the innovation leaders? A great deal. In my new book “The Four Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool For Creative Thinking,” I explain exactly how we can use the above four perspectives to emulate the mind of the innovator and to unlock the brainpower of our organizations.

Rowan Gibson is recognized as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on innovation. His new book, The Four lenses of Innovation (Wiley), examines the thinking patterns or perspectives that have been catalysts for breakthrough innovation throughout human history, and shows you how to use these perspectives to infuse creativity into your organization.

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