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
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

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

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.

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.