Interview – Rowan Gibson of “Innovation to the Core”
I had the opportunity to interview Rowan Gibson, co-author of “Innovation to the Core” about the book and about creating a systemic innovation capability inside organizations.
Rowan Gibson is a global business strategist, a bestselling author, an expert on radical innovation, and an Innovation Excellence co-founder. In addition to “Innovation to the Core“, Rowan is author of “Rethinking The Future”, and a keynote speaker at large international conferences, corporate management events and executive summits.
We have split this in-depth interview into three parts. Here is the first part of the interview:
1. When it comes to innovation, what is the biggest challenge that you see organizations facing?
The biggest challenge is not generating new ideas and opportunities. It’s how to make innovation a deeply embedded capability. What usually happens is that companies focus most of their efforts on the front end of innovation – so they launch some kind of ideation initiative with a lot of hoopla and they get a whole bunch of ideas. But then they hit a wall because there is no back end – there is no organizational system for effectively screening ideas, aligning them with the business strategy, allocating seed funding and management resources, and guiding a mixed portfolio of opportunities through the pipeline toward commercialization. So, invariably, what we find is that the whole innovation effort eventually withers. And all those enthusiastic innovators inside and outside the company become cynical and discouraged as they watch their ideas go nowhere.
The real challenge, therefore, is to turn innovation from a buzzword into a systemic and widely distributed capability. It has to be woven into the everyday fabric of the company just like any other organizational capability, such as quality, or supply chain management, or customer service. In other words, for innovation to really work, and to be sustainable, it has to become a way of life for the organization. Yet how many companies have actually achieved that? The sad truth is this: most organizations today still have absolutely no model, no practical notion, of what the back end of innovation actually looks like. If you asked them to build a corporate innovation system that seamlessly integrates leadership commitment, infrastructure, processes, tools, talent development, cultural mechanisms and values, they wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s the challenge Innovation to the Core was meant to address.
2. Why is it so important that organizations build a foundation of insights before generating ideas?
OK, let’s go back to the front end of innovation. If you’re going to do this properly, what you’re really looking for is not just a lot of ideas. Senior managers often complain that most of the ideas they get from their employees and customers are not very good ones. So after they open up the innovation process to everyone, everywhere, they find themselves wasting valuable management time sorting through a heap of garbage to find a few interesting submissions. That’s because, frankly, they don’t really understand how the innovation process actually works.
Try to look at it this way: before you start building a house, you have to gather the right materials and lay a solid foundation, right? Remember the story of the three little pigs? If you build a house from the wrong materials it can easily be blown down, so it’s useless. Then there’s the Bible story of the house built on sand rather than rock. It makes a similar point: if you don’t have the right foundation – regardless of the quality of the building materials – the house is equally useless. So it is with new ideas and opportunities. In a sense, they need to be built from the right “materials” and they need a solid “foundation”, otherwise they won’t be very good. What I’m getting at here is that there is actually a front end to the front end of innovation. Before you start ideating, you need a set of really novel strategic insights. These are like the raw material out of which exciting innovation breakthroughs are built. If you ask people to innovate in a game-changing way without first building a foundation of novel strategic insights, you find that it’s mostly a waste of time. You get a lot of ideas that are either not new at all, or so crazy that they’re way out in space.
So how do you develop those all-important insights? I teach companies a methodology for doing that in a systematic way – it’s called “The Four Lenses of Innovation”. The fact is that in order to discover new ideas and opportunities of any real value, people need to stretch their thinking beyond the conventional. They need to develop fresh perspectives. So the “Four Lenses” represent four specific types of perspectives, or ways of looking at the world, that innovators typically use to come to their breakthrough discoveries. They are (1) Challenging orthodoxies, (2) Harnessing trends, (3) Leveraging resources in new ways, and (4) Understanding unmet needs. By using these lenses, or these particular angles of view, it’s possible to systematically look through the familiar and spot the unseen. That’s how you discover those deep insights that others have overlooked or ignored.
Once you have gathered a collection of really inspiring insights, you can then do your ideation work. You start thinking about what kinds of ideas and opportunities could be built on these unexamined dogma, unexploited trends, underutilized resources, and unvoiced customer needs. And what that gives you is not just a high quantity of ideas but also a high quality. Rather than just pulling ideas out of the air, you generate opportunities that are grounded. They are based on real industry orthodoxies that deserved to be challenged, real discontinuities that could potentially reshape the business landscape, real competencies and assets that could be leveraged to create opportunities beyond the boundaries of the existing business, and real customer needs that have not yet been addressed. So you inspire ideas that are connected to the real world; they are not in some crazy, unbounded creative space. They are founded on realities – things you can test and validate.
Now imagine that instead of merely inviting everyone, everywhere to “go forth and innovate”, you actually gave them access to these powerful strategic insights via a web-based tool, and you taught them how to ideate effectively. Can you see how that would dramatically enhance their innovation performance? That’s what I’m currently doing with all kinds of organizations around the world.
Don’t miss parts two and three:
- Part 2 of 3 – Building a Systemic Innovation Capability
- Part 3 of 3 – Building a Systemic Innovation Capability
Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B inbound marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is the creator of the Nine Innovation Roles Group Diagnostic Tool and author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.