Reviewing the Four Lenses of Innovation by Rowan Gibson

Every 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. Then I have to stick them back together again into a whole new pattern. It is this book actually threw me into a loop, trying to figure this reaction 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 was published March 2nd, 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.

One big 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 out to unpack the creative process 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. We become blind to the changes, the new patterns and the new opportunities that are all around us.

Part Three takes us into “Looking through each of 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.

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?

This is a shorten review. The longer version, published on 17th February 2015, on where I outline all my reactions is here.

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

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Paul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities. Find him @paul4innovating

Paul Hobcraft

Paul Hobcraft is recognized for his consistency to champion and informs on innovation. He focuses on building innovation capacity, competencies, and capabilities and promotes innovation in informative, creative and knowledgeable ways, piecing together the broader understanding of innovation. Paul continually constructs a series of novel and relevant frameworks to help advance this innovation understanding and writes mainly through his posting site of where he regularly publishes his thinking and research based on solutions that underpin his advisory, coaching and consulting work at




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