Interview with Rowan Gibson

1. You are widely recognised as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on business innovation. What do you believe is the main reason for achieving this recognition?

The whole field of innovation went through a turning point around ten or fifteen years ago. Prior to that, the dominant paradigm was that innovation was basically all about boosting a company’s R&D capability. So at leading companies like IBM, Xerox, or P&G, innovation was something you did almost exclusively in a scientific research lab. In other words, it was segregated to a specific department or an isolated unit of the organisation.

Innovation wasn’t generally envisioned as something that should be systemically built into every nook and cranny of the company – something that should involve every single employee, in every location, every single day – and certainly not as something that should engage many constituencies beyond the company’s borders, such as customers, partners, dealers, and so on.

But this turning point I referred to was all about understanding that we could actually embed innovation across an entire organisation just like other enterprise capabilities such as quality, customer service, or supply chain management.

With my book Innovation to the Core and my consulting experience with a number of large companies, I became an early pioneer of this new innovation movement, and I believe one of the first to clearly define the specific tools and techniques for making it happen. In some small way, I like to think that I have tried to do for enterprise innovation what pioneers like Deming and Crosby set out to do decades ago for quality.

2. Innovation is important to business. What in your opinion is the biggest benefit that innovation brings to organisations?

The first benefit most companies see is the potential for growth. So they ask themselves how Apple, for example, could transform itself from a dead duck in 1997 to the most valuable company in the world by 2012. Or how an upstart in the automobile industry like Tesla could achieve a stock market value that’s already half of GM’s or Ford’s in just over ten years. And the answer of course is that this kind of dramatic growth can only come from radical innovation.

We’ve seen the same phenomenon with firms like Google and Amazon, or in recent years with start-ups like Nest Technologies, Beats Electronics, and Uber. But growth is just one important benefit from innovation. Another is strategic renewal. Every company’s business model is under intense pressure today due to hyper-accelerating change, rampant competition, rapid commoditization, and unprecedented customer primacy.

So the imperative is to keep innovating at the level of the core business model in order to stay relevant in this new environment. Think about the way Netflix shifted their business model from mailing DVDs to streaming video, whereas Blockbuster missed that critical bend in the road and went bankrupt.

Today, it’s very much about changing as fast as the world is changing. But there are other benefits to innovation, too, such as attracting better talent to the company, attracting customers away from the competition, attracting more investors, and so on. In other words, there is a long list of reasons why innovation is so important and so beneficial to an organisation, and therefore such a huge priority for business.

3. Your latest book, being published in March 2015, talks about the four lenses of innovation. What are these ‘lenses’ and how can companies apply them to their own organisations?

The lenses are perspectives, or particular ways of looking at the world, that allow you to see radical new innovation opportunities. In my research into hundreds of cases of successful innovation, I have found that innovators come to their breakthrough discoveries not by sitting around waiting for a Eureka moment but by developing these specific angles of view that reveal inspiring new insights. The first perceptual lens is called Challenging Orthodoxies. It’s about overturning deeply-entrenched beliefs and assumptions within your company and your industry, and exploring highly unconventional answers. The second lens is Harnessing Trends. This has to do with recognizing the revolutionary portent in emerging developments, and figuring out how to harness the disruptive power of discontinuous change. The third discovery lens is called Leveraging Resources, which is about looking at a company not as a collection of business units but as a portfolio of core competencies and strategic assets which may be redeployed in new ways, combinations, or contexts. And the fourth lens of innovation is Understanding Needs. This means paying close attention to customer needs and frustrations which others have ignored, and then designing novel solutions to these problems.

The great news about the lenses is that they give us a much better understanding about what makes the mind of the innovator tick. And that means we can reverse-engineer it. We can actually turn innovation into something that is systematic or methodical – something we can all achieve – by applying these four discovery lenses inside our organisations.

4. How can blue-chip companies, with multi-layered infrastructures and slow-moving decision making, begin to bring back innovation into their core? Indeed is it even possible?

It is not by any means an easy thing to do, but with a concerted effort, a systematic approach, and with expert guidance, it can be done. Indeed, many large organisations around the world have taken on this challenge of making innovation a deeply-embedded and widely-distributed capability, and they are achieving extraordinary results. What they have learned in the process is that it’s a deep and profound organisational transformation that can’t be done in a piecemeal way—an innovation reward program here, a corporate venture fund there, or a few days of brainstorming somewhere else, these things aren’t enough. It requires time, money, and commitment.

In my experience, it can take an organization three to five years to build the kinds of leadership commitment, infrastructure, management processes, tools, training, metrics, cultural mechanisms and values, that are required to support ongoing, across-the-board innovation. Again, the quality movement sets an encouraging precedent. Look how adept today’s organizations have become at systematically manufacturing world-class products. Who would have thought that what once seemed so daunting could become almost run-of-the-mill business practice?

In the years to come, I see no reason why corporate innovation systems shouldn’t become just as efficient—and just as commonplace—as corporate quality systems. Over the years, I have worked around the world with a whole list of big, blue-chip companies. And in every single case, I have been impressed with the way a large and perhaps “old-line” industrial organisation with multi-layered infrastructures and slow-moving decision-making processes can really start to drive innovation to the core. In fact, these companies have proven that it’s entirely possible to transform themselves into catalysts for continuous, break-the-rules innovation.