Some people seem to be endlessly innovative. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and others like them appear to command an endless fountain of brilliant new ideas, business models, and product designs. Wouldn't it be great if we could replicate their mental processes so that the rest of us could be equally innovative in our own work?

We can, according to Rowan Gibson, co-founder of Innovation Excellence and author of The Four Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking. Gibson believes innovation is a matter of perspective, and that anyone can jump-start their innovating ability by looking at the world in the way these iconic innovators do. "Innovation and creativity do not have to be mysteries," he says.

The secret, he says, is to look at things through one of four "lenses" that inspire creative thought by forcing you to see your existing business in a completely new way. If you want to give it a whirl, try asking these four questions:

1. How can I challenge conventional wisdom and disrupt the status quo?

The first lens of innovation is "challenging orthodoxies," according to Gibson. "It's challenging conventional wisdom, deeply held beliefs, or common assumptions," he says. "If the world is zigging, why can't we zag?"

Elon Musk is a great example of someone who turns whole industries upside down by taking this approach. "Look at what he's done with Tesla," Gibson says. "Experts in Detroit told him he'd never be able to build a high-performance electric car, make it something people wanted to buy, build it in volume, or build enough electric charging stations. And he'd never be able to sell it directly to people on the internet."

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again. "He challenged all those assumptions and gave the industry an electric shock," Gibson says. "The market cap for Tesla is now about half of GM's. And he's done the same thing in the rocket industry."

So next time you want to get more innovative, try overturning some rules of the road, or question the things that "everyone" knows. You may wind up shaking up an industry yourself. (For example, here are six things "everyone knows" about starting a business that are dead wrong.)

2. How can I harness the power of a coming trend?

Jeff Bezos did just this, Gibson says. "Before he was at Amazon, he was on Wall Street. He picked up a report and read about the explosive growth of the internet and wondered what kind of business would make sense in the context of that growth. Why didn't Walmart do that? The report was publicly available. Anyone could have read it."

So try looking at the world with an eye to the changes that are coming in politics, lifestyle, technology, and other domains. What businesses or products will those changes demand? Finding answers to those questions can lead to innovations that will make you wildly successful, Gibson says. "Innovators are able to pick up the signals," he adds. "They can see there's an oncoming tsunami that right now looks like a ripple."

3. How can I leverage what we already have to create new opportunities?

Richard Branson is a perfect example of this approach, Gibson says. "He had a small record store in London, and now has this empire with 400 companies in different industries. It was taking the skills and the brand they'd developed in one industry and moving it to another." And it was a lucky thing they did, he adds, because if Virgin had remained in just the record business, it would be dead by now in this age of Spotify and iTunes.

Anyone can do this, he adds. "Every single company, and every single individual has a set of skills and assets. How do we repurpose and recombine those?"

4. What customer needs aren't being met yet?

"Consumer research helps, but this is going beyond that and getting in the customer's skin," Gibson says. It's particularly powerful if you can fill a need that customers don't yet know they have. "We didn't know we needed an iPod," he says. "We didn't know we needed Airbnb or Uber or Nest."

Steve Jobs was a master at figuring out what customers needed before they knew they needed it, he adds. "He knew that customers don't know what we want, and I think he put himself in our shoes."

So try doing the same. Try to look at the world from your customer's viewpoint. What do they need? What are the pain points? Answer those questions, and you may find your own fountain of innovation.

Published on: Mar 17, 2015
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