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Unlocking Innovation: The New Leadership Challenge

by Guest Writter
Rowan Gibson, Author, The Four lenses of Innovation

Over the last two decades, innovation has moved to center stage in terms of leadership priorities. Indeed, it is now recognized globally as the primary driver of business growth, competitiveness, and corporate valuation. But recognizing innovation as a top strategic priority is one thing. Actually making it happen across an enterprise is something else entirely. Many of today’s CEOs admit that they are struggling with this new executive challenge, because it cannot be addressed using traditional leadership skills, tools, and tactics. What is becoming clear is that unlocking innovation requires a new leadership approach.

Of course, the challenge is a multi-faceted one, and it must not be over-simplified. But there are two fundamental dimensions to leading innovation that are vital for a CEO to understand. The first concerns the cultural environment inside an organization. The second has to do with the thought processes inside the human mind that actually lead to Eureka moments.

As an analogy, consider the European Renaissance of the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. This is a period of history in which creativity and innovation truly flourished. What could possibly have unleashed such a torrent of new thinking? And what can modern-day leaders learn from looking back in time at this remarkable era?

One thing we know about the Renaissance is that it was born in the booming city-states of Northern Italy, in particular Florence, Venice, and Milan – where prominent artists, scientists, and philosophers came together and cross-pollinated ideas and insights from their various fields, disciplines, and cultures. So it was a real intersection point. And this cultural environment became a fertile breeding ground for new and revolutionary ideas. Nevertheless, it would be wrong for us to conclude that networking, connection, and collaboration are all it takes to promote innovation. Culture is certainly a key component in the innovation equation, but it’s not the only one.

What the Renaissance also introduced was a fundamental change in outlook and perspectives that opened people’s minds to new ideas and opportunities. Let’s remember that prior to this point, Western Europe had been struggling for a thousand years through the aptly called “Dark Ages” – the long medieval period in which free thinking and progress had been stifled by the teachings and the authority of the church. But the new philosophy of humanism, which was central to Renaissance thinking, introduced fresh perspectives that emancipated the mind from medieval supernaturalism and became the fuel for creativity and innovation.

Four mental perspectives in particular were characteristic of the Renaissance mind-set. First, was the contrarian tendency to “Challenge Orthodoxies” – to question deeply entrenched beliefs and assumptions. The second was a propensity for “Harnessing Trends” – recognizing the future potential of emerging developments, and using these trends to open up new opportunities. The third was “Leveraging Resources” – understanding the limitless capacity for redeploying skills and assets in new ways, combinations, or contexts. And the fourth was “Understanding Needs” – paying attention to common frustrations, and pursuing breakthrough solutions to these problems. These four perspectives gave Renaissance innovators a whole new set of lenses through which to view the world, allowing them to discover exciting new ideas and opportunities that had been previously hidden from view.

The lesson for today’s CEOs is that it’s possible to dramatically improve a company’s capacity for innovation by optimizing the very same variables that enhanced creative thinking during the Renaissance – a set of cultural factors on the one hand, and a set of thinking processes on the other.

In terms of cultural environment, leaders can do their best to emulate the Renaissance spirit inside their organizations by trying to develop a social architecture that encourages people to deploy their creativity. The question to ask is: Does this organization have a Renaissance-type corporate culture that functions as a powerful catalyst for continuous innovation? Or does it have more of a medieval management culture that is acting as an innovation anchor by holding people back in their efforts to be creative?

When it comes to the innovation process itself, leaders can provide their organizations with a systematic methodology for creative thinking that is based on the four proven perspectives for triggering Eureka moments. These perspectives – the “four lenses of innovation” – were catalysts for creativity in the Renaissance period, and have been the drivers behind countless innovation cases in modern times.

If leaders succeed in creating the right climate for creative collaboration, and in employing the right thinking tools to enhance people’s imaginations, they will be well on their way toward making innovation happen as an enterprise capability.

[Image courtesy of hywards at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

About the Author

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 own organization.

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