I’ve just returned from the Front End of Innovation convention, which, as the name suggests, was full of nuggets of joy for innovation managers. It was fantastic to be standing in the same room with hundreds of innovation managers from different industries and verticals who share the same opportunities and challenges including 3M, Qualcomm and Campbell’s Soups. Insights were exchanged on brainstorming methods, idea development, portfolio management, voice of the customer, and other topics important to innovation professionals.

If I had to choose one lecture that stood out and encompassed it all, it would have to be Rowan Gibson’s: “Winning in the Innovation Economy”. Gibson, innovation management ninja and author of Innovation to the Core, really managed to succinctly capture the essence of innovation in his definition of the 4 Discovery Lenses of Innovation:

When challenging orthodoxies, Gibson suggests we look at our industry, find its rules and limitations and then try to break them one by one. For example, Nike identified an industry convention (that sneakers’ tops can only be manufactured by assembling different parts) and decided to develop a new type of sneaker top that consists of one element only called FlyKnit. Not only is the seamless result more efficient to produce, it is actually very comfortable for the end user – so this is a win-win situation.


When harnessing trends, Gibson suggests we look not only at our own industry, but also at global trends and especially discontinuities.

“What exactly is a discontinuity?  It’s not just a single trend, invention, or technology,” explains Rowan. “Rather, it’s a cluster of trends – for example, in technology, demographics, lifestyle, regulation, geopolitics and so forth – that has the power to substantially change the competitive rules or the structure of an industry.  Trends and discontinuities are often the launching pad for radical innovation.”

Leveraging resources and core competences is about not thinking about what you do, but rather what you know and own. A great example for this principle is embodied by Netflix, who not so long ago was peddling DVD rentals. As sales plummeted and Internet viewing habits changed, Netflix recognized that its core competence is to offer the right content to its customer base and so the delivery method was changed to streaming. It is also interesting to note that Netflix did it again last year when they decided to start generating their own content in addition to providing 3rd party content. The first attempt, hit series House of Cards, made a big splash in the industry, and has since had a surprising ripple effect.

Understanding the customer’s unarticulated needs is the final piece of the puzzle (and this theme seemed to repeat throughout the convention). Stop selling what you have, start selling what they need. Focus groups are out – immersion marketing is in. The goal here is to empathize with the customers so we really understand what they need – maybe even before the customer does.  In order to do this, we need to immerse ourselves in the customer’s life – routine, goals, delights, concerns, aspirations. It is not enough to ask questions; immersion marketing is about becoming the customer to truly understand what makes him tick.

And that’s it. In four simple concepts, we can reverse-engineer why the biggest disruptive ideas are so successful. Some fall into one lens while others draw their power from the combination of two lenses or more. What I find empowering about the lenses is that they offer a practical point of view as to how we can adopt disruptive thinking. It is also serves as a benchmark for great ideas as we align the way we define what is truly new.