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The Innovation Engine Podcast: Breakthrough Insights from Rowan Gibson – Part 4

The Innovation Engine Podcast: Breakthrough Insights from Rowan Gibson – Part 4

This is a transcript and audio file from the popular podcast “The Innovation Engine”, hosted by Will Sherlin, featuring an interview with Rowan Gibson, author of “The Four Lenses of Innovation.” 

“Welcome to the Innovation Engine podcast, I’m Will Sherlin, and on this week’s episode, we’ll be looking at the 4 lenses of innovation – what the 4 lenses are and how they can be used to drive corporate innovation, and how they can be employed to emulate the mind of the innovator.

Here with us today to discuss all that and more is Rowan Gibson, a world-renowned innovation expert who has served as a keynote speaker on the subject of innovation in 60 countries around the world. Rowan is the internationally bestselling author of the forthcoming book The Four Lenses of Innovation. He has previously written two major books on corporate innovation and business strategy: Innovation to the Core and Rethinking the Future, which is published today in over 20 languages. Rowan is also the co-founder of Innovation Excellence.com, the most popular innovation website in the world, built by an international group of over 26,000 members from 175 countries. And if you’ve been a long-time listener of this podcast, you’ll remember him from the 13th episode of “The Innovation Engine,” when he talked about Building a Blueprint for Innovation.

Let’s talk about the power – and danger – of patterns. How do patterns become so ingrained in our daily lives, and what is it necessary to break them in the name of innovation?

Yeah, this is the second section of the book, “The Power of Patterns”. It basically looks at why most of us are not actually using those innate creative skills that we’re born with – or at least not using them to their full potential. And we really have to understand this problem if we’re going to overcome the barriers to creative thinking that all of us experience – not just individually but across our organizations. You know, what exactly is it that’s getting in the way?

And again, you could argue that it’s just the corporate culture. That it’s not conducive to new thinking and experimentation and risk-taking, so people just shut up and get on with their jobs. That would be an extrinsic barrier – the cultural environment, and it can be – and very often is – a real roadblock to innovation. But we also have a powerful intrinsic barrier to creativity, and it’s a neurological one. It has to do with the way we think.

What neuroscience teaches us is that the human brain is an incredible pattern recognizer. So when he hear someone’s voice, or we hear a piece of music, or we see a familiar face, we instantly recognize it because it’s a pattern that’s stored in our heads. When we see a chair, or a car, or a piece of toast, we recognize these things immediately. We know what they are, and we don’t have to think about them anymore. They are patterns. Language is a pattern. Images and icons are patterns. Stories are patterns. We even see patterns where they don’t exist. Did you ever look up at the clouds in the sky and see what looks like a dog or a horse or some other shape? That’s because your brain is constantly trying to recognize patterns.

Now, that’s very good in one way because it’s how the brain saves energy. If it didn’t work like that, we would literally be overwhelmed by everything that is going on around us all the time. Every piece of sensory information would be like a completely new and bewildering experience that we would need to identify, interpret, and analyze in order to understand our environment. And that would make life unbelievably complex. But by storing familiar patterns for spontaneous recall, we don’t have to consciously think about these things anymore. Our pattern recognition system simply takes over the job—kind of like the automatic pilot on an airplane—to reduce the cognitive load and free our minds to focus on other things.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that once we have formed those patterns we never really question them anymore. We come to accept them the way they are. So when you pick up your toothbrush to brush your teeth you never ask yourself how you might make that product different or better. It’s just a toothbrush. This is a cognitive condition called “functional fixedness,” a kind of mental block that limits us to understanding and using the things around us only in the traditional ways we have learned. The more fixed our patterns become, the more difficult it is for us to mentally move beyond them—to look at something conventional and reimagine it in unconventional ways – like, say, imagining a toothbrush you wear on your tongue. Or a toothbrush linked to a smartphone app. Or a singing toothbrush that plays hits by Lady Gaga. By the way, these products actually exist, and we can argue about their usefulness. But they could only be envisaged by looking at something familiar from a fresh perspective. Innovation is very much about breaking out of these established patterns in our minds and looking at things in new ways.

Do you know why we’re all so much more creative when we’re in Kindergarten? It’s because we haven’t yet learnt all these fixed patterns. So our minds are open to all kinds of possibilities. We look at an empty cardboard box and we imagine it as a space rocket. We actually show no signs of functional fixedness until about age seven. But, then, as we grow up, we encounter and memorize more and more patterns. We narrow our perspectives in terms of what is possible and what is not. We learn to view things and do things in particular ways, and before we know it our thoughts and actions are habitually following the same old established paths over and over again.

Then we join a company and we learn even more patterns – rules and regulations, standard operating procedures, codes of conduct, traditional industry practices and so on – and these patterns subconsciously guide us in how we think and act in our daily business.

And that’s the danger of patterns. They stop us from thinking creatively about familiar objects and situations. They induce a kind of mental laziness. We find ourselves running on autopilot and we stop noticing or questioning things. This is what blinds us to new opportunities.

The Four Lenses of Innovation help us overcome that blindness by giving us new ways of looking at the world. So we begin to see objects and situations from a new angle of view. Once we break the established patterns in our minds we can start to see new patterns, and exciting new opportunities that we have perhaps never noticed before. Next get a small advice from Gibson on how to change the way you think.

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