A New Model to Start Innovation


WoW. I am so happy and honoured that my book ‘The Innovation Maze‘ (in Dutch) has been awarded as ‘Management Book of The Year 2017’ by Managementboek.nl. That’s why I am sharing with you the following highlights of The Innovation Maze.

15 obstacles are hindering innovation at its start

As speaker on innovation I have been traveling around the world meeting innovators, managers and CEOs in different cultures: from Canada to Cape Town; and from Turkey to Tokyo. I start my workshops asking them the direct question, “What are your main struggles at the start of innovation?” From all these workshops I identified fifteen obstacles which may block you during the fuzzy front end along the path towards a successful new business case:

  1. Unclear strategy
  2. No priority for innovation
  3. No market need
  4. No insights or inspiration
  5. No time
  6. Lack of resources
  7. No internal support 
  8. Politics
  9. Insufficient skills
  10. Fear of failure
  11. No fit
  12. Too slow
  13. Not feasible
  14. No business model
  15. Not original

Innovation starts with an idea, a technology, a problem or a business issue

Now we nailed all the problems at the fuzzy front end, let’s work on the solution to unfuzzy it. The way innovation starts is diverse. There are four common patterns how you start innovation.

  1. You start innovation with a idea, like Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia of AIRBNB. When a major design conference came to town in 2007, they saw an opportunity to earn some extra cash by renting out their spare floor space. In no time they had put together a website advertising lodging for overnight guests which they called “Airbed and Breakfast”.
  2. You start innovation triggered by technology, like Google X research lab, which explores new technologies beyond Google’s core business, with for example their Google Glass experiment.
  3. You start innovation to solve a problem, like two students in Sweden, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin. The prospect of being forced by law to wear a bicycle helmet caused them great concern, as they wouldn’t “be caught dead wearing a polystyrene helmet.” They started developing a bicycle helmet that people would be happy to wear.
  4. You start innovation because your business needs to innovate, like toy-producer LEGO when in 1998 they generated their first loss in the company’s history. In response to this crisis, the company announced the lay-offs of 1,000 employees and put innovation on their agenda.

The front end of innovation ends with a well-founded new business case

I learned that to convince the management of an organization or (in)formal investors to let your innovative idea enter the formal development process and give you the resources needed, you must bring to the table a well-founded convincing new business case. Now the crucial word in the last sentence is ‘convincing’. This means you really must know your stuff. In the boardroom your idea will be evaluated from at least four perspectives:

  • The customer: will they buy it?
  • The technology: can we deliver it?
  • The business model: will it pay off?
  • The risk: What if it’s a failure? What if it’s huge success?

The board will demand tangible proof before making a decision. That makes the front end of innovation so challenging and intensive. In practice it will take at least ten activities to take you to this desired outcome in a structured way.

10 essential activities to unfuzzy your front end

  1. Ideate: Generating and choosing original relevant ideas for a product, service, process or experience.
  2. Focus: Defining your innovation center-of-interest including all the boundary conditions.
  3. Check Fit: Checking if your idea, technology, customer issue or business challenge fits your personal and corporate priorities.
  4. Create Conditions: Organizing the right moment, the right team, the right pace and the right funding for your innovation initiative.
  5. Discover: Discovering trends, markets, technologies and customer insights.
  6. Create Business Model: Creating a viable business model.
  7. Select Technology: Identifying and selecting the right technology to deliver your new product, service, process or experience.
  8. Check Freedom to Operate: Checking if you do not infringe intellectual property rights of others.
  9. Experiment: Carrying out a systematic research or test which validates the adoption and attractiveness of your new product, service, process or experience.
  10. Create New Business Case: Creating a well-founded convincing business case for your new product, service, process or experience.

Pick the Right Route and Stay flexible

In ‘The Innovation Maze’, you find both the 15 obstacles and the 10 activities essential for the start of innovation. The maze has four entry points.

  1. Idea – A rough business idea or a great business opportunity
  2. Technology – A new technology that sparks innovation
  3. Customer problem – A problem or a pain point
  4. Business challenge – An external or internal change that jeopardizes the future of the business

Each of the four innovation routes contains all ten activities. The great news is that whether you start with an idea, a technology, a customer issue or a business challenge you can use the same activities and the same tools. The order in which the ten activities are undertaken depends on how you start innovation. Be aware that doing things in the right order has a huge impact on the effectiveness.

Here’s an example of the Idea Route:

You can download a free pdf of all the 4 four routes.

Wishing you lots of success navigating the innovation maze.

Do you like this post? Then, check out Gijs van Wulfen’s new innovation bestseller at: Amazon UK or Amazon US.


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_product_development#Fuzzy_Front_End

[ii] Prof. Dr. Cornelius Herstatt, Dipl.-Ing. Birgit Verworn, August 2001,


You Never Fail Until You Stop Trying

Gijs van Wulfen

Overcoming resistance and managing uncertainty is determining innovation outcomes. Those were Joseph Schumpeter’s, the famous economist, words in 1928. He also said, “Successful innovation is a feat not of intellect but of will” (1). I could not agree more with him! That’s why being persistent, is the quality that makes you deliver results, taking an idea from scratch to it’s market success. I like to share with you three examples of Dyson, IKEA and AIRBNB in which persistency has played a leading role.

First of all, did you know that the inventor James Dyson had made 5,127 prototypes of his famous Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner before settling on the model that would make him a billionaire (2)?  It’s surely an amazing example of the perseverance of a true innovator, convinced of his new technology to create value.

A second example of great persistence is Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, the Swedish furniture retailer. Malcolm Gladwell mentions in his book David & Goliath (3) the story of how he got started: “His great innovation was to realize that much of the cost of furniture was tied up in its assembly: putting the legs on the table not only costs money but also makes shipping the table really expensive. So he sold furniture that hadn’t been assembled, shipped it cheaply in flat boxes, and undersold all his competitors. In the mid-1950s however, Kamprad ran into trouble. Swedish furniture manufacturers launched a boycott against IKEA. They were angry about his low prices, and they stopped filling his orders. IKEA faced ruin. Desperate for a solution, Kamprad looked south and realized just across the Baltic Sea from Sweden was Poland, a country with much cheaper labor and plenty of wood. That’s Kamprad’s openness: few companies were outsourcing like that in the early 1960s. Then Kamprad focused his attention on making the Polish connection work. It wasn’t easy. Poland in the 1960s was a mess. It was a communist country. It had none of the infrastructure or machinery or trained workforce or legal protections of a Western country. But Kamprad pulled it off. “He is a micromanager,” says Anders Aslund, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “That’s why he succeeded where others failed. He went out to these unpleasant places, and made sure things worked. He’s this extremely stubborn character. That’s conscientiousness. But what was the most striking fact about Kamprad’s decision? It’s the year he went to Poland: 1961. The Berlin Wall was going up. The Cold War was at its peak. Within a year, East and West would come to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The equivalent today would be Walmart setting up shop in North Korea. Most people wouldn’t even think of doing business in the land of the enemy for fear of being branded a traitor. Not Kamprad. He didn’t care a whit for what others thought of him. That’s disagreeableness.”

Successful innovation is a feat not of intellect but of will.

A third and recent example of a startup with persistency is AIRBNB. Two years after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2005, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia moved to San Francisco where they shared a three-bedroom apartment. When a major design conference came to town in 2007, they saw an opportunity to earn some extra cash by renting out their spare floor space. In no time they had put together a website advertising lodging for overnight guests. Later on, Chesky and Gebbia approached Joe’s former roommate, Nathan Blecharczyk, about handling the technical side of the “Airbed and Breakfast” website, as something of a side gig. As they explain, their concept had quite a casual character from the start, “We were offering full bed and breakfast service, but we didn’t have any beds, so we called it Airbed and breakfast.” In August 2008 an improved Airbed and Breakfast website was introduced and was marketed towards business travelers as a more affordable alternative to hotels. Airbed and Breakfast got a lot of media coverage and even caught the attention of The Wall Street Journal. In their business model they charged the guest a service fee of 6 to 12 percent for a reservation, and the host a 3 percent commission fee. The next trial run took place in Denver during the week of the Democratic National Convention. Convention delegates had access to 900 lodging options via the Airbed and Breakfast website. The start-up site ultimately booked 50 accepted reservations during the convention. Without any additional special events, Airbed and Breakfast’s weekly revenue amounted to roughly $200 in the fourth quarter of 2008. Discouraged, the founders questioned whether it was time to just throw in the towel. However, it was anticipated that the upcoming presidential inauguration would draw millions of visitors to the Washington D.C. area. This was the next real opportunity for Airbed and Breakfast. They were able to generate free publicity on the site and successfully generated 150 bookings. Nevertheless, once the event ended, the company’s prospects remained bleak. As the number of bookings staggered, the Airbed and Breakfast website was on the brink of being shut down. Instead, they persisted and decided to join in 2009 Y-Combinator, a start-up incubator program located in Mountain View, California, where they pivoted their concept again. Five years after the start, AirBnB was valued a $2.5 billion company with revenues of $250 million, with a presence in over 34,000 cities around the globe.

Innovation is a long and difficult journey. I like to encourage you, in moments of despair, to continue you efforts in realizing your big dream. When you’re experiencing another experiment which did not deliver the results you hoped for, I hope you will find strength in this wonderful quote of Albert Einstein:

You Never Fail Until You Stop Trying.

Keep Trying! Wishing you lots of success.

[picture: credits Jessica Gosling – Flickr.com]

10 Ways to Reduce your Failure Rate of Innovation

Gijs van Wulfen

You are not able to stand still in this fast paced business environment, but most of the time innovation fails. Innovation process-expert Robert Cooper shows that of every seven new product/service projects, about four enter development, 1.5 are launched, and only one succeeds. Innovation is so difficult to master, indeed. I love to share with you five reasons why innovation goes wrong and give you ten ways to reduce your failure rate of innovation.

How innovation goes wrong

I encounter in practice so many people struggling with innovation. It’s has so many pitfalls. Here’s a list of five reasons why innovation goes wrong in daily practice at so many companies all over the world.

  • Our short-term mindset rules. Your company focuses on getting results next quarter, as your shareholders demand profits today. In this way money and resources are dedicated to sales & marketing, instead of innovation.
  • We cannot change our habits. Your company lacks the ability to invoke change, the ability to change their mindset. “My colleagues don’t think beyond what made our company successful thus far”.
  • We fear failure. Your past innovations were not successful and have cost a lot of money. “Managers were fired because their launches of new products failed”.
  • Our innovation process is chaos. When you lack a process and structure it’s really hard to get tangible results as it takes 18 -36 months on average to get an new idea to the market.
  • Customers reject our new products and services. A lot of our new products failed because customers did not wanted them. “We struggle to get inside the head of potential purchasers of the product or service”.

10 Ways to reduce the failure rate of innovation

Although there are no easy solutions, there are ways to improve the effectiveness of innovation in your company or for your clients. I love to share with you ten actions to reduce the failure rate of innovation.

1. Create momentum for your innovation project at the start. There must be urgency otherwise innovation is considered as playtime and nobody will be prepared to go outside the box. If this is not the case: stimulate other managers to explore your fast changing environment and wait until they get nervous and will prioritize innovation.

2. Start your innovation project with a clear and concrete innovation assignment. This forces the top management, from the start, to be concrete about the market/target group for which the innovations must be developed and which criteria these new concepts must meet. This forms a great guideline underway.

3. You can invent alone, but you can’t innovate alone. Use a team approach to get both better innovation results and internal supporters for the innovative outcomes. Invite people for whom the assignment is personally relevant. Invite both people for content as for decision-making reasons. Invite also a couple of outsiders as outside-the-box thinkers. Get a good mix between men and women, young & old, et cetera.

4. A lot of managers love to be in steering groups. Don’t let them! Innovation is a difficult and dirty job. It requires not only ‘young wild dogs’ but also ‘some grey hairs’. Let the internal top problem-owner (vice-president) and important influencersparticipate in the innovation team. Let them join your journey instead of observing it from a distance.

5. Use a structured approach. To think outside the box is a good start. But you have to come back with innovative concepts, which fit the ‘in the box’ reality of your organization, otherwise nothing will happen. A structured approach helps you to connect the dots. It will also help to create a common innovation language among your people.

6. When you ideate unprepared with the usual colleagues hardly anything new appears. That’s why it is essential to get fresh insights before you start creating ideas. Let all team members visit customers and others that serve as a source of inspiration for innovation opportunities. Great ideas emerge after being inspired. So go out there yourself in a search for inspiration.

7. Winning new concepts give potential customers a concrete reason to change. It will solve relevant problems of customers. If you want to create innovative products or services start with discovering relevant customer frictions to solve. There are several ways to discover them, like personal visits, focus groups, web searching and crowd sourcing,

8. The world is changing at a faster pace. Keep a high pace in your innovation project, otherwise it becomes long-winded and boring. It gets killed when it takes too long without any progress.

9. Use the voice of the customer. How attractive are the new product or service concepts really? That’s a legitimate question. Therefore you should check the strength of the new concepts and prototypes among potential customers at the front end of innovation. Use the voice of the customer internally to convince your peers that you’re on the right track.

10. Bring back business. So, draft mini new business cases instead of coming up with post-its or mood boards. And substantiate, in a businesslike and convincing manner, to what degree and for what reason the new concept can meet all essential financial criteria of your organization.

So, I hope these 10 ways will stimulate you to improve your own innovation processes in practice and your success rate!

pic credit: Garett LeSage -flickr.com

30 Inspiring Insights into Innovation

Gijs van Wulfen

Yes, Innovation is extremely difficult. You are not the only one who thinks it’s a real challenge. It has been a struggle for me the last 30 years as manager, consultant, facilitator and as founder of the FORTH innovation method. That’s why I love it actually. Because I love to do difficult things. My personal goal is to make innovation less complex so others will be able to innovate their product – and service portfolios and organizations – themselves.

As one of the first Linkedin Influencers I have written 138 posts about innovation the last 30 months. I reread them to identify my most essential statements. Some are provoking. Others are simplifying. Being Dutch makes me kind of outspoken and bold.  Here’s a list of quotes from my LinkedIn innovation articles. Please use them to discuss innovation with your colleagues and clients and to lead your organizations in innovation:

  1. In the long run a company cannot survive on doing the same things better and cheaper.
  2. Most managers behave like dogs. They bark at what they don’t know.
  3. Managers say yes to innovation only if doing nothing is a bigger risk.
  4. Innovation moves forward in every sector whether your company moves with it or not!
  5. Continuous innovation is bullshit. You only innovate when you have to.
  6. Organizations frustrate innovative employees.
  7. Starting innovation is like a child starting to walk. Learn to love the struggle!
  8. If there’s no urgency innovation is considered as playtime.
  9. Most people only innovate when they have to. Pick the right moment.
  10. Innovators need the patience of a hunter to wait for a shot that you’re sure you can make.
  11. Never start innovation with an idea. You will fall in love with it. But love is blind.
  12. A big idea is a new simple solution for a relevant problem or dream.
  13. The best innovators are need seekers.
  14. The problem of brainstorms is the inability of people to let go of the old ideas.
  15. If you don’t get new insights you won’t get new ideas.
  16. For most companies evolutionary ideas are quite revolutionary.
  17. You can invent on your own, but in an organization you can never innovate alone!
  18. The most important role of an effective innovator is to reduce uncertainty, moving from idea to launch as most people involved, co-workers, managers or investors are risk averse.
  19. Think outside the box and present your idea inside the box otherwise nothing will happen.
  20. Innovators should bring back new business not new ideas.
  21. Nobody buys innovation from a clown so bring back a new business case.
  22. The voice of the customer is your best support for a new concept.
  23. Innovators should stop writing plans. Innovation is learning by doing.
  24. Innovation does not stop at the first “No”. That’s the moment it really starts.
  25. It’s not how innovative you are. It’s how you are innovative!
  26. Less creative ideas are better because they have a higher chance of becoming reality.
  27. An organization is just like a herd. Focus on the slowest animals. When they start running too your organization really gets innovative.
  28. People prefer evolutionary innovations over revolutionary innovations because they can be implemented faster with less perceived risk and less resources needed.
  29. Operational Excellence brings you the profits of today. Innovation excellence will bring you the profits of tomorrow.
  30. To innovate is a verb. Stop talking. Start doing.

I hope some of them are helpful to you. Wishing you lots of success on your innovation journey.

Innovation Has Nothing To Do With Age

Gijs van Wulfen

A lot of people assume that establishing a culture of innovation would require bringing in young people. They are wrong. Innovation has nothing to do with age. 

I was delighted to read this statement of John Levis, global chief Innovation officer of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, in the Wall Street Journal last week, which really supports my own view and experience in practice.

Lewis states: “We get out-of-the box ideas from all generations. What was important was convincing others that it’s OK to risk failure, that trying out new ideas that fail is even a positive. As I said earlier, for an organization to have a culture of innovation, the talent and performance model should not only tolerate experimentation and failure, but also reward those who advance innovative thinking, regardless of the outcome”.

The view that innovation has nothing to do with age is supported by research of Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University. He states that a 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have significantly more innovation potential than a 25-year-old. He based his conclusions on data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I am 55 and have been working for around 30 years now. When I reflect on my personal skills of being innovative and leading innovation, I think I even became a better innovator when growing older, for three reasons:

1. I had to learn the patterns before breaking them. As junior manager in the food industry I was very eager to learn at the companies I worked for. I learned what made them successful in the past. And to be effective, I adapted myself to “how things are done around here”. Only as I got older I dared to challenge and break these patterns at the companies I worked for.

2. I learned from my failures. Breaking patterns wasn’t always successful of course. I learned continously from my mistakes though. This created a far better business compass of what will work and what will not. Of course I am still wrong, but less than I used to be :-).

3. Grey hair helps convincing. In organizations you can invent alone but you can’t innovate alone. You need a lot of others in an organization to get from an idea to the market. And it takes an awful lot of time too. Getting older and growing grey hair helped me in getting the confidence of others to follow me and my innovative method.

So what about you? Are you getting also a better innovator with age?

7 Things Successful Innovators Never Accept

Gijs van Wulfen

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change. This wonderful quote of Leon C. Megginson is still so relevant in this fast changing world. That’s why it’s important for you to be an innovator at work. Developing and launching innovative ideas, concepts, prototypes and business models is essential for the continuity of your firm.

What makes innovation difficult is that a lot of people have to change their convictions and habits before something really new will be deployed. You can invent alone, but you can only innovate teaming up with others in your organization.

The single biggest obstacle at the start of innovation in one word is: no. Successful innovators never accept the following seven no’s.

  1. No, we have done it always this way… Well, our world changes fast. When the rate of change outside is more than what is inside, we can be sure we will have a problem soon. That’s why it’s time to think different now: join me.
  2. No, our customers won’t like that…! Are you sure? Let’s go out there and ask what they think of the new concepts we’ve ideated and organize customer focus groups or test our ideas online.
  3. No, it’s not possible… Well as Dan Brown said: “Everything is possible. The impossible just takes longer.”
  4. No, that’s not logical… Of course it isn’t. If it would be logical and fit our present processes it would not be innovative. LIke Einstein said: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there will be no hope for it.”
  5. No, there’s no budget… So what! We’ll ‘go underground’ and proceed anyway, using the budget and resources of another project. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission. [Grace Hopper].
  6. No, management won’t agree… Managers say yes to innovation only if doing nothing is a bigger risk [Gijs van Wulfen]. Pick the right moment.
  7. No, that’s way to risky… You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. [Andre Gide]. Innovation creates uncertainty. Reduce uncertainty with doing pilot projects or independent start-ups.

You should be prepared for ‘the firing squad’ every innovator will meet on his/her way. In my early days in big corporate cultures I felt the resistance of others as a personal attack on my attempt to move the company really forward. I got too excited, too emotional, too upset and at the end of the day I was very disappointed in my company, my colleagues and myself. Then, when rationality came back, I stood up again and made a second attempt. Successful innovators know how to get internal support for innovative ideas, concepts, prototypes and business models. Otherwise nothing happens.

Innovation does not stop at the first ‘No’. That’s the moment it really starts!

Wishing you lots of success on your innovation expeditions.


Gijs van Wulfen is a professional innovation speaker and great storyteller. Watch four movies where you see Gijs ‘live on stage’, here.

photo credits: Flickr/Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig; under creative commons.

10 Great Tips to be an Effective Innovator

Gijs van Wulfen

Innovation is one big struggle. Not being able to change habits within the organization. Being creative at the wrong moment. Frustrated by budget cuts. Confronted with a lack of entrepreuneurship. Putting pressure on people in operations who resist change. Taking the credits as team leader myself instead of praising the team.

Yes, I made a lot of mistakes as marketer, strategy consultant and innovation facilitator. The good news is that I learned a lot. That’s why I love to share ten lessons how you can be an effective innovator in your organization.

1. Innovate together. As a young marketer I used the word ‘I’ way too much. Being responsible for a product category, I considered myself king of a small universe. You can get wonderful ideas on your own. But in an organization you can only innovate together. You need all the other departments to develop your product, to produce it, service it, sell it and bill it. That’s why innovating in a team is more effective. The chance that a new-to-the-company innovation survives is much higher if it has a lot of fathers and mothers.

2. Choose the right moment. On continuous basis organizations develop and launch variations of present products or services. It’s less risky. Most companies step into new markets or launch disruptive initiatives when they realize that present markets and products can’t generate growth anymore. So be like a hunter. Who only shoots when he knows that one bullet is a sure kill. So for real innovation projects you better wait until the right moment of real urgency.

3. Facilitate. When the company appoints you as ‘innovator’ others have the tendency to sit back, because innovation is now your responsibility. Don’t fall into this trap. Don’t come up with new products, services or business models yourself because it will all stay YOUR initiatives. A much more effective role as central ‘innovator’ is to facilitate innovation. This means you help others in line functions with processes and resources to be more innovative themselves.

4. Discover Needs. Your innovative product or service requires a different behavior from your customer. They will change their behavior and/or internal processes (in BtB) only when your innovation solves a challenge or problem for them. That’s why it’s so important to identify customer dreams, needs and problems in the very early stages of your innovation process.

5. Use the Voice of the Customer. Once you’ve developed an innovative idea or prototype the question remains: is this a good idea or not? In your organization are a lot of persons resisting change. They will say no to anything. In my role as marketer in the food industry I learned to make use of the voice of the customer to get internal support. So test your ideas and prototypes in an early stage at customers. And use the favorable test result and enthusiast testimonials to get internal support.

6. Be innovative. Act Conservative. Your organization is less innovative than you. That’s why you have a game-changing role. Your effectiveness will be dependent on the internal support you can create among the non-innovators. That’s why it’s wise to be innovative and act conservative. Present your innovation not as something really extraordinary but as the normal next thing to do. Your chances to convince the non-innovators will increase.

7. Be naughty. Innovation doesn’t stop at the first no. That’s the moment it really starts for you. You have got to be clever to let your innovation project survive all kinds of dramatic moments like budget cuts. So be prepared to be naughty. When the innovation project is officially stopped due to a budget cut, continue for example your work under another project. Well, you know all the tricks.

8. Connect decision makers. Innovation ist Chefsache”, say the Germans. That’s why you should involve ‘the boss’ from the start. Not in a steering committee on a distance. Invite Top Managers as team members and take them with you on your innovation expedition. In this way the decision makers can get new insights themselves. And when they are part of the process they will support the end result.

9. Do it fast. On average an Innovation project takes 18 months for new services and 36 months for a new product. Be sure to speed it up. You know when there’s a takeover, a strategy change or another crises your innovation project will be at risk. So focus and deliver as fast as you can.

10. Be open. There’s always a lot of secrecy around innovation in a company. In practice with al this secrecy you alienate the rest of the organization with a lot of negative consequences. If you have a clear and structured process and inform everyone on the progress without telling big secrets you maintain support with the people you need later on to implement your innovations. So be open.

I have developed a structured innovation method for the front end of innovation, based on my own lessons learned. Feel free to download the innovation expedition map of the FORTH method.

One more thing. Even with my ten tips, innovation remains a struggle. Don’t fight it. Accept it and you will increase your effectiveness immediately.

Gijs van Wulfen is a professional innovation speaker and great storyteller. Watch two movies where you see Gijs ‘live on stage’, here.

photo credits: Flickr/ A. Mouraux

10 Awesome Lessons on Innovation from Great Explorers

Gijs van Wulfen

This advertisement ran in a London newspaper in 1913. Could you have imagined answering it? If you did, you are a real innovator. Besides you, over 1000 men did. They were hoping to be chosen for an Antarctic exploration led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. He gained fame for his 1909 expedition to the South Pole. When I read this ad in one of my travel books it struck me that 100 years later this could have been and ad for an innovation project. Innovation nowadays has so many similarities with voyages of discovery and expeditions in the past. We can learn wise lessons from great explorers.

Christopher Columbus

In 1492 Columbus sailed off the map and thought he discovered a western route to the East. The road to the East was cut off to European traders due to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. If you wanted to make a fortune you had to find a new route. Unfortunately Columbes estimates on the distance he needed to travel were wrong. He guessed the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan to be about 3,000 Italian miles (3,700 km, or 2,300 statute miles), while the correct figure is 19,600 km (12,200 miles).¹ He called the inhabitants Indians being sure that he had reached the Indies. Actually he landed at Watling Island in the Bahamas and discovered the Americas. Columbus himself was a kind of outsider. He came from Genua with unclear roots and had nothing to lose. Potential profits were a strong motive. His trip was an investment and not an exploration journey. He had an agreement with Queen Isabella of Castile that if he succeeded, he would get a cut of all the proceeds of his discovery. New techniques of navigation, better knowledge of Atlantic currents and the development of caravels made it possible for Columbus to sail much closer to the wind.

Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary had been part of a British reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest in 1951. After eight failed attempts on Everest The British Himalayan Committee replaced the 1951 expedition leader Eric Shipton by Colonel John Hunt. They needed someone to get them on the top, before the French had their chance. The 1953 Everest expedition consisted of a huge team of over 400 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides and almost 5.000 kilogram of baggage. Hillary and Norgay were the second assault team for the top. Bourdillon and Evans attempted the climb but due to a failing oxygen system only reached the South Col, around 100 metres below the summit. Then Hillary and Norgay got their chance. The higher you get on Everest the more courage you need. At 7.800 metres Hillary wrote in his diary “Even wearing all my down clothing I found the icy breath from outside penetrating through my bones. A terrible sense of fear and loneliness dominated my thoughts. What is the sense of this all? I asked myself”. A crucial last part of summiting Everest is a 12 meters rock face, which Hillary managed to climb. It’s now known as the Hillary Step. Hillary and Norgay reached the 8,848 meters high summit, the highest point on earth, at 11:30 am on May 29th 1953.

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong learned to fly in the summer of 1946 at the age of sixteen. This was the minimum age to fly a powered airplane. It was rather unusual that he earned his pilot’s license before he got an automobile driver’s license. On April 12, 1961 the Soviet Union stunned the world when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human space traveller. President JFK had to restore America’s respect and wanted to prove American superiority. He declared “I believe that this entire nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. There were three options for landing on the moon: Direct Ascent, Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). To the surprise of many experts, NASA selected in July 1962 the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. If the Rendezvous failed the astronauts would be too far away to be saved. Most important was that LOR was the only way by which the Moon landing could be achieved by Kennedy’s deadline of decade’s end. After a decade of preparation it almost went wrong at the last moment. In the descent to the Moon suddenly a yellow caution light came on: 1202 program alarm. Armstrong did not know which of the dozen of alarms it presented. Mission Control said it was not critical. And they continued. So there I was, 9 years old. Woken up in the middle of the night at 04.00 by my parents. On a black and white TV I saw Neil Armstrong making his first little jumps on the moon. While he spoke his famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

10 lessons on innovation

In the voyages of these great explorers you can find are 10 awesome lessons on innovation.

1. Urgency. For Columbus the road to the East was cut off to European traders by the Turks. President JFK had to restore America’s respect. There must be urgency otherwise innovation is considered as playtime and nobody in your organisation will be prepared to go outside the box.

2, Challenge. Reaching the hightest point on Earth and sailing to the west to find the East are both real concrete challenges.So, start your innovation journey with a clear and big challenge: an innovation assignment.

3. Passion. As a youngster, Hillary was a great dreamer. He read many adventure books. Armstrong earned his pilot’s license at sixteen. If you follow your passion it will take you beyond your limits. So if you are passionate bout innovation, take the lead in your organisation.

4. Courage. In the descent to the Moon suddenly a yellow caution light came on: 1202 program alarm. Armstrong and Aldrin continued. A terrible sense of fear and loneliness dominated the thoughts of Hillary but he continued. If you want to realise a big challenge you have to go beyond your limits.

5. New Technology. The development of caravels made it possible for Columbus to sail much higher at the wind. Look for unproven means like new technology, new media and new business models to reach your goal.

6. Preparation. On the morning of the launch, the first astronaut into the Apollo 11 was Fred Haise, back up as lunar module pilot. He ran through a 417-step checklist designed to ensure that every switch was set in the proper position. You can only start your innovation project once for the first time. Prepare.

7. Teamwork. Hillary wrote: “John Hunt and D. Namgyal’s lift to the depot on the South-East Ridge; George Low, Alf Gregory and Ang Nyima with their superb support at Camp IX; and the pioneer effort by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon to the South Summit. Their contribution had enabled us to make such good progress”. Compose a diverse passionate team. A new idea will flourish better with a lot of fathers and mothers.

8. Choices. The British Himalayan Committee replaced the 1951 expedition leader Eric Shipton by Colonel John Hunt, a climber. After eight failed attempts on Everest they needed someone to get them on the top, before the French had their chance. Take clear choices always bearing your assignment in mind.

9. Test. The Apollo 10 was a full-dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. They flew almost precisely the same track over the lunar surface that Apollo 11 would be flying. This was very helpful according to Neil Armstrong: “By the time we launched in July, we knew all the principal landmarks on our descent path by heart”. So test, test and test.

10. Perseverance. Along the way there are always major setbacks. And you and your team will, like Columbus, be scared shitless sometimes. Persevere like famous explorers did before you.

Unfortunately Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic-expedition was not a success. His ship ‘Endurance’ was destroyed by Arctic ice. But “all safe, all well”: Shackleton rescued all of his 22 men from Elephant Island. So even if you cannot avoid all the innovation pitfalls and you might not reach your goal, bring back your team safely and learn from your joint effort. In innovation the journey itself is as important as the end result. The lessons of these great explorers inspired me to create a structured approach to innovation. You may find the FORTH innovation map helpful guiding your own innovation expedition. Go for it!

Gijs van Wulfen is a professional innovation speaker and great storyteller. Watch two movies where you see Gijs ‘live on stage’, here.

Awesome Innovation Infographic To Double Your Effectiveness

Gijs van Wulfen

Take a closer look at the Innovation Infographic as pdf

Starting innovation is for many a struggle to master. A  study of Booz & Company shows only a quarter of all companies are effective at the start of innovation. And Stage-Gate Guru Robert Cooper shows that of every seven new product/service projects, about four enter development, 1.5 are launched, and only one succeeds. You might recognize some of the struggles in practice:

  • “Our short-term mindset rules.”
  • “Our innovation process is unorganized. It’s chaos.”
  • “We cannot change our habits within the company.”
  • “We struggle to get inside the head of our customers.”
  • “There is no support for innovation among my colleagues.”

We like to help you with a structured approach, which combines both creativity and business reality. The innovation methodology is called FORTH – an acronym found in the first letter of each of the 5 steps: Full Steam Ahead, Observe & Learn, Raise Ideas, Test Ideas and Homecoming. The FORTH innovation methodology structures the chaotic start of innovation, creates 3-5 mini new business cases and fosters a culture for innovation in an expedition of 20 weeks. The deliverables of this innovation expedition are 3-5 mini new business cases for innovative concepts, which fit the ‘in the box’ reality of your organization, otherwise nothing will happen. FORTH was developed in practice and has been used successfully in Europe by more than 35 organizations in both B2B and B2C markets and in non-profit sectors. The method is part of the innovation bestseller The Innovation Expedition. Recent scientific research, studying 10 FORTH cases (2007-2013), shows that the use of the FORTH methodology doubles your innovation effectiveness:

  • Regular innovation process: 37.5% of the screened ideas are launched.
  • FORTH innovation process: 77% of the ‘mini new business cases’ are launched.

We wanted to celebrate this news with this wonderful innovation infographic at the top .

Gijs van Wulfen is a professional innovation speaker and great storyteller. Watch two movies where you see Gijs ‘live on stage’, here.

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