Never Bet on One Horse

Interview with Gijs van Wulfen, Author of The Innovation Expedition – Part 1
By Vern Burkhardt
“Don’t just do things better; that will only kill you in the end. Think different at the right moment. Hear the misfits, the rebels and the troublemakers. Think change.” The Innovation Expedition, page 109

Vern Burkhart (VB): What have you been doing since our last interview over two years ago?

Gijs van WulfenGijs van Wulfen: I’m still focusing on and developing the FORTH innovation method, which is spreading around the world. This is nice to see.

LinkedIn invited me to be one of their thought leaders. Last November I was invited to publish articles online on LinkedIn with 150 others worldwide. Included in the list were President Barack Obama, Richard Branson, and Ban-Ki Moon. Now each week I write an article for LinkedIn, and it has had an incredible impact. It shows the importance of the social media. At the moment there are over 50,000 people following me on LinkedIn.

The essence of FORTH has remained the same, but it has moved from a little village in the Netherlands to big cities all over the world!

VB: When we spoke in June 2011 you described your FORTH innovation method as being “a customer-oriented, inspiring innovation method for creating many new business cases with an internal team that you can use for innovation of products, services, or business models.” What have you learned recently in working with clients using FORTH, an anachronism for Full Steam Ahead, Observe & Learn, Raise Ideas, Test Ideas, and Homecoming?

Gijs van Wulfen: I’m doing the same type of work but doing it better. I have learned that the essence of the FORTH method works the same in different countries and cultures.

At the moment, for example, I’m doing a FORTH innovation process for an industrial firm in the South of Germany. The assignment involves 15 workshops in about 15 weeks using FORTH. The FORTH techniques apply, but the corporate culture is different than in the Netherlands. As a facilitator it is important to know the culture, but on the other hand, to break it a little – to stretch and push a bit so people will go over their borders. The German culture is quite similar to the Netherlands but it is the details which makes using FORTH a bit complicated.

I’ve learned that when you facilitate an innovation process in a corporation located within a different culture you should have someone from that culture to help you understand all the nuances of language and thinking so your can be more effective.

VB: How did you prepare yourself to work for your client in Germany?

Gijs van Wulfen: First of all I learned German in order to communicate in their language. It is a worldwide firm and their corporate language is German. I was awarded the contract because they were fascinated that the first two times we met I spoke with them in English, but the third time I spoke German.

When I go to Germany to facilitate the major two-day ideation workshops I travel slowly through Germany to adjust myself. I go there the day before, sleep in an old German hotel, eat a wiener schnitzel, and drink a German beer. It’s important to enter and engage within the culture so you can operate effectively. I learned that I have to give myself time to appreciate the culture and modify my thinking and behavior somewhat. This is different than flying from Amsterdam to Munich, getting out of the plane, going to an anonymous hotel, and the next morning or even the same day facilitating the workshops. It wouldn’t put me into the right frame of mind.

VB: You have to adapt yourself to the culture of the country and the company you’re working within?

Gijs van Wulfen: It is not that I must adapt myself. I must know the culture of the company to be able to break it.

VB: What do you mean by “break it”?

Gijs van Wulfen: Well, I’ll tell you. The company I am working with in Germany is a market leader, and has been doing the same thing for 30 years. It is now a worldwide enterprise with factories and sales organizations on every continent. It is an excellence company and the market leader, but since its markets are no longer growing it has to do something different. The culture in the company focuses on fostering operational excellence.

It has been necessary for me to know about the culture in order to encourage the participants to look beyond their normal borders in order to observe, learn, and understand other markets. I am confronting them with the limits of their perspectives and corporate culture in order to break them out of their existing paradigms. I can’t push them too hard lest they reject me. I have to push them out of their comfort zone in a pleasant way. It’s my role as their facilitator in the innovation process, and this is why they accept being pushed and encouraged to seek more radical solutions.

VB: Without breaching confidentiality agreements, are you able to share with us any recent examples where the FORTH method has resulted in new concepts for innovative products, services, or business models?

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes, I‘ll share an example from another sector. The FORTH method can also be used for more societal innovations.

I worked with a health care institution where disabled people either live in residence or receive health care staff support in their homes once per week. We used the FORTH method to help them identify ways to grow their organization and to improve the level of services they could deliver to their clients. Many of their clients are people with brain damage due to head injuries, such as from an accident. These clients have been the primary focus. It involves providing support shortly after they suffer brain damage and also helping them when it is known the brain damage is permanent.

On the other hand, there is a small group of psychiatric patients with brain damage are falling between the cracks in the health care system. When these patients are in a psychiatric institution professionals who don’t know a lot about dealing with people with brain damage are treating them. And when they in an institution that focuses on clients with brain damage the staff don’t have the training and qualifications to treat psychiatric patients. Through the FORTH innovation process two and a half years ago we ideated a solution. In February next year a facility will be opened to accept the first 25 patients. It will have nurses with psychiatric degrees who are also trained in helping people with brain injuries. It’s marvelous. The health care institution recognized a small niche in the market for which they developed a new service.

VB: This demonstrates the value of using the FORTH innovation method?

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes. That was one of the four new business cases which they ideated three years ago. This makes me quite happy.

VB: Do you speculate that the idea for this new facility would not have arisen if they hadn’t used the FORTH methodology?

Gijs van Wulfen: It is too easy for me as the founder of FORTH to say ‘yes’. I don’t know, to be quite honest, but with my ideation method every idea within the veins of the company re-emerges.

I’m not going to say that all of the 750 ideas you get in the FORTH ideation workshops are new. At least the most favored ones rise to the surface and you can decide on which ones to give priority. And since everybody is involved – even the CEO – those ideas get momentum. Of course the CEO and other senior management won’t be involved in the core team but they will be part of the extended innovation team. This means they will be present at key points in the process to be exposed to the highlights of the work being done

It doesn’t matter whether or not all the ideas are new. They are all available in the room and you can prioritize which ones to focus on in the next phases of the FORTH process. The key is to identify the ones most likely to fulfill your innovation assignment.

VB: Is the advantage that it establishes a consistent structure for ideation?

Gijs van Wulfen: The great advantage of FORTH is that it's a very structured process—15 workshops in 15 weeks. The ideation workshop uses a three-page outline with a strict structure, and this keeps up the pace.

One of the main advantages is that the structure and discipline helps people stay on track. They have to attend the workshops, and they have to make decisions. Many people tend to shift away from difficult choices until tomorrow. It seems to be a human trait. With a structure like FORTH decision criteria are established and participants have to choose now rather than defer to a future date.

Timeboxing helps people make choices. When it’s already planned that commitment decisions will be made everybody attends. An asset of the methodology is it results in momentum for making the choices.

The Innovation ExpeditionVB: In your recently published book, The Innovation Expedition, you identify ten innovation lessons derived from Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, Ferdinand Magellan’s exploration for a westward route to the Spice Islands, Roald Amundsen’s exploration of Antarctica, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s Mount Everest ascent, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s polar expedition, and Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon and returning safely to earth. Would you talk about these lessons, and which two or three are most relevant to innovation success?

Gijs van Wulfen: May I ask a question back to you? You are a sailing explorer and an innovation expert. Which lessons resonated with you?

VB: When sailing offshore you need to be self-reliant. Situations arise which are challenging even to the point of being life threatening. You need to be able to respond in a timely and creative way. Another is the need for skills in pulling together a team to work for a common cause over a prolonged period of time, where both physical stamina and mental agility are necessary despite the factor of fatigue. Another observation is how small and insignificant we are in such a large world. It puts a lot of things in perspective.

Gijs van Wulfen: That is nicely said.

Coming back to the innovation lessons from explorers, which I included in my book, it’s hard for me to choose. At the front end one of the most important things is having a sense of urgency of the need to do something different? If the group is not completely convinced of the urgency of a situation they will tend to sit back and wait. They will only embark on a difficult route – go beyond their borders – when they have to. Why take a difficult route if there’s still an easy one left? A sense of urgency is important even if you have to delay until the right moment arrives. Urgency will create momentum for your innovation project.

Another one of importance is empathy. You gain empathy for your customers in the Observe and Learn phase of the FORTH methodology. This perspective helps answer the question, ‘What will my customer be struggling with in two or three years’? If we can anticipate the kind of problems that will be relevant to our customers in the future, then today we will be in a better position to ideate a new solution for implementation in two or three years. Empathy in being able to dig into your customer’s soul, problems, and frictions, as I call them, in order to come up with relevant ideas.

Another lesson is focus as it will maintain speed in the innovation process and shorten the time to market. If you go in many different directions you will dilute your energy with the result that you will likely end up with something superficial. You should focus on a few things and do them as well as you can. In a considerable number of companies a lot of innovation effort is unstructured. You won’t get far if you try to spread yourself in every direction. Focus is like making a choice. We can begin by sailing north, east, south or west and then keep changing directions – in essence going in circles. Without focus we will get nowhere and accomplish little. If you lack focus you’re not going to mobilize all the available energy and resources for accomplishing and achieving your goal.

Those are the three main lessons, but all ten of the lessons that I identify are crucial.

VB: Do you ever reach the Promised Land when it comes to innovation?

Gijs van Wulfen: Ah, what is the Promised Land? I’m realistic so when you’ve got one challenge fulfilled, there’s another one facing you that urgently needs a solution. You need to celebrate the small victories as each challenge is addressed.

The Promised Land is called that because it stays a promise. You will never reach the Promised Land because you need go on to deal with what’s next.

VB: It’s like tomorrow. It’s always tomorrow.

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes. There always will be a tomorrow and there always will be a promised land. I don’t think you will ever reach it, but striving for it is certainly satisfying – especially if you can get ever nearer to the Promised Land.

VB: You indicate that the Raise Ideas phase in the FORTH method can develop new concepts for innovative products, services or business models. How does this work?

Gijs van Wulfen: The Raise Ideas phase works because there are two phases which precede it – the Full Steam Ahead and Learn phases. Raise Ideas is an ideation workshop of two days where everybody is present. These two days are split into five half-day programs (including the evening), which are very structured.

Do people get their best ideas in brainstorming sessions? No, they don’t.

Vern, what are the moments when you get your best ideas? When do they pop into your head?

VB: When I’m prepared. It’s often after I’ve delved into a topic for a considerable period of time.

Gijs van Wulfen: When do they jump into your mind – while at your desk, under the shower, or when walking outside?

VB: All of those.

Gijs van Wulfen: Exactly. In Full Steam Ahead there is a focus on the problem. It may be a huge challenge such as the need to ideate new products with a sales potential of 25 million by year three. This keeps you occupied unconsciously. When you talk to potential customers in the Observe and Learn phase you will discover innovation opportunities and get all kinds of new perceptions. Then in the car, when you are jogging, are under the shower, or engaged in other activities all sorts of ideas will come to you. You need to write them down as they arise.
The Raise Ideas phase in FORTH is successful because we only have to harvest the ideas you already got in the 6 weeks leading up to the ideation session instead of trying to generate them without preparing your mind. I have learned that when the mind is prepared all your creative ideas come to you. We only have to harvest them, share them with the group, and enrich them together. Then we can make the right choices.

VB: In essence you’re preparing the subconscious mind to work on the problem, and then fruitful ideas will come forth.

Gijs van Wulfen: Exactly. The purpose of an ideation workshop is not to generate ideas. It is how to choose the best ideas. This is an essential distinction. It’s why we have a highly structured, slow process. It’s always about two things: how do we choose the best ideas and how do we gain internal support for them?

In a lot of cultures in Europe it is essential that the whole group agree with any new ideas. In a group of 15 people if some don’t like an idea instead of speaking up they will remain quiet and disconnect themselves from the brainstorming session. Then in practice nothing will happen.

The ideation session is doing two things at the same time. It’s focusing on which ideas are the best from the customers’ and company’s perspective, and keeping everybody’s support for the process. It’s a thin line you have to walk.

VB: How does your FORTH innovation method overcome the shortcomings of the typical brainstorm sessions?

Gijs van Wulfen: In your experience what are the typical shortcomings of a brainstorm session?

VB: A lot of the same old ideas emerge, some people actively participate and others disengage, and there’s a tendency to evaluate and dismiss new ideas rather than flush them out for further discussion.

Gijs van Wulfen: Let’s talk about those three things. Similar ideas. Of course people get similar ideas. If you examine the results of brainstorm sessions you will almost always find that the ideas, which emerge during the first hour, aren’t original. Everybody thinks of them. They are the obvious ideas. Then you continue using another technique and you get more distance from the original question. And then when you use techniques where you go on the crazy side more original ideas emerge. This means that in idea generation you have to disassociate from reality far enough to get original ideas. Subsequently you have to re-associate the ideas with the challenge; otherwise you only get foolish ideas and concepts.

Participation is another shortcoming of brainstorming. You have to shut up and brainstorm for a better result! When a group is brainstorming and people shout out their ideas while one person is writing them down, the shouters will get all of the attention and airspace. What is even worse is this disturbs everyone’s thinking process. It’s why I don’t do brainstorming in my sessions; I do ‘brainwriting’, which in essence is the same thing. Only it’s done in silence. Everybody writes down their ideas and then reads out their ideas to the group. So even the more introverted people get their podium. The easiest is to have the group write their ideas on post-it notes.

Why do I have them read each of their ideas out loud? It enables people to build on each other’s ideas. One person’s ideas may generate another three or four ideas from others in the group. People read their ideas out loud but in a more structured, quieter way than the typical brainstorming session so the ideas can connect with each other’s thinking and be enhanced, or used as triggers for other ideas.

The third problem with brainstorming is that people can become disconnected if their ideas are not chosen. What determines whether one idea is better than another? In the FORTH methodology the ‘innovation assignment’ made at the Full Steam Ahead phase establishes our focus which all have agreed upon when the innovation project was started. It sets out what we want to accomplish and establishes the criteria that new ideas and concepts must meet. The criteria may set out minimum profit margins, whether the concept should be new to the company or the market, how it must fit the current brand, how radical the innovation should be, who are the targeted customers or market, and whether it must be manufactured or delivered by internal resources or can involve external partnerships. These are only a few examples of criteria. Eight weeks later we use the innovation assignment as a ruler to weigh all of the ideas. This makes voting for the best ideas less subjective. If the Vice President of Marketing were to choose one of the options it might be assumed that the others are of no value. With pre-established criteria it makes decisions less subjective and hopefully more effective.

In ideation the problem is not about getting new innovative thoughts into your mind. It is how to get old ones out and then new ideas will come automatically.

VB: “Spend twice as much time on the convergence process as on the divergence process.” Would you please explain?

Gijs van Wulfen: The problem is in choosing the right idea. Because you had to observe and learn in advance of the two-day ideation workshop, in three or four hours you can get 750 ideas on the board. The second step is bringing those 750 ideas back to around 40 or 50 idea directions and then using the innovation assignment to choose the top twelve concepts for innovative products, services or business models.

The thing is not to end up with an idea of two or three key words on yellow post-it notes. We have to transform the idea into a real concept. This is what we do on the second of the two days. We make concepts out of ideas and we evaluate the concepts against the criteria of the innovation assignment. When this is finished its the end of the first ideation workshop. In this way we spend twice as much time on the convergence process of choosing the right ideas and keeping support for them as we do on the divergence process of generating new ideas.

It is at this stage we are in a position to proceed with the Test Ideas phase where the twelve concepts are tested on a limited scale with the target group of customers using in-depth interviews, focus groups, or online research techniques. Based on this additional information three to five of these twelve concepts are selected for further analysis and development of a mini business case for each.

VB: “It is essential to get fresh insights before you start creating ideas.” Would you talk about this?

Gijs van Wulfen: How do you get new ideas? New triggers are the seed of new insights. If you don’t get any new insights you will come up with the same old ways of looking at the world. It’s why you have to observe and learn.

For example, talking with customers is highly rewarding in terms of generating insights. I like to do it in a focus group or one-on-one. The point in the Observe and Learn phase is that you are not looking for ideas, you are looking for relevant problems. When you see a person with a relevant problem or issue – a “friction” as I call it – it makes a real impact. You see someone shrugging and you say, ‘Hey, we have to come up with a solution for this because it’s what is relevant to these customers.

Such insights are so valuable because they focus the innovation process on what are the most relevant customer frictions which have the most potential given our innovation assignment. Then your brainstorm can focus on bringing about solutions within that scope.

VB: Why do you call customers’ problems or issues frictions?

Gijs van Wulfen: If you’ve identified a need that has no pain, then you’re not looking for a real solution. If I ask you what are your problems you’ll probably say, ‘I don’t have any problems’.

If you rub your hands together they become warm. And when they get warm it is a bit awkward. That’s why I call it a ‘friction’. I could call it a ‘need’. ‘I’ve got this need’ but the question is whether or not it is relevant? Even small things can be frictions – especially in the consumer marketplace.

I was worked in the food industry as a marketer for candy and also for soup. Is candy or soup really relevant to people’s lives and priorities? It is not really essential for life. But if I am a product manager for soup, my need for innovation is all about soup. If I were to ask customers, ‘Do you have any problems with soup?’, they are likely to start laughing out loud. So I have to be careful about how I explore for a new needs related to soup. I might ask, ‘Do you ever eat soup?’ ‘What do you do with soup?’ ‘Why do you like it?’ ‘When do you not like it?’

Frictions might be so small that they seem irrelevant for you, but to me as a soup-maker it may be a great insight for new ideas. We might learn that some customers want stir-ready, homemade, and grandma-like soup. Or that the cooking process takes too long and inhibits increased use.

Often you have to recognize these frictions by talking with your customers, because they may not even realize it is a friction or it may appear too irrelevant to mention. They may not recognize that there is a problem. Calling it a friction seems appropriate because it’s not always an irritating problem. But when you see a solution you may say, ‘Oh that’s handy. I need this product or service.’ You weren’t looking for it, but when you see the solution you think it addresses a problem which you would like solved.

VB: It may be an irritant you aren’t even aware of.

Gijs van Wulfen: That’s it. Some people incorrectly say that marketers can create needs. You can’t create needs but what you can do is recognize small things, and when you put your finger on it people will recognize it as an unmet need.

VB: You advise that innovation is not always the right management tool. Would you talk about this surprising concept?

Gijs van Wulfen: It’s not surprising to me.

If you innovate continuously you will go broke in a year. Why? Six out of seven innovation projects fail.

I think of three approaches to product, service, and business model development. Improving is something you normally do, renewal is making a bigger step, and then there’s innovation.

The iPhone was a great innovation. The iPhone 2, iPhone 3, and iPhone 4 are improvements. That’s how Apple generates its revenues – by improving the iPhone and coming up with different functions for the iPhone and its other key products and services. Innovation is looking for different markets – new markets, new target groups, or new business models.

You should innovate the moment that you feel some urgency. I call it the switch box for innovation. You have to do a step to the left or to the right. You must not wait too long because the implementation of the innovation internally will take up to three or more years. When everybody’s busy – let’s say busy with the supply chain for the iPhones – they can’t focus on coming up with something new. But if iPhone sales are dropping or there is a prediction that iPhone sales are going to go down, Apple will look for what’s next. It is at this moment you should put innovation into the forefront of the agenda.

Large firms have internal innovation departments, but if you look at what’s in their innovation funnel and label the ideas as improvement, renewal, or innovation, you will see that only a small part of all those projects are actually seeking innovation.

VB: A large proportion of initiatives are intended to achieve improvements to existing products, services, and business models.

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes, and improving is very important for keeping your wallet filled so you can sponsor innovation efforts.

Never bet on one horse. Your new idea may seem perfect due to selective perception and group think (listening only to people who agree with you). We need to remind ourselves that fewer than two our of seven new product ideas which at the time seemed perfect ever reach the marketplace.

Author and thought leader Gijs van Wulfen’s FORTH innovation method is a step-by-step process for a structured approach to ideation. The five phases of this method are:

  1. ‘Full Steam Ahead’ in which the ideation team is established, the innovation process is carefully planned, and the innovation assignment is clearly spelled out;

  2. ‘Observe and Learn’ in which the ideation team explores trends and technology, discovers customers’ frictions, and identifies innovation opportunities;

  3. ‘Raise Ideas’ in which lots of ideas emerge (500 to 750), idea directions are identified (30 to 40), and concepts are identified and improved (12);

  4. ‘Test Ideas’ in which the short listed concepts are tested with a relatively small sample of customers (either consumers or B2B) and the negative findings are addressed in a concept improvement workshop resulting in improved tested concepts (3 to 5); and

  5. ‘Homecoming’ in which mini business cases are presented for the 3 to 5 tested concepts, and decisions are made about whether to proceed with further development of the concepts in the direction of production for the marketplace.

Structured BrainstormingOf course, the five phases are much more complex and involved. A good flavor for the extent of detailed processes in the FORTH innovation method is evidenced by examination of the 20 checklists which Gijs van Wulfen has made available on his website. There are four checklists for each of the five steps in the FORTH method, and downloading is free! The checklists include the following:

Full Steam Ahead
  • The 66 Point FORTH Innovation Checklist
  • The FORTH innovation assignment
  • The Perfect Innovation Team
  • 10 Elements Open Innovation Culture

Observe and Learn
  • 7 Tips for an Innovative Web Search
  • 18 Top International Trend Sites
  • Innovators look for Problems
  • How to Find Customer Frictions?

Raise Ideas
  • 30 Tips for Innovation Session Facilitators
  • 25 Rules for Perfect Brainstorming
  • Structured Brainstorming
  • Format: Business Model Canvas

Test Ideas
  • Tips for New Concept testing
  • A Perfect New Concept
  • Testing a New Concept in 5 Questions
  • How to Pick the Right Idea

Home Coming
  • 30 Ways to Present a New Idea
  • Format: 6 Mini New Business Case Sheets
  • 10 Pitfalls Realizing New Ideas
  • The Concept Transfer Workshop

Gijs van Wulfen’s bio:
Gijs van Wulfen is an ideation facilitator and founder of the FORTH innovation method ("VOORT innovatiemethode"). It is a structured way to ideate new products, services and business models. His dream is to make the FORTH innovation method the most used innovation tool in the world. In 15 weeks he facilitates an internal innovation team on their FORTH innovation journey from which they will return with 3 to 5 mini new business cases.

He studied business economics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. He also took a two-year training program on creativity techniques and facilitating creativity groups at COCD in Belgium – "Centrum voor de Ontwikkeling van Creatief Denken."

Gijs van Wulfen worked as a marketer in the fast moving consumer goods sector. He switched into consulting at Ernst & Young Consulting and Boer & Croon Strategy & Management Group. In 2002 he started his own innovation company.

Gijs van Wulfen is one of LinkedIn’s 150 thought leaders, and was voted second in the International Top 40 Innovation Bloggers of 2012. He speaks at conferences, facilitates workshops, and helps organizations worldwide to start innovation the expedition way.

Gijs van Wulfen is the author of The Innovation Expedition: A Visual Toolkit to Start Innovation (2013) and the Dutch book Nieuwe Producten en Diensten Bedenken (2011).

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