The Lions are Coming

Interview with Gijs van Wulfen, Author of The Innovation Expedition – Part 2
By Vern Burkhardt
“Organizations innovate continuously. At least, that’s what they say. There is a difference between what they say and what they really do. Of course there is a department continuously working on new concepts.

But most of these concepts are variations, line extensions or brand extensions. Senior management will only approve real innovations when they believe all low-risk concepts have stopped generating growth.” The Innovation Expedition, page 92

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You say, “… remember to wait for the right moment, as you’ll only have one chance to start innovation for the first time.” Do you have any tips for recognizing when it is the ‘right moment’?

Gijs van WulfenGijs van Wulfen: In my book I compare an organization to a herd of cattle. Some animals are up front leading and looking for new grass, while others are lagging behind. If you get more front-running cattle in the herd, the herd increases in length. The interesting part is if you can get the slower cattle in the rear to walk a bit faster, then the whole herd moves faster as an organization. You can’t innovate alone. You can invent alone but you can’t innovate alone. You need marketing, sales, IT, R&D, production, logistics. You all need them.

When will the slowest animals of the herd start running faster? They will do this when they see the lions behind them. If the lead cattle were to say to the slowest animal ‘You have to run harder’, they will be like my teenage daughter and reply, ‘Right’. But nothing different will happen. Only when the cattle see the lions coming on strong or the lions are at their heels will they say, ‘Wow. Its time to get moving?’ And that’s the moment when innovation can begin.

VB: It may not always be because the lions are biting their heels. The slowest cattle might be motivated if they see beautiful green grass in front of them.

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes, but I reckon they will run faster when they see lions.

What will drive people more – an opportunity or a threat? I would love to say opportunity, but I know when you’re really threatened you will run faster. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everybody so we shouldn’t overly generalize. But it seems clear that for the majority it’s when they see a new competitor, a new business model, eroding profit margins, or slowing sales growth that they look at the innovators for solutions. That’s the perfect moment, because they are prepared to do something different or differently.

VB: They are more likely to be open to radical ideas and change.

Gijs van Wulfen: Exactly, because getting innovation done in a company is 20% content and 80% support. Anyone who has been in an innovator’s role will know this. Everybody may say they’re in favor of innovation, but the fact is everybody tries to stop you or to put a break on your project.

VB: Maybe this is one of the essences of human nature.

Gijs van Wulfen: It is. We love to say we’re innovators, but we’re actually not.

VB: You identify six ways mistakes are made during innovation. One of these is “Start with a brainstorming session.” Why is this a way of committing ‘innovation suicide’?

Gijs van Wulfen: If you are brainstorming with your present insights it will not be productive because your present insights will not give you new ideas.

The second thing is that, based on present insights, you will think you have a great idea without knowing whether or not customers will think it's great or whether it will solve any relevant friction for your customers. Once you’ve got an idea and it’s your project, you will fall in love with it. If it’s your only project you will try to protect it.

The statistics are that 6 out of 7 innovation projects fail, so you should never only work on one idea for a challenge. The chance that it will reach the market is less than 20% so you should always work on multiple ideas at the same time for the same challenge.

Those are all the ways of committing suicide – focus on an idea, no new insights, and act with no customer involvement. It will be an unhappy story.

VB: You say, “…effective innovation is all about getting new ideas for simple solutions for relevant customer problems or needs.” Does this apply to all breakthrough innovations?

Gijs van Wulfen: I can’t say yes to this question. In my book I discuss brilliant mistakes.

Do all brilliant innovations come from brainstorming? No. Do all brilliant innovations come from the FORTH innovation method? No. But it is interesting that the brilliant inventions like the discovery of America by Columbus, Coca-Cola – which was originally medicine, or the famous example of Spencer Silver’s 3M Post-It Notes all had one thing in common. All were looking for something new.

The essential thing is you have to be open-minded going into new worlds and learning. This is also the essential condition for getting great breakthroughs. Sometimes there is a kind of perfect storm – a new technology comes along and you subsequently discover a customer friction.

I’ve been a marketer with media budgets in the millions of dollars, and my opinion is that you can’t create a need. If you have a solution which doesn’t solve any customer friction or dream you can’t push it down customer’s throats. There must be a real need. You must be solving a real need or a real friction, even for a breakthrough innovation.

VB: “The only reason for us to change is if a new, simple and attractive solution comes along that is relevant to our lives.” Is this a key piece of advice?

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes. I’ve been trying to make the complex concept of innovation simple. Innovation is a new, simple solution for relevant customer frictions.

It must be new. It must be simple; we tend to make everything way too complex. And it must be a solution. That’s it. It’s new. It’s simple. And it’s a solution which helps us.

We must try to ‘decomplexitize’ innovation – perhaps that isn’t an English word. It’s trying to get back to the essence, and to tell it in a simple way. In business we’re often talking in words that seem to be nothing more than ‘blah blah blah’ – big humbug words about nothing. What’s the core of the idea? Is there a real concept in the core idea?

VB: Why do you think things are made more complex, rather than trying to make things simpler? It seems to be extant in business, government, politics, and even everyday discourse.

Gijs van Wulfen: Because we all want to look smart.

VB: Perhaps its because over time organizations create their own jargon and vernacular which obfuscates.

Gijs van Wulfen: Organizations are worlds in themselves. We have to come up with ideas. The more ‘blah blah’ there is, the more we’re going to use PowerPoint. The more business buzzwords there are the more likely it is because we don’t know what to say. So we use a lot of words. This is found in business, politics, and when we have to innovate in big companies.

Can you be vulnerable in a big company? Can you say we have 40 internal projects, but we haven’t got a clue which will be successful or even if any will achieve their intended goals. You can’t say this anymore if you want to remain with the organization. This is the essence of the issue. Organizations need to learn to be able to say they don’t’ know which of the 40 projects are the ones which will be successful. This would be a good start. It’s something you can’t say anymore – not even to each other internally.

In large organizations the bigger departments will be fighting each other over power and share of budgets. They’re often too busy with themselves and trying to gain internal competitive advantage. People are trying to make a career over their neighbor who is a competitor for the next position up the ladder. All of this means that in business we may be busier with ourselves dealing with internal matters than relating with our customers. I don’t want it to sound negative, but these are some observations I have made over the years. You see this much more clearly from a distance than when you’re part of it as an employee.

VB: Would you talk about your checklist to verify whether you have a ‘perfect new concept’?

Gijs van Wulfen: The perfect concept has two winners: the marketplace and the corporation itself. A good concept fits both the market and your company.

In the market the perfect concept must solve a relevant customer friction and be easy to communicate. One of the problems with services is making intangible things tangible.

And then on the internal side the key question is can we make a profit with this new concept? Will it be possible for us to produce the product or service? Does it fit with our brand?

VB: Which idea generation tools are you most inclined to use in your consulting practice?

Gijs van Wulfen: I use a lot of them. The idea generation tool of the brain dump of writing down your ideas is useful.

Sometimes a simple rule is to postpone your judgments. You have to say this to everybody, and then let ideas run freely and write everything down. It is as simple as that.

idea killersThere are idea generation tools to, as I say, harvest your present ideas, but then you’ve got to take it one step further and one step further again. This is what I call disassociate from reality. You can do this with several tools. What’s important is that you do it in the right order. It would not work if you were a soup maker, such as Campbell’s, and at the start of a brainstorm session I said, ‘Let’s imagine we are a can of soup, how do we feel?’ You would likely reply or at least think in response, ‘Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to play being a can of soup!’

If we first talk about your group’s ideas and then we do a brainstorm session about one of the main customer frictions for which you’ve tried to develop solutions, you may be more inclined to respond positively when I suggest we do a trend dance. We will do this as we think about the trends in the marketplace and whether the trends come together to develop a solution. Then as a fourth step we might be willing to imagine we are a can of soup. This is possible because step by step, little by little we are moving a bit further from reality.

So the order in which I use the idea generation tools is important. If I do disruptive dissociation in the beginning, then the whole brainstorming exercise stops. It is important to have the structure of the process well thought out. This is the secret of a good brainstorm.

VB: Is one of the idea generation tools you identify your favorite?

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes, the trend dance. We are with 15 people and we have identified 15 trends. We write them on boards that hang around their necks. Each person is assigned a different trend. Then everyone starts dancing to music. When the music stops everyone looks for a trend hanging on another person, and then they match their two trends to get new ideas based on these trends. It’s kind of an incidental collision of two trends.

It has two advantages: it’s outward thinking and people are moving. The brain works better when people are moving. You’ll remember that if you are dealing with a difficult phone call you will often stand up and start pacing. We do this because when we walk our brains are more alert. Similarly you should do brainstorming while standing or walking. When you sit down and are relaxed your brain activity goes down. When you want to be creative you start walking or showering.

VB: Do you find that corporate executives are willing to identify a trend, and then dance while thinking about it or to play other games?

Gijs van Wulfen: No.

VB: How do you encourage them to do so?

Full Steam AheadGijs van Wulfen: If I would ask them to do it in the Full Steam Ahead phase, which is the first of the FORTH innovation method, they wouldn’t do it because they wouldn’t know me. But this is already their 6th or 7th workshop with me. They are used to me. They know me personally and accept what I ask of them – ‘Here we go again.’

VB: We have to go along with it. He’s a bit on the wild side.

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes, but I have to be careful because if I’m too wild the line snaps. When the line snaps you lose the fish.

VB: “An essential part of being innovative is to start viewing things differently.” Can this skill be learned?

Gijs van Wulfen: It’s interesting that you call it a skill. I believe it is the conditions you find yourself in that make you think differently.

When a person is driving on a road which ends, that person stops. How long will a person remain at the end of the road? One person will turn 100 meters before the end because they know it’s a dead-end road. Another will stay at the end for 10 minutes. Another may stay there for the whole night. In the end everybody will go back.

The innovation process is the same. It’s why you have to wait for a sense of urgency to be felt by most if not all participants. You will likely think the same way until profit margins decline, sales go down, or your job is threatened. Most in their personal lives also only do things differently when old behaviors and habits don’t work anymore.

VB: What causes some people to feel more of a sense of urgency?

Gijs van Wulfen: There are a few things which immediately come to mind. It has to do with the job position and responsibilities you have, the place where you live, and your basic mentality.

If you own the company your sense of urgency will be bigger.

Your sense of urgency will also depend on the type of position you have within your organization. If you are exposed to trends and rapid changes in business, then your sense of urgency will likely be high. Those who work in a factory or office building may be busy and not thinking about the bigger picture. Or they may think ‘it’s just a job’. Only when their job is threatened or there is a layoff of employees will they think that something different must be done urgently to address the business imperatives to avoid the next layoff of 10% of employees to occur.

I’ve had a lot of experience with people who everybody said were the most conservative, but they would move if they saw the lions. They’d run as fast as I’ve ever seen. There are also the circumstances where those who have the biggest mouths and are most confident on shore collapse when they’re on a boat in the middle of the storm. Others who are very quiet on shore are the real leaders in the perfect storm. It’s the same with an innovation team.

VB: Different people have different skills. When a sense of urgency arises some who you didn’t realize had the motivation and ability will come to the fore and pleasantly surprise you.

Gijs van Wulfen: Yes, they’ll surprise you. I always try to have a team with diversity, because this provides many different skills. We need a wide range of skills. When you come to the Homecoming phase, which involves developing business cases for the new concepts for innovation, the most conservative people are helpful because the rest of the company is still as conservative as ever. These conservative people on the core or extended innovation team can help translate the innovation dream into words that identify the next logical step toward implementation.

VB: You have facilitated many innovation initiatives. What do you do to ensure the optimum success of the teams you are working with?

Gijs van Wulfen: Before we have the official kick-off I have a pre-meeting with the core team. It is an informal gathering over dinner and drinks. I let people introduce themselves personally by describing the purpose of the various keys on their key ring. For example, one person may say, ‘This is the key to my place.’ ‘This is the key to my parents’ house – I’m taking care of them. They live on the street next to me.’ ‘And this is my motorbike key.’ Through this process you learn a lot about the members of the team.

Then I ask them to describe their best team experience ever. We usually hear great stories. It creates an atmosphere of knowing each other personally, and also feeling a bit of marvel at what everyone has done in their careers – both past and present. We then discuss what each learned from their best team experience. This adds to team spirit and a commitment to the group’s engagement.

Then we agree to a set of rules which the team develops as they interact. It may include things such as let’s be open, let’s be respectful, let’s be clear in our communications, and let’s not have a rigid hierarchy. It also involves reaching agreement about who will take the lead for key aspects of the project, and this usually involves identifying the one with the best skills. It is all about reinforcing teamwork.

VB: What is the right combination of participants in an innovation team?

Gijs van Wulfen: It’s a mix of men and women, of innovators and conservatives, and of young and old. It includes people from the top to the bottom of the organization. It involves people from many different functional parts such as R&D, design and engineering, production, management, and sales and marketing.

At least as important as having a well-balanced mix of participants in the core innovation team is having people who are passionate and have unrestrained energy. They should be enthusiastic about the innovation assignment. The innovation team should include participants whose work relates to the innovation assignment because they will bring much needed knowledge and expertise. The team should also include some who will be able to come with a fresh outlook.

VB: Diversity will enhance the likelihood of success.

Gijs van Wulfen: Enough diversity, but not to the extent that the participants will be constantly fighting with each other. There must also be sufficient common ground among the participants in an innovation team. The common ground is often found in the focus and the challenge.

Most often the larger the team the greater will be the diversity. This increases the chances of the team coming up with offbeat, wild, and pioneering ideas. My experience is fourteen is the optimal size with twelve from inside the organization and two outsiders who participate in the brainstorming part of the process.

VB: What are some of the lessons we can learn from the fact that for every seven new product ideas, four enter development, one to two are launched and, on average, only one succeeds?

Gijs van Wulfen: Many organizations are doing a poor job of innovation. The question is why is this the case? Some may argue that their organization is developing highly innovative products but their customers don’t understand how to get maximum benefit from their use. Others may suggest the company’s dreams are too big and can’t be realized through innovation with the existing resources. I would argue that in the present innovation process there’s a lot of ‘garbage in’ ‘garbage out’.

My personal goal is to improve the front end of innovation. I would like to show scientifically, perhaps in 10 or 20 years, that the outcomes of innovation in most companies are becoming ever better. That’s what I am trying to accomplish.

If we take the front end of innovation and ideation more seriously, then we can improve our efficiency in the process. A lot of ideas, which are normally in the ideation funnel, are worthless but we don’t know it yet. The reason is we haven’t tested the ideas with our customers.

VB: In your experience are many failures with innovation due to an unclear ‘innovation assignment’?

Gijs van Wulfen: For sure. Sometimes a senior manager in the organization will say, “I need something new and I need it fast.” And then everybody goes running.

It is essential to start an innovation initiative with a clear and concrete innovation assignment to give focus to everyone involved. An innovation assignment forces senior managers to be specific about the target customers for the innovation and the criteria that must be met for the initiative to receive approval for further development and investment. The innovation assignment sets the guidelines for the innovation team as they proceed through the innovation process.

I advise teams that the innovation assignment should answer some basic but important questions. Why does the organization want to innovate? Who is the target group? Where should the target of the innovation to focus – which distribution channels, countries, regions, and continents? Is the innovation to be evolutionary or revolutionary and is it for services, products, or business models? When is the result of the innovation to be introduced to the marketplace? What are the criteria that the new concepts must meet?

VB: One of your eleven ‘rules of extreme project management to deliver on new ideas is, “The less the project manager knows about the technical issues of the project, the better.” Why is this the case?

Gijs van Wulfen: Steve Jobs was an example of this. How much did he know about some of the highly technical aspect of Apple’s products? He would tell his senior technical people what they had to accomplish. When they would reply, ‘We can’t do it because the technology won’t enable it’, he would bluntly admonish them to think of a new way. It’s how he moved people beyond their comfort zones and known technical solutions.

It’s easier to push for the seemingly impossible when you don’t know all the technical problems and implications. If you have knowledge of the technical issues involved you may have too much empathy for what your R&D people say are limitations.

VB: If you don’t know all the technical nuances you will keep focused on the customer friction and drive to a solution.

Gijs van Wulfen: And not be hindered by all the reasons which you are given to explain why it won’t work.

VB: Another rule is, “If you haven’t defined project success at the start, you’ll never achieve it at the end.” Why is this the case?

Gijs van Wulfen: If we need to innovate to develop new products, for example, we will choose the easy way if we haven’t set our goal at the outset. By setting high goals, for example we must produce 10 million units, we will have to go beyond our borders of success. It’s 10 million units. It’s not 9 or 8 million units. We might be able to foresee that 5 million is feasible, but we know we will not been successful unless we reach the concrete goal of 10 million.

Sharing with the core innovation team what success is in quantitative terms helps a lot. We want to make 10 million units. This contrasts with the goal of wanting to develop a new product which will be a big innovation success. This doesn’t give us a clue as to what is meant by ‘big’. Expressing the goal in quantitative terms enables us to better understand it, and to subsequently measure whether we have been successful.

President Kennedy was very simple: It was to get a man on the moon and safely back before the end of the decade. Perfectly clear and the initiative would only be successful if this was done.

VB: You refer to the ten elements of an open innovation culture, which Stefan Lindegaard has identified in The Open Innovation Revolution. What aspects of it do you like?

Gijs van Wulfen: What I like about Open Innovation is the ‘outwardness’ of it. We have to look for people who can help us – clients, suppliers, students, scientists, or other experts. I like the idea of companies opening up to new ideas.

VB: One of the approaches is to look for and acquire technology that already exists, either through outright purchase of the ownership or buying the rights to the technology. This is often a cheaper and faster approach than re-inventing the technology yourself.

Gijs van Wulfen: This is doing business in a smart way.

Look at the automobile industry. Fifty years ago car producers made everything themselves. Auto manufacturers now are becoming more like assemblers. They have their brand and assemble parts from first and second tier suppliers.

The company’s suppliers or the suppliers of their suppliers now develop a lot of things that in the past were developed internally. The focus now is on assembly of modules.

VB: Your website was recently attacked. How are you addressing this problem?

Gijs van Wulfen: I had a general web site and a blog which was in Dutch – translated it would be ‘’. From somewhere in Russia my blog was used to generate a lot of nefarious email traffic. Therefore my Internet provider blocked it from operating. That site contained a database connected to four other sites. I can’t fix it; I can only close the site. It’s a pity.

On the other hand it was a web site that I created when publishing my first books in the Dutch language to share all my ideas. I originated it in 2006 and it is better to close it down. I’m moving onward to the next phase.

VB: Would you talk about the resources you have made available on your website?

The Innovation ExpeditionGijs van Wulfen: I love to share my methodology for the front end of innovation with everybody. That’s why in the new book, The Innovation Expedition, you find URL addresses which take you to the web site for materials which will assist with an understanding of the FORTH methodology. You can download 20 checklists on the methodology. You can also download the innovation maps, which outline the five phases in the FORTH innovation method.

People can use the checklists themselves in their own innovation activities to help them generate new ideas, discover customer frictions, or build business cases for new innovation concepts.

VB: What has been the reaction to your new book?

Gijs van Wulfen: It has been wonderful. I have been honored by the feedback. I hope the book surprised you. Compared to my first book, when you opened this book what did you think?

VB: It is creative with wonderful illustrations and contains lots of useful content.

Gijs van Wulfen: The visualization of this book is wonderful. I really like it. I worked closely with Frederik de Wal. who was the designer. He has a graphic design and typography studio here in the Netherlands. His great contribution is why his bio is on the book cover. His effort was at least as much as mine.

The Innovation Expedition is in the style of a series of two-page blogs. Each contains messages that you can quickly understand. The illustrations are nice to look at. And you don’t have to read endless chapters to get the idea of what it is all about.

The book has received some wonderful reviews. It’s even been number one at Amazon for books related to the topic of innovation. People are buying it. And I have received many positive responses through Twitter and email, and this is wonderful for me as an author.

VB: If your life’s work with innovation and the FORTH method was a book, what chapter would you be living in today? And what would be the title of this chapter?

Gijs van Wulfen: That is a great question.

Is dissemination a good English word? It would be called, “The Start of the Dissemination.” It’s the phase I’m in.

As an example, I train certified FORTH facilitators every year. This July I trained someone from Bangalore, India. He came over to the Netherlands, took the training, returned home, and is now starting to spread the FORTH innovation method in India. I will be visiting him in November for a week, giving lectures, and talking to people about the FORTH innovation method in a number of cities in India such as New Delhi and Bangalore. Wow! This is wonderful. My book and the FORTH method are taking me all over the world. I’m now going in new and different directions.

VB: What will be the title of the final chapter of your life’s work?

Gijs van Wulfen: The final chapter of my life book will be about the people who are going to promote ever more innovation by carrying on the FORTH method after I have died.

VB: But there’s going to be many chapters between Dissemination and your final chapter, which might be titled Going FORTH.

Gijs van Wulfen: I can only say I hope that it’s given to me. But I don’t know! I am already 53 years old. How old can a man get? It can be over next year, or it could be 30 years.

VB: I think the maximum biological potential for a human being to live is about 125 years.

Gijs van Wulfen: I know, but it must be given to you. We are at the age where all kinds of people die way too young all around us. Actually I’m feeling a bit of the pressure of time. It’s why I am writing these books and giving my ideas away. My message is for organizations to increase their innovation efforts. And they can do so by using the FORTH innovation method.

I don’t know how much time I have, but I know one thing. If I’m still living at age75 and unable to walk, they will be pushing me in a wheelchair at a college where I’ll still be giving lectures on FORTH.

VB: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Gijs van Wulfen: I hope they’ll be successful with their innovation journeys. I wish all your readers success.

If they need anything from me or want to reach out to me for whatever reason I would be pleased to receive their feedback. The best way to contact me is through email. I would also love to communicate via Skype.

Reach out to me. I’m here to help you. This is my message.

It is always a pleasure to speak with people who are passionate about their work and have a mission to make a difference. Author Gijs van Wulfen is one such person. He really does have a dream of making the FORTH innovation method the most used innovation tool in the world. He is well on the way to disseminating his structured and effective ideation approach to ever increasing numbers of organizations and countries. We wish him well as he moves on his personal trek of ‘full steam ahead’.

Anyone who is interested in engaging Gijs van Wulfen or one of the other 15 certified FORTH facilitators may contact them directly.

Anyone interested in becoming a certified FORTH facilitator may take the 6-day training course.

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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