If you are not one of the lucky few to work in one of the most innovative companies in the world, you’ve probably thought at some point “we really need to innovate.” Gijs van Wulfen provides practical advice on where to begin.

The fuzzy front end of innovation confronts you with a lot of questions. In my new book ‘Creating innovative Products and Services’ I try to solve them with the FORTH innovation method.

A lot of people talk about innovative companies. All the management magazines and books refer always to the same select group of Apple, Google, 3M, Microsoft, P&G, BMW, Facebook, Virgin, Samsung, WAL-MART, Toyota, Amazon, INTEL, Starbucks and a few others.

But so few people really work in them. This means a whole lot of people are working in not so innovative organisations. You are probably one of them, or a consultant advising them.

In your business practice there will be moments you think ‘we really need to innovate’. A lot of reasons may cause this:

  • Turnover and margins are going down structurally;
  • An existing competitor just introduced a great new product or service;
  • A new competitor entered the market with a revolutionary business model;
  • A big client just walked away;
  • You just lost the 3rd tender in a row for a big assignment.

So what do you do? You have several options:

  1. Create innovation initiatives yourself.
  2. Start ideating new ideas.
  3. Form an innovation team.
  4. Hire a consultant.
  5. Get support of the top management.

…there’s a big difference between inventing and innovation.

My strongest advice to you is to never start product or service innovation with an idea. This might sound very strange. You associate innovation strongly with inventing new ideas. But there’s a big difference between inventing and innovation. You can invent on your own. But in an organisation you can never innovate alone! You need R&D engineers, production managers, IT staff, financial controllers, marketers and sales people to develop the product or service, produce it and get it out on the market. And your top management to get priority and resources. That’s why starting ideation or creating innovation initiatives yourself is so ineffective in organisations. And only one and a half out of seven new product ideas is really introduced (Robert G. Cooper, 2011).

So, how do you start innovation?

You should never start spontaneous and unprepared. As good preparation not only increases the chances of success but it also creates priorities, direction and the will to succeed. That’s why it is essential to start with a clear and concrete innovation assignment, involving your top managers. This forces the top management in your company, 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 the guidelines for you and your innovation team when you are underway. You can formulate the innovation assignment with the help of the following six questions:

  1. Why?  (Why do we want to innovate);
  2. Who?  (Who is the target group);
  3. Where?  (For which distribution channels, countries, regions or continents);
  4. What?  (Evolutionary or revolutionary; products, services and/or business models);
  5. When? (Intended year of introduction);
  6. Which? (Which criteria the new concepts should meet);

In discussion with your top management, you can collectively formulate which criteria the new product/service ideas must meet as well as determine the ambition level.

This innovation assignment gives direction and manages expectations of both the top management as the members of the innovation team. You can download a free checklist on how to make an innovation assignment at the website of the FORTH innovation method.

I wish you a lot of success jump-starting innovation: not with an idea but with a concrete assignment!

About the author:

Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. FORTH is an effective and structured method for ideating innovative products and services. The method is published in his inspiring and practical book Creating Innovative Products and Services’ (Gower, 2011).

He helps organisations to kick start innovation by facilitating the FORTH innovation method and advising companies on their innovation strategy, process and organisation. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organisations in government and health. Gijs also trains facilitators in his method. His dream is to make FORTH the most used method for the front end of innovation around the world.

Gijs is a both presenter and chairman at several (international) innovation conferences, like the ISPIM Conferences and the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. He is also founder of the yearly Dutch Innovation Conference on creating new products: ‘Nieuwe Producten Bedenken’.