Innovation nowadays has many similarities with voyages of discovery in the past. In this blog Gijs van Wulfen walks us through practical learnings for innovation inspired by successful explorers.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

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 in the past.

  • A promised land. Most people searched for the adventure only when it was really necessary and when they had nothing to lose. This is so familiar in our organisations today. Real urgency is only experienced when ‘old solutions’ do not work anymore and markets are saturated. And it is felt by people expecting big promising treasures.
  • The challenge of being 1st. Explorers strive being first. Amundsen discovering the North-West passage. Livingstone searching for the source of the Nile. Hillary climbing Mount Everest. Entrepreneurs have the same ambition: developing ‘new-to-the-world’ innovations to outsmart competition.
  • A group effort. Explorers almost never went alone. Hillary could not have conquered Everest if he wasn’t saved first by Tenzing Norgay from falling in a crevasse. You can invent a new product, service or business model alone. But within organizations you cannot innovate alone. You need people from every discipline to develop it, produce it, market it, sell it, bill it and service it.
  • A long journey. Discovery voyages lasted many years, due to unexpected setbacks such as an unknown illness, a tropical storm or mutiny by the crew. The average time for the development process of a new product, which takes 18 months from idea to introduction, follows similar patterns.
  • High risk of no return. Many ships perished along the way. On one of the voyages of Magelhaes, four of the five ships did not return. One ship survived and made the expedition worthwhile. It’s similar in innovation. From the seven new developed product ideas only one product enters the market successfully. The remaining six perish along the way.
  • Serendepity leads to even bigger rewards. Sometimes explorers thought they landed on a small island, which proved to be an enormous continent afterwards. As the Vikings did who discovered North America long before Columbus.  Compare this with the development of SMS-services. It was originally developed for the business market, but it did not take off. After young people caught on to the idea of SMS as a modern cheap way to contact each other, it became a worldwide market with more than three billion users.

Having so many similarities with voyages of discovery, what are practical learnings for innovation inspired by successful explorers from the past:

  1. Create momentum for your innovation project. There must be urgency or a promised land, otherwise innovation is considered as playtime and nobody will be prepared to go outside the box. If this is not the case: be patient until the organisation is ready.
  2. Start your innovation journey with a clear and concrete big challenge: an innovation assignment. Draft together with top management a concrete market/target group for which innovations must be developed and which criteria these new concepts must meet. The assignment serves as a guide along the way.
  3. Innovate in a team. You get both better results and will create internal supporters for the outcomes. Invite people for whom the big challenge is personally relevant. And invite both people for content as for decision-making reasons. Invite also a couple of outside-the-box thinkers.
  4. Make a plan. Use a structured innovation approach. To think outside the box is a good start. But you have to come home with innovative concepts, which fit the ‘in the box’ reality of your organisation. Otherwise nothing happens. Have a look at the FORTH innovation map. It connects creativity and business reality in five structured steps. FORTH is an acronym and stands for Full steam ahead, Observe and learn, Raise ideas, Test ideas and Homecoming.
  5. Keep the pace going. If not, the journey becomes long-winded and boring. Some people in your organisation might even forget that you have departed for your challenge.

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.

By Gijs van Wulfen

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’.