Innovation is often regarded as a journey of discovery. Small steps or large, its purpose is locating and conquering new innovation territory. When incremental explorations are not enough though, it might be time to sail off the map. In this article, Gijs van Wulfen takes a look at Christopher Columbus’ example, and how urgency, courage, new technology, teamwork and perseverance can help corporate explorers reach the New Found Land.

In 1492 Columbus sailed off the map and thought he discovered a western route to the East. 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. It made him one of the most famous explorers of our times.

Columbus was a great navigator. But unfortunately his 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 had left Palos de la Frontera (Spain) on  August 3, 1492 with three ships: The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. They carried provisions for a year. Columbus informed his crew deliberately wrong about the distances they had sailed, to give them the impression to be closer to home than in reality. After several weeks, having sailed off the map, the crew of the three ships was actually terrified. Columbus faced a revolt only several days before reaching the shore of what he believed were ‘The Indies’. His men were afraid that they would never be able to get back.

Unfortunately for Columbus he did not discover a new sea route to China. Neither did he found gold on the island of Hispaniola. Coming back to Castile, Columbus received however from Queen Isabella of Castile all the royal titles he had demanded. He persisted in find to break through to the Indies by sailing west. He made four journeys, initiating the process of Spanish colonization. It was clear to everyone though, except himself, that he did not find the Indies but a ‘New World’.

So what were the conditions for Columbus having the courage to sail off the map²?

  1. Columbus himself was a kind of outsider. He came from Genua with unclear roots and had nothing to lose.
  2. Potential profits were a strong motive. His trip was an investment and not an exploration journey. He had an agreement with the monarch that if he succeeded, he would get a cut of all the proceeds of their discovery³.
  3. 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.
  4. New techniques of navigation, better knowledge of Atlantic currents and the development of caravels made it possible to sail much closer to the wind.
  5. A new era of Renaissance, which originated in Florence, encouraged new ideas.

So if you notice that small steps are not working any more in your business, your organisation needs to innovate.

What will it take to sail off your own map successfully?

  1. Urgency. 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: be patient until the organisation is ready.
  2. Courage. If you follow your passion and feel the urgency you will go beyond your limits. Innovate like you’ve got nothing to lose, like Columbus.
  3. New Technology. Look for unproven means like new technology, new media and new business models to reach your goal.
  4. Teamwork. Invite people for whom the challenge is personally relevant. And invite both people for content as for decision-making reasons to create internal supporters. A new idea will flourish better with a lot of fathers and mothers.
  5. 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.

Inspired by great explorers like Columbus, Hillary and Armstrong, I have developed the FORTH innovation map, a structured creative approach to innovation. To innovate myself, I have to sail off my own map too!

So when your organisation is ready for it: sail off the map, like Columbus. As real innovator, you cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

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’.




2. David Boyle, ‘Voyages of Discovery’, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2011.

3. Robin Hanbury-Tenison, ‘The Great Explorers’, Thames & Hudson ltd, London, 2010.