Being an effective innovator is not an easy task. The good news is that you can learn from others’ experiences. Gijs van Wulfen walks us through some of the important lessons he learned as a marketer, strategy consultant and innovation facilitator.

Innovation is one big struggle. Not being able to change habits within the organization. Being creative at the wrong moment. Frustrated by budget cuts. Confronted with a lack of entrepreneurship. Putting pressure on people in operations who resist change. Taking the credits as team leader instead of praising the team.

Yes, I made a lot of mistakes as marketer, strategy consultant and innovation facilitator. The good news is that I learned a lot. That’s why I love to share ten lessons how you can be an effective innovator in your organization.

1. Innovate together. As a young marketer I used the word ‘I’ way too much. Being responsible for a product category, I considered myself king of a small universe. You can get wonderful ideas on your own. But in an organization you can only innovate together. You need all the other departments to develop your product, to produce it, service it, sell it and bill it. That’s why innovating in a team is more effective. The chance that a new-to-the-company innovation survives is much higher if it has a lot of fathers and mothers.

2. Choose the right moment. On continuous basis organizations develop and launch variations of present products or services. It’s less risky. Most companies step into new markets or launch disruptive initiatives when they realize that present markets and products can’t generate growth anymore. So be like a hunter. Who only shoots when he knows that one bullet is a sure kill. So for real innovation projects you better wait until the right moment of real urgency.

3. Facilitate. When the company appoints you as ‘innovator’ others have the tendency to sit back, because innovation is now your responsibility. Don’t fall into this trap. Don’t come up with new products, services or business models yourself because it will all stay YOUR initiatives. A much more effective role as central ‘innovator’ is to facilitate innovation. This means you help others in line functions with processes and resources to be more innovative themselves.

4. Discover Needs. Your innovative product or service requires a different behavior from your customer. They will change their behavior and/or internal processes (in BtB) only when your innovation solves a challenge or problem for them. That’s why it’s so important to identify customer dreams, needs and problems in the very early stages of your innovation process.

5. Use the Voice of the Customer. Once you’ve developed an innovative idea or prototype the question remains: is this a good idea or not? In your organization are a lot of persons resisting change. They will say no to anything. In my role as marketer in the food industry I learned to make use of the voice of the customer to get internal support. So test your ideas and prototypes in an early stage at customers. And use the favorable test result and enthusiast testimonials to get internal support.

6. Be innovative. Act Conservative. Your organization is less innovative than you. That’s why you have a game-changing role. Your effectiveness will be dependent on the internal support you can create among the non-innovators. That’s why it’s wise to be innovative and act conservative. Present your innovation not as something really extraordinary but as the normal next thing to do. Your chances to convince the non-innovators will increase.

7. Be naughty. Innovation doesn’t stop at the first no. That’s the moment it really starts for you. You have got to be clever to let your innovation project survive all kinds of dramatic moments like budget cuts. So be prepared to be naughty. When the innovation project is officially stopped due to a budget cut, continue for example your work under another project. Well, you know all the tricks.

8. Connect decision makers. Innovation ist Chefsache”, say the Germans. That’s why you should involve ‘the boss’ from the start. Not in a steering committee on a distance. Invite Top Managers as team members and take them with you on your innovation expedition. In this way the decision makers can get new insights themselves. And when they are part of the process they will support the end result.

9. Do it fast. On average an Innovation project takes 18 months for new services and 36 months for a new product. Be sure to speed it up. You know when there’s a takeover, a strategy change or another crises your innovation project will be at risk. So focus and deliver as fast as you can.

10. Be open. There’s always a lot of secrecy around innovation in a company. In practice with al this secrecy you alienate the rest of the organization with a lot of negative consequences. If you have a clear and structured process and inform everyone on the progress without telling big secrets you maintain support with the people you need later on to implement your innovations. So be open.

I have developed a structured innovation method for the front end of innovation, based on my own lessons learned. Feel free to download the innovation expedition map of the FORTH method.

One more thing. Even with my ten tips, innovation remains a struggle. Don’t fight it. Accept it and you will increase your effectiveness immediately.

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’.