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Innovation is hard. In his new book, The Innovation Expedition, Gijs van Wulfen makes innovation very accessible by telling the story in a visual way and by presenting a structured method that is tested and works! This is the first part in a series of nine chapters.

“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 for an Antarctic exploration led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. When I read this ad 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 and expeditions in the past. These explorers inspired me to create a structured approach to innovation, which I present in my new book ‘The Innovation Expedition’.

Christopher Columbus

In 1492 Columbus sailed off the map and thought he discovered a western route to the East. The road to the East was cut off to European traders due to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Unfortunately Columbus 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). 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. Columbus himself was a kind of outsider. He had nothing to lose. Potential profits were a strong motive. He had an agreement with Queen Isabella of Castile that if he succeeded, he would get a cut of all the proceeds of his discovery. New techniques of navigation, better knowledge of Atlantic currents and the development of caravels made it possible for Columbus to sail much closer to the wind.

Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary had been part of a British reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest in 1951. After eight failed attempts on Everest The British Himalayan Committee replaced the 1951 expedition leader Eric Shipton by Colonel John Hunt. They needed someone to get them on the top, before the French had their chance. The 1953 Everest expedition consisted of a huge team of over 400 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides and almost 5.000 kilogram of baggage. Bourdillon and Evans attempted the climb but due to a failing oxygen system only reached the South Col, around 100 metres below the summit. Then Hillary and Norgay got their chance. The higher you get on Everest the more courage you need. A crucial last part of summiting Everest is a 12 meters rock face, which Hillary managed to climb. It’s now known as the Hillary Step. Hillary and Norgay reached the 8,848 meters high summit, the highest point on earth, at 11:30 am on May 29th 1953.

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong learned to fly in the summer of 1946 at the age of sixteen. It was rather unusual that he earned his pilot’s license before he got an automobile driver’s license. On April 12, 1961 the Soviet Union stunned the world when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human space traveller. President JFK had to restore America’s respect. He declared “I believe that this entire nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. There were three options for landing on the moon: Direct Ascent, Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). To the surprise of many experts, NASA selected in July 1962 the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. If the Rendezvous failed the astronauts would be too far away to be saved. Most important was that LOR was the only way by which the Moon landing could be achieved by Kennedy’s deadline of decade’s end. So there I was, 9 years old. Woken up in the middle of the night at 04.00 by my parents. On a black and white TV I saw Neil Armstrong making his first little jumps on the moon. While he spoke his famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

10 Innovation lessons from great explorers

In the voyages of these great explorers you can find are ten lessons for innovation.

  1. Urgency. For Columbus the road to the East was cut off to European traders by the Turks. There must be urgency otherwise innovation is considered as playtime and nobody in your organization will be prepared to go outside the box.
  2. Challenge. Reaching the highest point on Earth and sailing to the west to find the East are both real concrete challenges. So, start your innovation journeys with a clear and big challenge: an innovation assignment.
  3. Passion. As a youngster, Hillary read many adventure books. Armstrong earned his pilot’s license at sixteen. If you follow your passion it will take you beyond your limits. So if you are passionate about innovation, take the lead.
  4. Courage. In the descent to the Moon suddenly a yellow caution light came on: 1202 program alarm. Armstrong and Aldrin continued. If you want to realize a big challenge you have to go beyond your limits.
  5. New Technology. The development of caravels made it possible for Columbus to sail much higher at the wind. Look for unproven means like new technology, new media and new business models to reach your goal.
  6. Preparation. On the morning of the launch, the first astronaut into the Apollo 11 was Fred Haise, back up as lunar module pilot. He ran through a 417-step checklist designed to ensure that every switch was set in the proper position. Prepare.
  7. Teamwork. Hillary wrote: “John Hunt and D. Namgyal’s lift to the depot on the South-East Ridge; George Low, Alf Gregory and AngNyima with their superb support at Camp IX; and the pioneer effort by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon to the South Summit. Their contribution had enabled us to make such good progress”. A new idea will flourish better with a lot of fathers and mothers.
  8. Choices. The British Himalayan Committee replaced the 1951 expedition leader Eric Shipton by Colonel John Hunt, a climber. After eight failed attempts on Everest they needed someone to get them on the top, before the French had their chance. Take clear choices always bearing your assignment in mind.
  9. Test. The Apollo 10 was a full-dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. They flew almost precisely the same track over the lunar surface that Apollo 11 would be flying. This was very helpful according to Neil Armstrong: “By the time we launched in July, we knew all the principal landmarks on our descent path by heart”. So test, test and test.
  10. 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.

I wish you lots of success on your own innovation expedition. Go for it!

By Gijs van Wulfen

Interested in the previous chapters? Please click here

About the author


Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) helps organizations to start innovation effectively as author, speaker and facilitator.
He is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. With FORTH he create attractive innovative products and services with great internal support with a multidisciplinary team. In his latest book ‘The Innovation Expedition’ he makes innovation very accessible by telling the story in a visual way. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organizations. Gijs also trains and certifies facilitators in his method.

He is a keynote speaker at international innovation conferences and was chosen by LinkedIn as one of their 150 Thought Leaders.

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