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​Gijs Van Wulfen: ‹‹You are being chased by lions!››

, People

Photo: Ivan Gushchin / Strelka Institute

‹‹Some of the best ideas come to you while you’re not working and your brain is in a different mode. For example, when you are in the shower.››, said Gijs Van Wulfen while addressing the audience during his lecture at Strelka. 

The Dutch expert has been testing out new business solutions for many years, and using this experience he developed his own 5-step innovation method. It is called FORTH and Van Wulfen believes that it will help integrating innovations into business so that they will be able to reach the market and the customer faster. His books are translated into many languages and are selling millions of copies. He is one of the 150 experts chosen by Linkedin as its ‹‹Influencers››.

Gijs van Wulfen discussed with the weaknesses of FORTH, the innovators of today and conservatism in business.

Daria Golovina: Do you think that change and innovation is happening faster than ever in the XXI century?

Gijs van Wulfen: My grandfather used to say «Oh, Gijs, the world is changing so fast!››. When I was 9 years old, I witnessed on television how Neil Armstrong made his first step on the Moon. Both my granddad and I, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The invention of the wheel must have created a similar shock back in the day. You see, I don’t think that the changes are happening faster in the XXI century, but they are very rapid indeed.

FORTH map of Russia

‹‹Imagine the situation in which I come into your office exclaiming ‹‹I’ve got a brilliant idea! No one has ever done this before!››. It’s unlikely that you will take me seriously››.

D.G.: What challenges did you face while working on FORTH?

G.W.: I created FORTH out of frustration. Before that I worked in a food company and then in a consulting agency, and both were not really responding to innovation. So I decided to develop my own methodology that would allow companies to simplify the process of innovation.

We don’t always realize it, but we are all looking for new ideas that might transform our business or our life. The problem is that those ideas, when presented to us, often appear too unusual, too strange. When I ask my clients, ‹‹Do you want to bring innovation into your business?››, they always say ‹‹Yes››, but when I ask them, ‹‹Are you ready to take risks?››, most of them answer ‹‹No››. That was the main difficulty while I was working on FORTH: how do I present my ‹‹abnormal›› ideas so that they appear as normal and realistic? There’s actually nothing unusual in my method. I just make sure that the ideas always come with a business plan. Imagine the situation in which I come into your office exclaiming ‹‹I’ve got a brilliant idea! No one has ever done this before!››. It’s unlikely that you will take me seriously. But if I develop a business plan, if I show you that I have done the market research and that I have studied the company — your reaction will be different.

D.G.: Were there any other difficulties?

Oh, yes. The other difficulty was that all innovators begin with an idea and start developing it straightaway without checking whether it’s really going to work. All the effort is wasted on the idea that has no potential in terms of investment or success with the target audience. My methodology saves a lot of time, because it focuses on all the important developments at the very start of innovation.

D.G.: You said that clients are always afraid of taking risks. Are people in business that conservative? Is this the main difference between the businessmen and the innovators?

‹‹Innovators are the fastest animals: they are always at the front››

G.W.: We are all conservative. I mean, look at my phone. But that’s not the problem. If you imagine a company as a herd…

"The Innovation Expedition" book cover

D.G.: Yes, you use this comparison in your book.

G.W.: Yes, exactly. So, if you imagine it as a herd, the innovators are the fastest animals, they are always at the front, whereas the slowest animals are the board of directors. They are at the back, because they have so much more to lose. But they also determine the pace of the whole herd. So, in order for a company to become more innovative you need to make the slowest animals run faster.

D.G.: And how do you achieve that?

G.W.: If I just tell them to run faster, they won’t listen to me, of course. But if I say, ‹‹Watch out! You are being chased by lions!›› — that will work.

If you want to transform a company, it’s essential that the clients themselves come to realise that they need to keep up with all the new technologies and innovations. You need to show them that ignoring those changes is actually a bigger risk.

D.G.: But every herd has its own ways or organising itself, we may call them ‹‹traditions››. What is the relationship between tradition and innovation?

G.W.: They are interconnected. Traditions are the old patterns that we’ve been following for years. Innovations are the new patterns. To implement the new patterns you need to break the old ones.You should always respect traditions, but innovations often have to happen very rapidly.

Some people see innovation as gradual improvements, little evolutionary steps. Others see it as revolutionary change. I believe that these two strategies should be combined. Of course, you cannot rely on innovation too much: the secret is to find the right balance. Keep the business profitable by doing what you are good at and invest that profit in innovations. It will pay off. This is what FORTH is all about.

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D.G.: How effective is the FORTH method?

G.W.: FORTH covers only the very first stages of innovation: when you complete those 5 steps you end up with a business case but not yet the development project. R&D is the next stage and it is carried out by the company itself, I don’t take part in it. It is quite difficult to tell how effective the methodology is because it takes 2-5 years for the development project to be introduced, and you need to stay with the company to track the progress. Nevertheless, one research showed that 3 out of 5 projects reach the market, and it’s a very impressive result.

D.G.: What is next for you, what are your plans for the future?

G.W.: I consider myself a one-trick pony: once you’ve created something that works, you stick with it. Right now I’m busy promoting my methodology and spreading it across the world. I’m really enjoying it. I love reading lectures, I love training people and familiarizing them with FORTH. If I live to be 75, I hope to be still doing the same thing: helping bring innovation into life.