Gijs van Wulfen: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 15th, 2013 by bobmorris

van WulkenGijs van Wulfen (1960) studied business economics. He worked as a marketer in the fast moving consumer goods sector and switched to consulting at Ernst & Young Consulting and Boer & Croon Strategy & Management Group. At the end of 2002 he started his own innovation organization to spread, train and facilitate the FORTH innovation Methodology to ideate new products and services.

In 2006 Gijs wrote the practical innovation best seller in Dutch, Creating New Products, in which he presents the FORTH innovation methodology. He wrote several books since on this effective methodology to start innovation. The Innovation Expedition (May 2013) is the most recent one.

Gijs helps organizations to kick start innovation by facilitating the FORTH innovation methodology. His clients are both companies in industry and services, non-profit organizations, government and health organizations. Loving to inspire others, he was chosen by Linkedin as one of the 150 thought leaders and as the number two among the International top 40 Innovation Bloggers of 2012. Gijs is a keynote speaker on innovation at international conferences and workshops, like Let’s Play Innovation (2013), Design Thinking Festival (Potsdam 2012), ISPIM (Barcelona 2012), SERVDES (Helsinki 2012), and ECCI XII (Faro (2011). Gijs is based in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

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Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

van Wulfen: A wonderful quote, Bob. I completely support this facilitating way of leadership!

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

van Wulfen: Of course Einstein is right. A more modern version of this quote could be: ‘there are no old roads to new directions’.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

van Wulfen: I am a very pragmatic guy, Bob. It will be very hard to create support at companies to ask themselves the question “which mistakes should we make”. Mistakes are hardly appreciated in a corporate culture. And you can say as often as you like that you should be allowed to make mistakes, but in reality at most firms your head gets chopped off, making mistakes. I favor the verb: experimenting. Companies should experiment with new solutions. It’s no big shame when an experiment fails ☺. It sounds much better than making a mistake.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

van Wulfen: Stories tell you things that happened. They are authentic. It makes the people that tell them also authentic and belief worthy. We tend to trust follow real people with real stories. That’s why great leaders are often also great persons.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

van Wulfen: A company is like a herd. It goes a fast as the slowest animals. If you can let the most conservative slowest animals run a litle bit faster the whole herd gains speed. The most stubborn animals are frequently those that are last. Well they only are going to run faster, if they have to. When they see lions coming after them for example themselves. If you try to convince them to run faster they probably are too stubborn to listen. But if you can spot them the lions themselves they will run for their lives. So get them aboard your innovation team. And let them discover how the world changes. And they might real ambassadors of change in the end, trying to save their own life too of course.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

van Wulfen: MBA programs focus on strategy and knowledge. In practice a lot of things depend on your abilities to get things done. MBA’s that incorporate this even more in their programs will have more successful graduates. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

van Wulfen: The greatest challenge for CEOs will be to change the present dominant focus on operational excellence into a strategy that adds real value to customers. In the long run you cannot survive on doing the same things better and cheaper. Besides improving CEO’S should guide their firms creating disruptive ways to solve relevant customer frictions and making their dreams come true at a profit and a fair price.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Innovation Expedition. When and why did you decide to write it?

van Wulfen: I was writing blogs regularly for and on which I got great responses. I decided to write ‘The Innovation Expedition’ in 2013 to spread the FORTH innovation method all over the world, as we got great results with it in Europe.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

van Wulfen: It is so wonderfully designed. Better than I ever could imagine. The designer, Frederik de Wal who co-produced the book with me deserves as many credit as I do. Reviewing my book for Amazon, Bob, you wrote on the design: “the illustrations in this book are among those of the highest quality that I have yet encountered in a work of non-fiction.” I feel real honored that within a couple of months it’s now one of the innovation bestsellers at

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, here’s a two-part question. First, what is the FORTH Innovation Methodology (68-73)? Also, what specifically differentiates it from other methodologies?

Van Wulfen: The FORTH innovation methodology is used to create attractive innovative products and services with great internal support in a structured 15 workshop-series in fifteen weeks by a multidisciplinary team. The FORTH innovation method connects the day-to-day business reality with outside-the-box creativity. It’s a 15-week expedition in which you’ll realize a concrete innovation mission and bring back three to five mini new business cases for innovative concepts. FORTH is an acronym found in the first letter of each of the 5 steps: Full Steam Ahead, Observe & Learn, Raise Ideas, Test Ideas and Homecoming. The method was developed in practice and is used successfully in both B2B and B2C markets and by non-profit organizations.


FORTH is applied at the fuzzy front end of innovation. And although there are a lot of brainstorming techniques, the front end lacked a really structured method. Five strong points of the structured method are:

o The innovation assignment gives you focus.
o You discover customer insights yourselves.
o Concepts are checked at the target group.
o You return with 3-5 Concrete mini new business cases.
o Teamwork creates internal support.

Morris: As I indicate in my review for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For example, “Ten Innovation Lessons” (Page 46). Which seems to be the most difficult to learn? Why?

Van Wulfen: Perseverance is one of the hardest things in an innovation process to apply in a corporate environment where all the priorities are focused on short-term success. Innovation is never a straight line and will cost a lot of effort and out-of-pocket costs without a guarantee of success. Perseverance is only possible with a sponsor on top level who will keep the innovation project ‘out of the wind’.

Morris: “21 Situations When You Should Not Innovate” (50). Which seems to create the most serious problems? Why?

van Wulfen: The most serious problem occurs when your company is in a short-term
crisis. When you really need a rise in turnover to survive. That’s when you should not innovate, keeping in mind that developing and implementing an innovation will take for a new service around 18 months and for a new product 36 months. On top of this, the innovation process will cost you serious money on the short term. So when there’s a crisis go look for low hanging fruit to gain extra income. Don’t bother about innovation yet.

Morris: “6 Ways of Committing Innovation Suicide” (52). Which seems to be the most frequent? Why?

van Wulfen: The most frequent mistake people in companies make is to start with an idea. Innovation isn’t just about ideas; it’s about getting the right ones and realizing these ideas in practice. Once an idea comes to you, you’ll probably fall in love with it. That’s a great feeling. But, unfortunately, love is blind. The psychological phenomenon of selective perception will make you see only the positive points of an idea and only listen to people who are supportive. What happens when you tell your idea to someone else? The first reaction will often be ‘Yes, but…’ Others within your group will be critical of your idea the moment it is told to them. An important reason for this is that it is your idea and not theirs. For every seven ideas for a new product only 1 succeeds. Therefore, you should never bet on one idea. There’s a huge risk that it won’t be the right one.

Morris: “40 Reasons Why People Struggle with Innovation” (54). Which do you consider to be most [begin italics] intriguing [end italics]? Why?

Van Wulfen: The most intriguing reason why people struggle with innovation is that we tend to get stuck in our habits. This is the way we do things! Often you see success factors of ten years ago don’t work anymore when customers change, competitors change and technology changes. It’s only when people realize that change is really necessary that they will break existing patterns. A key issue for innovators is to create awareness and a will to change among their more conservative co-workers otherwise all innovation efforts will fail due to a lack of support.

Morris: “10 reasons to Innovate (60).” In your opinion, which (if any) is most important? Please explain.

Van Wulfen: When new, competitive products and services catch up and
overtake your products and services present markets get saturated. And turnover stops growing and margins erode. A study by Arthur D. Little has shown that the life cycle of products has shrunk by an average of 400 percent over the last fifty years. And in these cases more varieties of the same products or services can’t help you. At these moments Innovation, meaning doing different things is essential.

Morris: “10 Problems at the Start of Innovation” (62) Which seems to be the most difficult to avoid or overcome? Why?

Van Wulfen: These three problems at the start of innovation are in my practice the most difficult to avoid or to overcome: 1. Sticking to conventions. 2. Ideas remain vague. 3. Line management resistance. In organizations, a lot of ideas are created behind desks or in R&D departments, based on their existing opinions. But you can’t discover new destinations by using old paths. You can only get really new ideas if you get new insights.

Morris: “It’s All About the Right Moment” (92) Please explain.

Van Wulfen: An effective innovator should act with the patience of a hunter: “When it comes time to take a shot, take your time. Wait for a shot that you’re sure you can make.” But you, the innovator, face a dilemma. You cannot wait too long. You know completion of the innovation process takes at least 18 months– from the idea to introducing it in the market. So, it is extremely important to anticipate and react in time to be a market leader. Leaks in the roof are easy to spot when it’s raining, but it is better to have the repairs done beforehand. The ideation process can only succeed if the company is financially and mentally sound enough to do this. On the other hand: if there’s no urgency nobody will be motivated to break present patterns and think of the box. You have to look out for ‘the sweet spot’. Remember: you can only start an innovation project once for the first time!

Morris: “Thinking Like a Designer” (100-101). What are the defining characteristics of a designer’s mindset?

van Wulfen: A designer’s mindset is very empathic, optimistic, collaborative and experimental. It’s capable of re-imagining and creating a new reality.

Morris: 11 “Brilliant Inventions Made by Mistake” (128). However different they and the circumstances of their invention may be, what is true of all of them insofar as innovation is concerned?

van Wulfen: Great Question. The one and only thing all of the inventors and innovators shared was that they all were looking for something. And often found something else, even better!

Morris: “25 Rules for Perfect Brainstorming” (154). Is any one of them most important? Please explain.

van Wulfen: I’ve discovered that this simple question cannot be answered easily. I do not think there is one dominant success factor. It is much more the right interplay of many small factors. It’s all in the details. Perhaps the metaphor of a puzzle is most fitting. There are many small pieces needed, and if you lose one, the puzzle is worthless. If you force me to choice the top 3 essentials then I would opt for: 1. Create with the sponsor a concrete and s.m.a.r.t. brainstorming assignment. 2. Spend twice as much time on the convergence process as on the divergence process. 3. Keep up the pace; otherwise it becomes long-winded and boring.

Morris: “30 Ways to Present a New Idea” (192). What are the 3-5 [begin italics] worst ways [end italics] to present a new idea?

Van Wulfen: In an organization you should bring back “new business” not only ideas. When the presentation itself gets priority over the content of an idea you get the impression that idea in itself might not be so strong. So watch out for too much show like: do a dance or sing a song. Sometimes even a Prezi presentation might be too innovative. Remember that your company is as conservative as it always was. Just start with a mini new business case in a 7 slide PowerPoint presentation.

Morris: “New Rules for Realizing New Ideas” (206). In your opinion, which will have the widest and deepest impact? Why?

Van Wulfen: One of the “new rules” big organizations can benefit most is “If you can’t predict the future, don’t plan it in detail.” While innovating, especially young managers in organization seek security in writing thick plans on procedures on what to develop, for whom- and how -. This gives a form of fake-security, because writing a plan does not make the outcome more certain. Innovation is an expedition, also in the development – and implementation phase. Being effective in innovation is all about learning new insights, experimenting, testing and getting customer feedback fast and on a small scale.

Morris: Which of the tools in “The Innovation Toolkit” seems to be most difficult to master? Why? (218-240)

Van Wulfen: A key question in the FORTH innovation process is not how do we get a lot of good ideas? That’s happens all the time. But how do we pick the right ideas? That’s the key question. So the part of the process most delicate to facilitate are the convergence phases in the step Raise Ideas and Test Ideas. In Raise Ideas you converge from 750 ideas to 12 concepts statements. And in Test ideas you choose from the 12 concepts, based on customer feedback, to 3 – 5 best concepts to be worked out as mini new business cases in the last step Homecoming. In applying tools for convergence the groups’ enthusiasm and acceptance of the outcome is crucial. If you loose someone on the way it will hinder you during the rest of the product development process.

Morris: Which of them (if any) is most important ? Please explain.

Van Wulfen: The most important is to use to the right tool at the right moment. In brainstorming there’s a natural sequence of first using techniques to diverge and later to converge. It’s crucial to get the idea generation tools in the right order. Use the one’s which get out really out of the box last in the idea generation phase. My favorite ones are “What would Apple do?” and “The Trend Dance”. In the convergence phase the “Pinpoint Idea Directions” and “Multi-criteria selection” are essential

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Innovation Expedition and is now determined to adopt and then adapt the FORTH Methodology to establish or strengthen a culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Van Wulfen: Is it the right moment to really innovate my company? That’s a crucial question at the start. Is there enough awareness and urgency within your management that you have to innovate your company’s portfolio? If not, nobody will break their existing patterns and you end up with more variations of your core activities. So pick the right moment and then follow the innovation map. The first thing you do is an Innovation Focus workshop answering the question in which way do we need to go?

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Innovation Expedition, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Van Wulfen: Also in small companies you can’t innovate alone. You can create an idea yourself or invent a new product yourself, but to get it developed, produced and out there on the market you need a lot of different people, also in smaller companies. You can order people to do it because you’re the boss. And they will do so, but it’s very questionable if you get the ultimate result. Another way would be to involve your employees already in the ideation process to come up with solutions for big challenges or ambitions of your company. Your employees will feel privileged to be involved and will be more motivated to create the solutions themselves. A good idea needs a lot of fathers and mothers to survive the corporate culture, also in smaller companies.

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Gjis cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Link to All the FORTH Maps and 20 checklists:

Link to my new book, The Innovation Expedition

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