Never Start Innovation with an Idea

Are you trying to come up with the next big idea to jump-start innovation in your company? Try another approach. Gijs van Wulfen gives us three reasons why you should not start an innovation initiative with new ideas, rather formulate a clear and concrete innovation assignment. Here's how!

The fuzzy front end of innovation confronts you with a lot of questions. In my new book ‘Creating innovative Products and Services’ I try to solve them with the FORTH innovation method.

Never start product or service innovation with an idea. Of course: innovation is initially about ideas. About getting the right ones. And realising these ideas in practice. A shining light bulb has become a global symbol for innovation. Just check Google images and type innovation and then you will see proof of this.

There are three reasons why you should not start with an idea.

  1. An idea makes you blind. Once you got your idea you will probably fall in love with it. That’s a great feeling indeed. But love makes blind, unfortunately. The psychological phenomenon of selective perception will make you see only the positive points of the idea and only listen to people who are supporting you. And in trying to realise the idea you will run in 80 percent of the cases into a hard wall, which will wake you up. Not having an alternative available to realise your personal challenge.
  2. It’s very difficult to convince others. What happens when you tell your idea to someone else? Their first reaction starts often with a ‘but……….’. Others within your company will start criticising your idea the moment it is told to them. An important reason is that the idea is not theirs. Furthermore companies and organisations are organised to get a grip on the current operational processes and to give account of the results produced. Should the size and complexity of the organisation increase, innovation becomes more difficult. The process of innovation seems almost unnatural. A solution is getting ideas together in a team setting so the ownership of the idea is shared.
  3. Only one and a half out of seven new product ideas is really introduced. A number of studies on new product innovation (Robert G. Cooper, 2011) showed that for every seven new-product ideas, about 4 enter development, 1.5 are launched and only 1 succeeds. These are poor odds. There is a chance of around 1 out of 5 that your idea will reach the market. So what do you do when your boss, the vice-president marketing or the innovation board stops your new product idea? Do you have any alternatives available to realise your business challenge? So never bet on one horse. That’s the message.

So, how should you start innovation?

You should never start an innovation expedition unprepared. As good preparation not only increases the chances of success but it also creates priorities, direction and the will to succeed. That’s why it is essential to start with a clear and concrete innovation assignment. This forces the top management in your company, from the start, to be concrete about the market/target group for which the innovations must be developed and which criteria these new concepts must meet. This forms the guidelines for you and your innovation team when you are underway. You can formulate the innovation assignment with the help of the following six questions:

  1. Why?  (Why do we want to innovate);
  2. Who?  (Who is the target group);
  3. Where?  (For which distribution channels, countries, regions or continents);
  4. What?  (Evolutionary or revolutionary; products, services and/or business models);
  5. When? (Intended year of introduction);
  6. Which? (Which criteria the new concepts should meet);

So in discussion with your top management, you can collectively formulate which criteria the new product/service ideas must meet as well as determine the ambition level.

This innovation assignment gives direction and manages expectations of both the top management as the members of the innovation team. You can download a free checklist on how to make an innovation assignment at the website of the FORTH innovation method.

I wish you a lot of success jump-starting innovation: not with an idea but with a concrete assignment!

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’.

  • Geovanny Romero

    Your article is really very interesting ! Innovation through 6W?

  • Arun Kohli

    Nice reading.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Arun Kohli
    Delh, India

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  • Jrbuitrago

    Very interesting article. Thank’s. and congratulations 

    Ricardo, Colombia

  • Ravi Sriraman

    Good process to start an new idea. W’s are are great way to prepare and march towards success.
    Ravi Sriraman
    Hyderabad, India.

  • Cristiano Kruel

    Gijs, I believe we are trying something like that. Whenever people ask us to help them innovate, we just ask “why?”. So instead of starting with an idea, we start with a problem, a challenge, and 6Ws help reframe problems. 

    What if… we build a “corporate innovation process” more like an Innovation Program that promotes many innovation campaigns? Each campaign has different answers to yours 6Ws. 

    Thx for sharing. 

  • Gijs van Wulfen

    Thanks for you reply Cristiano. About your “what if” question. My suggestion to you is to make an innovation assignment (answering the 6W’s) for each programme you start.



  • Roza Mouithsone

    Hi there!
    Intresting post! Thank you! I work at Projectplace and on our blog we discuss common mistakes companies do when they setup an innovation systems. Intresting to read:
    Kind regards,

  • Michael Ravensbergen

    Gijs, I sent you my compliments for this article.  I fulfilled my first innovation with just my idea. At this moment I am more than happy that I did it this way. My following innovation (I am middle in it) I will use you’re article strategy. Because I like an earlier discussion of MUST DO. Thanks Michael.

  • Gijs van Wulfen

    Thank you Michael for your compliments. Keep me informed if the strategy mentioned in my article leads to success :-)


    You’re basically advocating a market-led approach (MLA) instead of a product-led approach (PLA). Both have their merits. You weaken your argument by ignoring the PLA. The old Henry Ford riposte (modified): “If I’d asked the market what it wanted, it would have asked for a faster horse.”

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  • Nsweeney

    Nice post Gijs!  A few additional thoughts for your comments.  In my opinion, innovation is a process.  It involves the creative destruction on what is currently in place + a little crazy thinking on what could be + sober market research.  To me innovation is the tip of the iceberg.  The real challenge is the change management that happens in convincing your early adopters and first followers of your ideas.  And that is because your brilliant innovation, needs to be shared and spread by people other than you.  

    How else can innovators ensure that their innovations are embraced?