How to start your innovation journey

Innovation, or ‘creating new value’ as I’ve been taught to call it, has become a mainstream activity for companies big or small, profit or non-profit. Everyone is ‘doing innovation’. There is a distinct difference however in how to ‘do innovation’ vs. how to ‘do’ every other task in a company.

Derk Schneemann
Derk Schneemann
Senior Innovation Consultant
5 minutes
May 16, 2022

The large organisations, a.k.a. corporates, challenge and develop their employees by moving them around throughout their career: people get to work in different places within the company. They sort of travel from ‘land’ to ‘land’. This is very beneficial for knowing those important little details of the enormous complex machine. By taking the knowledge of one department to the next, they start to see overarching solutions that are more effective than all previous ‘department’-focused solutions.

The travellers also do innovation-land; probably stop-over #3, 4 or 5 in the search for the perfect job or a new step in the career-path. They take with them a lot of valuable experiences, learnings, successes, sometimes even a small failure (not too big, because that usually creates an unexpected end to the travel-experience). Many travellers like this, being experienced, connected and aware of the new field they’re going to discover, will enter the new place with a certain built-up confidence. It’s part of the pleasure as a traveller: “Hey, we’ve done this a couple of times before, so we know what to expect and how to handle this new experience”.

Now, this is the point where I made a misjudgement… at least when I was ‘travelling’ like this. With over 15 years of experience in ‘work’, I had grown confident enough that my suitcase was filled with quite some relevant items. Of course, I needed to get accustomed to the new language, the local customs and rituals. At the same time, I was confident that I could also import some things that these ‘indigenous tribes’ weren’t used to. As I’d learned before, some of my imported knowledge would help them to do things better, faster or in a more fun way.

So here I am, from ‘working with innovation’ to ‘working in innovation’ and with a passport full of colourful stamps as proof of previous destinations and my ability to adapt. I think it was within a few months that I started to get really wiggly, even uncomfortable. What what was happening here? Did I lose my travel-hunger? Much of what I did felt so out of place, which was not my normal state in all the new places I visited before. Was this not my place, maybe the wrong place after all? No, I was sure this was my secret spot, my place to grow further! But then why these sweaty, bad night sleeps? Each time I lay out my map to go from A to B, I still got lost… Some of the most valuable things in my suitcase proved rather worthless here; I was trying to trade in the wrong currency. And I was holding my map upside-down, or even inside out.

Let me explain: I was accustomed to plan my day-trip leaving from A and arriving at B. By studying the map in detail I was under the impression that I was able to take a detour or alternative route, if needed. In all the destinations I visited, this approach worked really well.

Illustration of an innovation journey
Innovation-land. Visual created by Bram Baarslag.

In innovation-land this A-to-B approach proved not useful. Here, you start your day leaving A, take your curiosity and non-judgement, and see where you end up the next day. Day after day. Instead of the map leading me, it was the learnings on that day leading me. And by making smart and validated decisions on those learnings, we went from A to X (or Y): X (or Y) being the place where we found added value for the customer. As soon as you decide beforehand to go from A to B, you will get lost eventually*. Because in this place, we are looking for new added value, not known added value. And you need to accept that you cannot plan the exact destination beforehand.

The same applies for the ‘currency’ in this place: instead of trading and bargaining with known choices (as in regular project management), in innovation you need to cling to those things that you’ve proved to be valuable, without any compromise. So you must know what you are looking for.

The same applies for failures: in previous destinations, failures were not intended but allowed as long as they weren’t too big. In innovation-land the failures bring you the most and quickest learnings, and therefore can make you leapfrog towards finding new added value. You can really benefit from failures, and your team’s attitude should be geared towards making as many fails as possible (within manageable time & budget though). Fail fast, learn fast, succeed fast.

This makes that innovation-land has some fundamental differences from any other destination:

  • regular project-management approaches can work counter-productive;
  • compromise can be fatal for your success (even the smallest compromise);
  • you must have an open, spongy mindset where you eager to fail, in order to learn faster.

Now, I was really lucky because I had a few guides during my trip in innovation-land. Just as in any new place, guides are there to show you what it really has to offer and the sooner you live by those rules, the better the place becomes. I’m very thankful to all those people on my journey, with their patience and stubbornness to not comply to my pre-set beliefs.

To conclude: I would strongly suggest every traveller who is new to innovation-land to also find and embrace your local tour guides. The more they guide you, the sooner you will feel at home and the quicker you will love this place, and never want to leave it!

*: a remark on A-to-B: you DO need to have a vision that you can cling to. So this map-example applies to ‘work-to-be-done’ and not to ‘we have the vision to go to B’. Visions are powerful, needed and very, very useful.

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About the author

Derk Schneemann
Derk Schneemann
Senior Innovation Consultant
As a strategic leader, Derk has a strong background in business & innovation management and product development. The last 10 years, he focused on helping to set up and run teams, start-ups, consortia and new service/product introductions. He has worked as an entrepreneur, innovation consultant, a business leader and investor.