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«It’s easier to innovate when you are already improving»

An interview with Gijs Van Wulfen and José Luis de Alba, with two innovation enthusiasts who are spreading their ideas with Jalisco businesses and beyond


We hopped over to IPADE Guadalajara to interview Gijs Van Wulfen, an international expert in business innovation, creativity and design thought from the Netherlands. From the moment we saw him walk into the room, dressed in a tailored blue suit covered in pink tulips, we knew we were talking to a person who relishes controverting the business world’s stereotypes. Expressing his ideas in a pleasant and funny manner, he makes it very clear that innovation is an imperative in the modern business firm, which must also simultaneously navigate operations, crises and work culture(s). José Luis de Alba, president of Incipio Ventures, also chimed in with his experience. De Alba has begun promoting Gijs’s methodology in Jalisco, Mexico in hopes of spreading a more innovative business climate there.


Does innovating require a certain attitude or the development of skills, or both and to what extent?

José Luis de Alba (JLA). Innovating involves an attitude of risk tolerance, which must be developed. At first, try to get out of your comfort zone in a way that sparks a little fear. You could try minor things like changing up the way you dress, take Gijs [and his tulips] for example. Maybe do something a little crazier. If you don’t dance, try it. I think you need to identify what you see as crazy, and start doing that.

I’m an accountant, and I am naturally very structured, but also recognize that I need to work on myself. One thing I do, and even when I worked in government, is shake hands in the morning with everyone, regardless of their position. It shocks a lot of people. No one did that when I started. Do it daily, and you can change your habits. Innovation comes when you change your old ways and replace them with new ones. Find out what you aren’t changing and work on that.


I take it age is not a limitation on being innovative. What other factors might hinder the innovation process? 

Gijs Van Wulfen (GVW). First, innovation is hindered by other processes that take higher priority. As we all know, a company has limited people and limited money to spend, often resulting in putting off innovation for tomorrow. When the business gets hit, then suddenly all innovation processes comes to a halt—because people need to urgently work on relevant operational problem. Resources once dedicated to innovation all get shifted back to operations.

A steady business climate is thus good for innovation. In a crisis situation, you can’t innovate because you have to handle the essentials.

The second major obstacle is corporate culture. To innovate, you have to dare to say what’s on your mind. And at first you have to look for crazy ideas, like José Luis mentioned, because what seems crazy now will not be in ten or twenty years. People must feel safe within the company’s environment to express crazy ideas. And a lot of companies are very political, as well as individual and career focused. If people don’t feel safe (psychologically speaking), they won’t speak up. So psychological safety is a prerequisite for innovation.

JLA. First of all, we obviously all have an ego. You find yourself in a good situation. Your company is making profits. It’s growing steadily. Many have a «Don’t fix what’s not broken» mentality, but success depends on paying attention to what is happening beyond what is going well. The first rule here is to use your money and educate yourself with travel. For example, after finishing Singularity University’s Executive Program, I wanted to share my experience with my business partners so I prepared a one-day lesson, choosing just five of the twenty-eight different lessons that we received, and asked the group to prepare information relevant to them. I chose to take one on myself –specifically blockchain. And wouldn’t you know it–one year later, I’m in the business of blockchain and mining in Mexico, Spain, and Estonia. I couldn’t have imagined two years ago that I’d be in Estonia, but I am. So get out there –you have the resources, the opportunities, the market, and the customers. Try something totally different for once.

In addition, try investing in other people’s companies, and not just in your own. Get on other Boards where you are a resource as an entrepreneur. I like to call myself «the old millennial» because being a millennial is not just an age or a preference. It’s a state of mind.


How are we to maintain our identity while still putting much of the past behind us in the innovation process?

GVW. The good news is that maintaining our identity is very much a part of the process. Indeed, innovation connects the past with the future. You don’t give up the past because what made you successful in the past –your abilities and particular strengths– will likely follow you into the future. It’s just a question of combining things differently. So, if innovation has ten elements, you don’t have to come up with ten all new elements. You just have to take a few great elements from the past and add onto them. Innovation is absolutely about connecting a successful past with a (hopefully) successful future.


How do you then view the relationship between improvement and innovation?

GVW. For me, improvement is natural. It’s like the next logical step. You create something and then look for ways to improve upon it, to make it better, or to make it cheaper and better at the same time. But then market demand and customer demands change, and suddenly they need something else. Electric light was not the product of some candle maker’s improvement program. It wasn’t about little steps, but rather about making a leap. Perhaps that leap is to the left, or to the right, or forward. Innovation involves something genuinely new –being the first in your market with a new solution to ease relevant customer friction.

Now, there is a relationship because improvement involves changing things little by little. It’s easier to jump when you are already moving, and it’s easier to innovate when you are already improving. So, if you aren’t improving at all, first go for improvement, and when you come to the end of improvement, then jump to something else and innovate.


On the flip side, what does failure in an innovation process mean to you?

GVW. Failure is a very important, positive word. For me, the word fail stands for the «First Attempt In Learning». An experiment that failed is a successful experiment because innovation is all about learning. And you don’t know what will work or not when it comes to new things. So, the point is to experiment. And then you learn, and then you change, and then you test again, and then you do it again, and so on.

JLA. A startup must test immediately by developing what is called a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) for which you must have something to show. So, the first idea here is to fail well–quickly and with a small amount of money. You research your failure, thus transforming failure into an experience. After that, the process repeats itself in a cycle of improvements. With customers, you offer them something, they like it, you test on that, and get a better product. And it’s less costly than developing a whole product while just imagining your customers. Ask them and get out there.


In your FORTH methodology, innovation and deconstruction go hand in hand. Can you explain this a bit more?

GVW. The FORTH innovation methodology stands for Full Steam Ahead, Observe and Learn, Raise Ideas, Test Ideas and Homecoming. The most important phase is Observe and Learn because it puts the focus on operational excellence, the idea of doing things better and better, year after year. And then you are suddenly asked to challenge the present and everything from the past by deconstructing assumptions. Are they wrong or right? Are they useful for the future? When they aren’t, you have to learn to unlearn and then construct something new. You challenge everything in Observe and Learn. It’s like deconstructing your mind, and saying, «Ok, let’s start all over again» getting rid of your old ideas and convictions. In this phase, it is important to go out and talk to new people –from other sectors and those working in technology– to get new insights.


How do we go about connecting operations with innovation?

GVW. To innovate the right way, we cannot separate innovators and implementers. Let employees in operations innovate their own processes.

Unfortunately, companies often fail to do this. Instead, a few people come up with the new ideas, and then everyone else is supposed to follow their commands. But this generates disconnect.

I connect operations with innovation. Specifically, the innovation journey associated with our FORTH methodology is implemented by people directly working in operations. They work as a team to create five business cases during fifteen weeks, spending around twenty days of those fifteen weeks on innovation.

Forming a team that normally works on operational tasks has a lot of advantages. First of all, they’re experts in their fields, and second, by authoring business cases themselves from the start, the implementation phase is much more dynamic because the implementers are already committed to and actually like working on them. Implementation thus ceases to feel forced and disconnected.

JLA. Businesspeople, especially in Jalisco, are very accustomed to their comfortable positions. When I first encountered Gijs and his methodology, I liked that it isn’t just for startups. We are more accustomed here to hearing about innovation, startups, design thinking, lean startup, and things like that. But when you talk with people who operate traditional businesses in Jalisco, they don’t want to move in that direction, while the newer generations want to make a change and transform their lives. The FORTH methodology is good for both groups because its implementation is more comfortable for all involved. But they must be, as Gijs notes, committed, and not just as an advisor, but also from within the company. This process must be done from the inside out. And I think that traditional companies here, especially those in manufacturing, small factories, small locales, can use this tool to develop what they need for the changes that lie ahead.


Innovation is associated with technology—how can it be transferred to other areas of the company?

GVW. In the eyes of engineers, innovation is technology full stop. Since I am not an engineer, I have a much broader perspective. A lot of companies now work with services and service innovation is popping up all over the place. Of course, service innovation can use technology, so technology is a kind of innovation enabler, but it’s not the central element because there is service innovation, customer experience innovation, business model innovation, brand innovation, organizational innovation, production innovation, and so on–it’s so much broader than and goes beyond technology.

JLA. One of the key points when it comes to technology relates to what Gijs says: it’s not just technology; it’s a mindset change. And it is important not to love your own creation, i.e., technology. It starts with changing your state of mind; one good exercise is called zoom out–zoom in… it asks you to think 10, 20 years ahead, as well as to work on the next six months or year. This type of innovation boosts the operational side, but technology often makes or breaks it.

Three days ago, I presented about technology, including blockchain and other things like that, and the first question I asked was, «What’s the problem you are solving?» Business is based on the problem you are solving, customer friction, as Gijs mentioned. So technology is a tool, it can change everything, but it’s not the objective.


Any parting words of advice to get started?

JLA. We must be in a hurry because of all of the coming changes. 800,000,000 job positions will disappear [transform] in the next years, and we need to get moving. If we want to protect our families as well as our fellow human beings—indeed, one of the reasons for wealth is the ability it gives you to help others—we need to start giving. First give, and then you will receive.

GVW. Mexico, if you think your business will be different in five years (hint, you are right), start innovating now… and ¡viva la innovación!

Líderes para trascender
Presentado por:

istmo review
No. 386 
Junio – Julio 2023


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