'It’s important to look at innovation in a realistic way'

(08-07-2021) Innovation. It seems quite logical that you would improve your business processes, review your research from a different angle, or innovate your product. In reality, however, innovation is a process that is difficult to grasp.

Cover.jpgWhere do things go wrong? What are the pitfalls? And what makes it so complex? Enter Stijn Ronsse. What started off as a personal interest has ended up becoming an easily accessible book about his favourite subject: innovation. ‘I find it particularly interesting to better understand the factors that determine whether innovation succeeds or fails. When I came into contact with things that were not going well, I checked the scientific literature for possible causes and discussed them with colleagues at companies where I worked, at the University, or at CAPTURE (Centre for Advanced Process Technology for Urban Resource Recovery) … Over time I built up quite an extensive archive, and corona also gave me more time to really delve into the topic. Precisely because disseminating knowledge about innovation makes the process easier, I wanted to structure my thoughts into a book.’

No rockets, but smoothly running engines

If the rocket doesn’t take off is mainly intended to provide a frame for reflection. The book defines 12 important pitfalls that give you the tools you need for a successful innovation process, even if you know nothing about the topic at all. ‘If innovation fails, it is because of typical pitfalls. If you know and tackle these, there is a greater chance that your innovation process will work,’ explains Stijn.

The cover of his book is a nod to the typical and often unrealistic ideas about innovation: the rocket looks more like it should be lying on a scrap heap than sitting on a launch pad ready for take-off. ‘In any presentation or promotional campaign about innovation, you will find a reference to the rocket. It seems as if innovation is about all or nothing, as if it’s only possible when done at a dizzying speed or in one straight line,’ says Stijn. ‘That point of view is incomplete. There are many ways you can apply innovation. It’s not something reserved for big companies, and it’s not just about saving the day with big projects. It’s important to look at innovation in a realistic way, and to realize that there are many possibilities for companies or organizations to innovate. It’s not just that one, unique invention.’

'It’s important to look at innovation in a realistic way, and to realize that there are many possibilities for companies or organizations to innovate. It’s not just that one, unique invention.’ Stijn Ronsse

The network always wins

‘It is also important to keep your innovation engine running. The world is not getting any easier.’ Companies and organizations have to respond quickly to market shifts and new trends. But social transitions also play a role. How do companies and organizations determine what to focus on? ‘I believe exploration has an important role to play here. You have to actively look for what is going on in the market so that the right information reaches you. This is what they call “building innovation intelligence”. This is another way of working with innovation, and it offers absolute added value, because you have to be ready when a trend accelerates or when the market evolves …’ clarifies Stijn.

Transitions, for example, often take the shape of an S curve: they emerge, spread, attain full development, and finally level off. ‘It is difficult to estimate exactly when accelerations are coming and to convince people to invest in innovation right before that breakthrough. Fortunately, you can rely on your network to receive information. I don’t just mean your company network, but also your interactions with governments, knowledge institutions, etc. Especially for domains that don’t belong to your core business, it is important and especially cheaper to embed yourself in networks than to recruit all expertise internally.’

Costs versus benefits

As an economist, Stijn naturally also looks at innovation from a cost-benefit perspective. ‘In the short term, innovation is mainly overhead. You pay an initial cost for the possibility of earning innovation interests later on. You first have to invest before you know whether something will actually come out of it. When an afternoon spent reflecting does not yield anything, you assume that the costs are very high, while these moments can also be very rewarding. But it’s always conditional sense: the benefits only become clear in the long term. This is characteristic of innovation.’

Certainly in difficult times, innovation often comes to a very early end. ‘These are precisely the moments that you have to look for new possibilities and keep the long term in mind. Just look at the economic recovery and its clear focus on digitization and sustainability. If you miss that boat now, chances are you’ll have a problem in the foreseeable future. At the same time, it is understandable that companies have to make choices at difficult times. However, if you build innovation into your organization as a structural process that you work on continuously and in small steps, it doesn’t have to be a matter of choosing one thing over another at all.’

6.jpeg'If you build innovation into your organization as a structural process that you work on continuously and in small steps, it doesn’t have to be a matter of choosing one thing over another at all.’ Stijn Ronsse

Innovation needs storytellers

Companies are keen to present themselves as innovative, dynamic … but why do the innovation engine within their organizations grind to a halt? ‘In addition to many other pitfalls, you need a compelling story that tells why you are doing something, how you are going to do something, what your objectives and your timeline are … Many companies do not have a clear mission and strategy, or they fail to sufficiently inform their employees. This damages your support base. Every department within your organization should think about optimization and innovation, and their ideas should be passed on’ says Stijn.

‘Nowadays, mission-driven innovation is very popular, often with governments, who setting missions for the next ten to twenty years. This should also be possible at the company level! A vision of where they want to be in ten years. Many short-term or loose-looking projects can be framed within that broader story. It provides clarity to people on how things are progressing and on why they are carrying out this or that project. It also helps to expand the support base and to get everyone on the same page.’

‘The role of motivation should not be underestimated. You still often see that economic incentives create support more easily, and employees are often easier to convince to do something that produces results in the short term. The further you move away from economic incentives, the greater the importance of the bigger story. That tide is turning now because social incentives are gaining greater prominence and are also are becoming important economically. Think, for example, of sustainability, global warming, etc. Companies that go down this road are creating a first-mover advantage. The theory is that major shifts happen when companies, governments, technological developments, and citizens all evolve in the same direction. Now you see that happening: companies are increasingly moving in this direction, governments are too, the technology is becoming available, and consumers are incorporating it in their consumption behaviour. It stands to reason, then, that companies that now take on a pioneering role in tackling their CO2 emissions will be rewarded for this in the long term by increasing demand and will, therefore, benefit economically from this.'

'Innovation doesn't just happen. You have to roll up your sleeves, but there is a good chance that you will get benefits out of it.’ Stijn Ronsse

Along the way

Building innovation intelligence also requires critical self-reflection. ‘Even if you have taken a certain path as a company, it is important to continue to examine it critically and to encourage people in your organization to regularly consider whether the path being followed is still the best one. You do well to every now and then wonder if you haven't ended up in a lock-in, a situation where you do something because it’s what you have always done, while there is a better alternative available now. For this it can be interesting to not only have builders in your organization, but also demolishers, people who look at things from a different [read: critical] angle. This makes it possible to build something new. Demolishers are a useful and actually necessary voice for companies, but they are often looked on negatively.’

‘Innovation is a reflex that you have to adopt, because you are never going to reach a point where everything is running perfectly. Everything can be improved on. In fact, those moments when you think “now everything is running perfectly”, those are the most dangerous ones. I have included a quote from my grandmother in the beginning of the book: “Roast chickens don't fly into anyone's mouth.” That is the essence of innovation. It doesn't just happen. You have to roll up your sleeves, but there is a good chance that you will get benefits out of it.’