Innovation is self-evident

(08-05-2020) UGent spin-off The Forge prepares your company for tomorrow’s challenges

To resolutely choose to stand on one’s own two feet, and to start a company from scratch in spite of having an eager investor wanting to jump on board. There are probably few entrepreneurs who would turn down such an opportunity. Not so Michael Van Damme and Geert De Wael of Ghent university spin-off The Forge. ‘You would miss out on part of the journey of entrepreneurship’, says Michael enthusiastically. ‘Of course, it forces you to postpone some plans, such as buying a house, but you learn so much along the way that the “sacrifices” are certainly worth it.’


What, then, is the most important lesson learned on this whole entrepreneurial journey? ‘Especially important is realising that everything does not immediately have to run at 100 per cent. We started in September 2014, which is when I had concluded my research and finally took the step of creating our company, The Forge. But we only actually established our spin-off for real in November 2015. We took a year to try out things, to do testing, without immediately going external. This turned out to be enormously helpful. I think every entrepreneur would do well to not rush things, to grant themselves some time. Starting a company is always going to be a big leap, but you can prepare yourself for it mentally.’


'I think every entrepreneur would do well to not rush things, to grant themselves some time. Starting a company is always going to be a big leap, but you can prepare yourself for it mentally.’


From loose idea to company

Entrepreneurship has always run through Michael’s veins. During his master studies, he and his brother created a real beer-mat game. It wasn’t just some random idea they came up with one blue Monday (night). They made a professional prototype and even sold it to a major Belgian beer brewer. Not bad for a first commercial challenge! ‘It was fun to do and it made us our first money.’


‘After completing my psychology studies I went to work for the Centre for Development of Creative Thinking (COCD), an umbrella organisation for brainstorm facilitators. A Baekeland mandate with Professor Frederik Anseel enabled me to conduct more scientific research surrounding creativity and innovation. The problem with brainstorming is often selecting the right ideas and then applying them effectively. I wanted to study the literature and do experimental research in companies in order to show the things that do work. You see, science is often absent in the field of creativity. I wanted to demonstrate that there are scientifically based methods and that they do work well in practice. But for me, as a “student”, it wasn’t always easy to impart these insights to seasoned consultants who had been applying other things in their own practices for years.’


During all of this, Michael never lost sight of the plan his brother and he had to start a company together. ‘Not only are we very compatible—he is very orientated towards product development while I, as a psychologist, am more focused on creative thinking—but running a one-man business is not really my thing. I’m rather chaotic, so I needed someone more conscientious and methodical, someone with more strategic insight ... We didn’t have any concrete idea, so we each went our own way. A few years later my brother set up a business developing medical products, which I personally didn’t find very appealing. And in the meantime I had met Geert. In 2002 I took my first “Improvisation” course, and Geert was then an instructor. One thing led to another. We got to know each other, worked together on small projects and events in our free time, and found that things clicked quite well between us. His profile is also totally different from mine. He’s an economist with a lot of management experience in the world of entertainment, and we complemented each other very well. I wanted to implement my knowledge of innovation and creativity in companies, and he had the economic expertise to strategically expand our company. And so The Forge was born.’


Casting the iron while it is hot

The Forge’s core theme is innovation and entrepreneurship. ‘What we most want is to make companies think critically about innovation. Not because it’s now a trend, but because we’ve been doing this for several years. These days “innovation” has even become a hollow term, a mere item that needs to be crossed off a to-do list. Sadly, this innovation is only rarely implemented because it is viewed as a one-time thing, a brainstorm day, a team-building event where innovation is simply broached ... But after that, nothing more is done with it, and that’s a mistake because it is critically important to take these initial ideas and work with them as a team and to communicate about them with the rest of the organisation. Otherwise it just doesn't live and, consequently, has no impact.’


Evidence-based work is the foundation of The Forge’s method. ‘Our insights are based on scientific knowledge that has proven its effectiveness in practice. This may sound familiar today, but five years ago, when we founded The Forge, we really had to defend this work method. It’s not a ready-made model at all, however; it doesn’t work like that, unfortunately, and we don’t believe in that, either. You can unleash as many management models on your company as you like, but if you don't understand the underlying mechanisms and can't adapt them to your company's unique character and context, they won’t make any difference. You’re working with people. Even if you try to get them to follow procedures as rationally as possible, you’ll only create real change when they communicate well with each other as a team. Innovation is a mentality or a reflex that you have to adopt. And it involves a number of skills. That’s what the name The Forge refers to: stoking the fire to create change, to forge it as it were, and of course to keep it going so as to implement innovation in your company in a sustainable way.’


'Innovation is a mentality or a reflex that you have to adopt.'


Practice what you preach

‘In order to make the biggest possible impact, we not only use lectures but also an innovation game we’ve created ourselves. Each team starts a fictional company and, playing the role of management, is tasked with making their company as innovative as possible. The game uses the “reward vs. recognition” principle. There are four rounds, each with three multiple-choice questions. At every stage there is only one option that has a big impact according to the scientific literature. If they choose the right option, they can buy extensions for their company, and these too have options that are good and less good. This gives the participants a playful opportunity to gain insight into how innovation works, how they can stimulate it ... so that they can subsequently apply this more easily in their own organisations. Of course, this is just a first step.’


‘We also assess the innovation climate in companies. After they’ve completed an online survey we analyse a number of factors that can stimulate innovation output. Companies typically find this very confrontational because they assume they already are innovative. Companies like to brag about being innovative, but it’s not as evident as it looks. A company’s score on our test provides it a golden opportunity to learn, to discuss matters ... We also guide organisations in implementing a real culture of innovation. Here we look especially at how teams collaborate, how they communicate. People give a lot of weight to personality tests because they feel like they’re learning something. At the same time, however, it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy because these tests actually only speak of potential. Personality is often overrated. It is much more interesting to examine the dynamics at team level. Based on our analysis of the team's cooperation, we propose evidence-based techniques and tools, and we implement them to improve the innovation process and team performance. This completes the circle.’


‘Of course we also want to keep challenging and reinventing ourselves. By training other people and companies to spread our knowledge, we not only generate more breathing space for ourselves and our company, but we also create a much bigger impact. We use this new-found “free time” to devise and roll out new initiatives. For example, we organise comedy workshops for entrepreneurs who feel like challenging themselves, we develop games, we hold our own events for businesspeople ... But always based on our own philosophy and background. Forty Two, for instance, is a sort of Tomorrowland for entrepreneurs, while The Bright Club helps scientists improve their communication by teaching them comedy techniques ...’ Innovation has never looked so simple thanks to The Forge.


Do you also have the ambition to start-up a spin-off based on your academic research? Learn more about the Ghent University Venture Track!