Wim Bens

Wim Bens is managing partner at Bens & Partners.

22 May 2020

I’ve been involved in many high-tech innovation cases, at different stages and in different roles. In some cases, I was present when the idea was still on the drawing board, in others when project proposals or subsidy applications were being drafted, and in yet others when the program, project, startup or spinoff was getting off the ground. I’ve seen successes, but unfortunately, in my experience only a limited amount of innovative ideas or technical inventions actually make it – by which I mean that controlled and cost-effective production is possible, customers pay for the product, money is earned, profit is made and (new) jobs are created.

You’d be surprised how many developers of great new technologies either have no plan at all, or if they do, a poor one. Having a plan doesn’t guarantee that there’s a business case (economic or social) underneath. Often, this is the kind of plan in which the technology or the invention dominates, and the rest is forgotten or underexposed.

Many inventors seem to think: my technology is superior and everybody wants it. They often get disappointed. Sometimes the essential competencies and partnerships, not only for engineering and production but also for after-sales services, maintenance, repair and recycling, aren’t properly considered. People sometimes tend to think they can do everything themselves.

Many factors determine the outcome, and if you can’t tick them all off, failure of technological innovation projects is a very real danger. On the other hand, failure every now and again isn’t all bad. However painful, it’s usually extremely instructive to evaluate and study a case or a project that failed. Take some time to do so! Those who had a part in it will for sure do better next time, so definitely don’t write these people off and don’t fire them! What they’ve learned needs to be put into practice in the next project. In other words, failure needs to be treated as a normal part of the innovation game. I would even go as far as including it in business cases. Eventually, the rewards will be huge.

There are many checklists available that sum up the elements determining success. These lists come in all shapes and sizes but generally contain the elements that need to be included in a sound project or business plan. Read one or two of these list, and you won’t ever again question why you actually need those plans. It takes time and energy, but you’ll find out, it will be worthwhile in the end.

However, an organization-wide, well-communicated and thorough plan is the basis for success – still no guarantee, but if you know how to tick off all the elements and communicate them properly in your team and in your project, you do have a reasonable chance for success. Make sure you can answer all “what if” questions – if you can’t, work on solutions, mitigating measures and necessary answers. Gather the necessary insights or organize help, otherwise failure will be lurking in the shadows.

If you find all this too much and too complex, I’d advise to at the very least focus on the outside-in aspect of the innovation project: gauge the market and competition and consider, or even better, involve the customer who’ll soon have to pay, and have an eye for the distinctive value (proposition) that you’re going to add. Don’t simply focus on the idea, the invention or the new technology – those are the worst to take as a starting point. It’s all about the product-market combination.

Technological inventions are not the outcome but the starting point. It takes a lot of steps and learning to get there. Success usually doesn’t come naturally; you really need to possess the right talents. Open innovation and co-creation may seem to be adding even more complexity and additional challenges, but take my advice: on your own you can go faster, but together you can go further.