by Hans Meeske, CEO of Holland Innovative

The 7 steps to innovate successfully

Innovation is the oxygen of the economy. At the same time, it is a buzzword. Put the word “innovative” in front of (or behind) another word and immediately you are hip, modern and relevant. Unfortunately, I see in practice that few companies understand what innovation really means. It goes much further than just bringing “something new” to the market.

Innovation is a mindset, a way of thinking and doing. And that can be learned.

In the more than 25 years that I have been active in business, I have had the pleasure and privilege to have been able to play in the Champions League of innovation, namely in the Brainport region of Eindhoven, home to companies such as Philips, ASML, VDL and TFS. In this sector, innovation is not a buzzword, but a direct necessity.

Below I share 7 lessons about innovation that I have learned through trial and error.

1. Step out of your comfort zone

As Einstein said, we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Successful innovation requires being challenged to think and act creatively. No matter how safe and familiar your comfort zone feels, it is very beneficial to step out from time to time.

I regularly encourage my employees to do things that are not within their job description. For example, I ask a project manager to organize a risk management workshop. The reaction often is: but I have never done that before. However, if they do jump into the deep end, it usually turns out fine.

If I have learned one thing, it is that people can do much more than they think. Give them that push or just dare to jump. The results: more self-confidence, new insights and an out-of-the-box thinking and working mentality.

2. Make creative use of your network

The days when innovations took place in lonely attic rooms are far behind us. Innovation means working together. That is why your network is one of your most important assets. A network is like a treasure chest full of opportunities and possibilities, but the trick is to see them and then act on them.

A few years ago, a LinkedIn connection of mine posted an article in which he announced that he was the innovation manager of a new Data Science Institute. I had wanted to get involved in Data Science for a while and sent a message back. That simple message has led to the setting up of a Data Science program for the industry, a business trip to a top Canadian university and the establishment of a Data Science professor in the company.

Innovation is always about people. My own innovation mantra reads: meet, share, connect.

3. Build an ecosystem

Once you have mastered creative networking, you are ready for the next step: building an innovation ecosystem. This is a group of like-minded companies and entrepreneurs that are connected to market services, products and/or projects that generate profit for all stakeholders.

At Holland Innovative we are currently working with the Johan Cruyff Arena on optimizing the turf through sensors, data science models and innovative grass management. The objective is to adapt the grass to the performance of the footballers, so that we can determine exactly how fast the ball rolls over the pitch, for example.

This information is interesting not only for football clubs, but also for shoe manufacturers, who can develop special footwear for certain types of grass, and for insurance brokers, as smart grass management can prevent injuries. In short, we realized that we were sitting on a gold mine with our high-tech grass management.

We decided to develop an ecosystem (we call it an innovation platform) and seek partners, and together develop new technologies and products and share the costs. Through my network, I was able to use an innovation platform model of a business relationship. This means that I can eventually also involve that relationship in the budding ecosystem. A real win-win.

4. Bring private and business together

Instead of always keeping business and private life strictly separate, they can actually reinforce each other. You spend half the time awake in the office, so why not work on your personal development while being there? Your private life will also receive a benefit.

When one of my employees was stressed by a heavy project, I gave him the opportunity to join a management training where he learned breathing exercises. Not only did he get his stress under control, but he also started asking questions about his fatherhood, and how he wanted his children to look at him. A wonderful example of how his business problem affected his private life in a deep and meaningful way.

Thinking along and giving space to the development of your colleagues and employees is not only an important pillar of successful innovation. It has a tremendous impact on their personal development and situation at home, and this healthy well-being is key for balance in all life areas.

5. Do something selfless

A few weeks ago I sat down with a group of Brabant monks who had developed a beautifully sustainable and circular model for their brewery. Although I was not paid a cent for my advice, I was bubbling with energy afterward.

Innovative ideas are born from passion. Making money from it comes later. For example, I’d rather enjoy my work than drive an expensive car.

When you are innovating, your eyes twinkle with lights, not with euro signs.

6. Develop your social skills

According to professor Henk Volberda, innovation is only 30 percent determined by technical breakthroughs. The other 70 percent is accounted for by meeting, connecting and collaborating, or in other words, social skills. I fully agree with him. Especially in the high tech sector where high tech developments are a priority, social skills become sometimes a neglected child.

I work closely with voice coach Robin van Beek, who comes from the entertainment industry. He helps my people develop their social skills, so that they feel confident, learn to communicate better and easily present an idea in front of a group.

Help your technical staff with their social skills, so they know how to land their brilliant ‘moonshots’ back on Earth.

7. Have an eye for diversity

As an ambassador for Female Tech Heroes, I was invited to a dinner at the beginning of this year. Two men and I were the only men present in an event with a hundred women. For the first time, I experienced what it feels like to be in a minority as a man. That was an eye-opener. I realized what women in the high tech world are constantly experiencing.

Social skills, one of the most essential ingredients of successful innovation (see point 6), are often more developed in women than in men. So ensure a healthy mix in your organization.

Diversity is essential for innovation. Both in terms of the male-female ratio, as well as in terms of ethnicity, culture and background. You need all those different angles to approach and solve problems and issues.

If you follow these 7 steps, I can assure you that innovation is not a buzzword, but becomes a daily practice. If you would like to have an in-depth brainstorm session, do not hesitate to contact me via LinkedIn or even better, give me a call.

Hans Meeske
CEO of Holland Innovative