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How organisations can create a breakthrough innovation capability by Denis Turmel & Gijs Van Wulfen

ISPIM members: Denis Turmel is European Marketing Manager of Huntsman Polyurethanes, and Gijs Van Wulfen is the Founder of the FORTH innovation method

Creating a breakthrough innovation capability - The innovation journey at Huntsman


In 2017, the Elastomers Business Unit of Huntsman Polyurethanes decided to increase the number of breakthrough innovations to balance its project portfolio. The goal was twofold: to create sustainable high-value businesses, as well as to deploy an innovation and learning culture.


Huntsman assessed seven front-end innovation service providers and chose the FORTH innovation method for the following reasons:

  1. It is a fixed-duration method: large corporations are often nervous about never-ending innovation projects, but FORTH delivers business cases ready to enter the development funnel after six months.

  2. It is clear and easily communicated: five logical steps and 15 workshops with well-defined deliverables.

  3. It provides breakthrough innovation opportunities: not only for products, but also for services, processes, business models etc.

  4. It works across cultures, which is critical for a global corporation like Huntsman. It is like “organized chaos”: creative cultures like its structure, whilst more conservative cultures like its chaos.

  5. FORTH significantly strengthens the innovation culture: it includes participants from all functions who become ambassadors for the innovation culture. It emphasizes that innovation is not the sole responsibility of the technical community.

  6. Last but not least, participants learn by doing: FORTH team includes participants who do not have an innovation background. FORTH includes training to build skills during the process, such as listening and questioning skills.


What is the FORTH innovation methodology?

FORTH is an acronym for the five-step process:

  1. Full Steam Ahead: scope innovation assignment, select team and plan expedition.

  2. Observe & Learn: gather new insights by exploring innovation opportunities and uncovering customer frictions.

  3. Raise Ideas: generate ideas and convert the best ones as idea direction, which collectively are improved and transformed into concepts with a clear customer friction.

  4. Test Ideas: improve concepts by testing them directly with the market.

  5. Homecoming: convert the best concepts into business cases.

It takes more than brainstorming to get breakthrough ideas. Observe & Learn, the second step in FORTH mandates that team members speak to customers all along the value chain about innovation opportunities and frictions. Simply put, there are no novel ideas without fresh insight.


Softer components are key to success at the front-end of innovation


One must pick the right time, that is when there is a sense of urgency, but this is not enough. Broad buy-in is paramount, thus it is critical to gain top leadership approval (VP and Director level). Top leaders, including VPs, must participate to the key workshops to avoid “not-invented here” syndrome. Visionary leadership is fundamental to allow team members to devote 20% of their time to innovation. A diverse team is essential with diversity in functions, age, personalities, mindsets, as several workshops make use of collective intelligence to comprehend issues from 360 degrees.


Huntsman tuned FORTH to fit its global organization


After six months and eight innovation events, mobilizing a team from seven different countries over three continents, the FORTH team delivered six businesses cases. Four of these were selected by the Governance Board to be pursued.


Further roll-outs


Following this successful pilot, Huntsman has decided to replicate FORTH in APAC in 2019 and in the USA within two years. The FORTH innovation method has become Huntsman’s front-end-innovation method to create market-validated opportunities and is now an integral part of its strategy process.


Drawings by Lex Dirkse, Standup Cartoonist