Book Review: “No-excuses Innovation” by Bruce Vojak and Walter Herbst

Book Review: “No-excuses Innovation” by Bruce Vojak and Walter Herbst

If you are a young patent attorney, then I have written the following book review for you. You are probably an engineer or scientist who has somehow ended up in intellectual property (IP). And you are faced with real innovation for the first time in your life. You don’t know what book to read about innovation. When you search for  the keyword “innovation” on Amazon, you get “1-48 of over 100,000 results for ‘innovation'” as a result.

If you are going to read only one book on innovation, it should be “No-Excuse Innovation”. And if the “No-Excuse Innovation” book resonates with you, which means that you have the seed of an innovator in you, then the long bibliography and the extensive notes and references at the end of the book will be a guide for your next steps. A long glossary of innovation terms and a comprehensive index complete this fine tome.

How this book differs from others in the field

“No-Excuse Innovation” is a highly strategic book, and that makes it different from most of the “success literature” that is all about planning and improvement.

The book begins with what would be a disaster for most design engineers: Novus, a large car manufacturer, asks Wes-Tech, an SMME (Small or Medium-sized Mature Enterprise) in the automation industry, to build part of an automated assembly line, but without providing specific requirements. Instead, Novus provided only estimates and problems to solve for many of their needs. This is very different from what we engineers are trained to do. And only those suppliers willing to play by the new Novus business model are added to the list of accredited Novus suppliers.

Needless to say, Wes-Tech succeeded, and the book says that

… Wes-Tech renewed itself and its industry. It established itself as a new service paradigm provider to  new market – knowledgeable in how to price, specify, and deliver on such projects, accepting and embracing volatility, complexity, and ambiguity rather than dreading and hiding from them.

The book puts this story into a strategic picture by applying the Wes-Tech example to one of the most important strategic diagrams in innovation, the “S-curve,” and the three strategic options available to SMMEs as they move toward maturity. Wes-Tech has clearly taken the “renew” path and has been successful in doing so.

This is one of the many strategic insights you will gain from reading “No-excuse Innovation”, and it is what makes this book so valuable. The entirety of Chapter 6 of this book is about the importance of having a simple strategic perspective to ensure that you focus innovation on the most impactful opportunities. This chapter 6 not only explains how to develop an innovation strategy based on the book “Ten Types of Innovation” by Keeley et al., but the authors also explain how an SME can put this into practice without overthinking and overdoing it.

The “No-excuse Innovation” book makes a very reasonable distinction between the types of companies (large mature, SMEs, startups) and the methods/process tools they use to innovate. It addresses only the SMMEs, which is unheard of. Most books that even attempt to address SMMEs do so by considering family businesses or other such subdivisions, or only consider a particular approach like “open innovation”, but after reading the “No Excuse Innovation” book, I find this unnecessary.

Another novelty is that “No-Excuse Innovation” is the only book that addresses the question of “why innovate?” This is critical because there is often little support for innovation investment in SMMEs, as many are manufacturing companies trying to squeeze out small margins rather than investing in renewal.

How this book is the same as most in the field

What follows after the introductory chapter is a curated collection of innovation tactics culled from what feels like 100,000 books on innovation. The authors have spent their entire professional lives in the field of innovation, and they present the best insights they have gained during that time.

Design Thinking

An example of this is Chapter 2 of the book, which is all about the positive effects of using the Design Thinking approach to improve the likelihood of successful innovation investments in the context of an SMME. There are many other tactical approaches to fostering innovation, such as TRIZ and Agile methods, but Design Thinking is certainly a good place to start. In the future, I will refer people to chapter 2 of the book “No-excuse Innovation” when asked for further literature on how to apply the Design Thinking methodology, together with Jeff Gothel’s booklet “Lean vs. Agile vs. Design Thinking”.

Emotional Design

Chapter 3 introduces the reader to the “emotional design” school of thought, which gives an extra boost to the results of Design Thinking. Again, this is just one of many ways to implement innovation, but for most consumer products, it is an important one. The authors explain why.

Innovation tools and processes

Most readers will enjoy Chapter 4 the most because this is where the rubber hits the road. The book introduces a variety of tools and processes that are available for managing innovation just like any other business investment. SMMEs have a hard time with this because most of the available innovation process tools were developed for use by larger and mature companies, while startups do this mostly on an ad hoc basis.

I wish I had had this chapter 4 when I wrote my book “The 4×4 Innovation Strategy” (free download here:×4-innovation-strategy) for startup founders, it would have given me a much better basis for what I was venturing into. Keywords are “Phase-gate”, “Lean Innovation”, “Open Innovation”, “Ansoff Matrix”, “BCG Matrix”, “White Space Matrix”, “Economies of Scope (Diversification) Strategy Map” and “Product and Technology Roadmaps”.

What I find refreshing are the candid remarks the authors sprinkle throughout their books, such as the last sentence of Chapter 4:

Innovation processes and tools are insufficient in themselves to guarantee success. As we discuss in Chapter 5, they require a skilled innovator to bring them to life.

And if you start to read Chapter 5, you will find that this is an echo of the earlier book, “Serial Innovators” (click here for a review), which was co-authored by one of the authors of the “No-excuses Innovation” book.

Serial Innovators

This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand more about what human material is needed to bring non-incremental innovation into practice, while most incremental innovation can be done successfully by regular (uncreative) developers. The chapter summarizes the four essential personality features of serial innovators as the way

  • how they engage with problems,
  • how they engage with projects.
  • how they engage with business, and
  • how they engage with people.

And there is another refreshing note from the authors:

Note that this is the complete set of these distinctive characteristics that make Serial Innovators so powerful. The absence of one or more reduces the aspiring Serial Innovator’s effectiveness as they will be unable to affect the type of change necessary for the company to succeed at renewal.

Chapter 5 also provides valuable information on how to manage these serial innovators and how to build a successful team around them.

How someone can use this information productively

Chapter 7 of the book “No-excuses Innovation” shows you how to put all this information together. If you ask me, this is where you can start reading the book because it is an insightful story about how a real company “gets it” when it comes to innovation that leads to renewal.

What I would also like to mention is chapter 8 of the book, which is a replay of chapter 8 of the book “The Serial Innovator“. It comes with different action items for different groups of readers, including people who are skilled and inclined to innovate. What a great way to end a book!

Significant gaps

If I could complain to the authors of the “No-excuses Innovation” book, it would be that they have said nothing about Intellectual Property (IP) and nothing about Freedom-to-Operate (FTO) and how these two areas intertwine with the other two areas of innovation “R&D” and “Market Response Testing” that are covered in their book. It is especially important for SMMEs to build only what they can legally sell, and from my own experience as a patent attorney who sees a lot of inventions, this is the number one killer of non-incremental innovation. And IP comes with the idea of – once found – protecting your “Blue Ocean” from becoming a “Red Ocean” by keeping out the competing sharks, in line with the ideas promoted in the book “Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne (book review here).


This book is a must-read if you are interested in innovation, especially if you own or work with an SMME.

I wish there was a German version of “No-excuses Innovation” because the teachings of the book are what the German “Mittelstand” needs most in the difficult times to come.


Martin “non-incremental” Schweiger

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