Daring innovation: Navigating uncertainty, game-changing frameworks, and resilience

Simone van Neerven
Article by: simone van neerven
Daring innovation: Navigating uncertainty, game-changing frameworks, and resilience

People say I am a maverick. I am creative and curious, quite impatient too. And I love to color outside the lines, to rebel. No wonder my company is called reBel.la.


When I joined THNK’s Executive Leadership Program in September 2016, I worked at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines where I was able to create my own job for the fifth time. But, after working for many years in a corporate environment, things started to itch. I became allergic to the “it cannot be done” mindset. I had been in charge of bottom-up innovation, helping teams make their ideas happen. Although we achieved quite a lot, many good – and often simple – ideas were a struggle to realize. I could feel everyone’s frustration and disappointment.


When I entered the program, I felt pretty lost. I knew things had to change, but I had no clue what or how.

Head in the clouds, feet on the ground

Driving innovation in a corporate environment is one of the toughest things to do. It requires a personalized and contextualized approach, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution – but there are some frameworks that come in extremely handy and that can be applied in many different settings. Sometimes it requires creativity to change current theoretical frameworks to ones that can be easily applied in practice.

One of my key takeaways from my previous roles is that disengaged employees are the worst thing for a company because you miss out on tapping into great talent within the organization, losing the opportunity to build a solid foundation for innovation. I know now to keep on pushing for initiatives that boost intrapreneurship, even if they are not aligned with corporate policies.

To drive innovation in a corporate setting, you have to believe in your North Star, be bold and brave, and keep pushing – and you will not be making friends all the time.

A year after THNK, inspired and supported by my classmates, I took a leap of faith, quit my job, and founded my company. I headed off to Barcelona to level-up innovation at the Spanish budget airline, Vueling. Without a clear idea on how to do that, I still felt confident I could pull it off – not only because of all the tools I mastered, but also because of the great support of the THNK network. Honestly, I did not overthink my decision, which is something I used to do a lot. THNK taught me to navigate uncertainty.

The three horizons is a game changer

At THNK, I also learned about the three horizons. I combined it with the four key business pillars to create a matrix. This matrix now visualized our innovation portfolio. Horizon 1 is where we have our feet on the ground, while Horizon 3 is where we have our heads in the clouds. I see a lot of companies where the innovation team is either working on Horizon 1 or Horizon 2 and 3.

the three horizons

the three horizons-innovation

It turns out to be pretty powerful to connect the horizons. With the help of human-centered design and design thinking techniques, we are able to bridge the horizons.

We ask ourselves questions like, “What will it look like when you go to the airport five years from now?” and then we create a vision of that. Next, we identify all the initiatives that need to be done to reach that vision and we put those in our backlog. For each initiative, we search for a solution, either through a startup, a larger corporate, or my team develops it themselves.

THNKer Simone leads innovation at Vueling. Watch the video to learn more about the airline’s innovation lab.

Resilience, perseverance, and a little bit of crazy

Working as a “Dutchie” in a Latino culture is not always easy. It is less structured than I am used to and I can be pretty direct at times, which is not always appreciated or understood. Although I have worked and lived abroad before, I forgot the extra challenge that comes with that. But technology helps to overcome the language barrier and I encourage my team to speak up when something is bothering them. I have really had to work on on building my resilient leadership to work more flexibly through these trials.

I put a lot of effort in casting the right team. To me, personality is much more important than skillset. My teammates should be able to fall in love with a problem, not a solution. That way, they will keep on trying new things until the problem is really solved. I also strive for diversity in my teams, whether in age, nationality, gender, or interests. With the right people on board, miracles happen.

My driver has always been to do cool things, to make a great impact, and to work with fun people who can get stuff done. When people say it cannot be done, I am devoted to showing how it can be done. I love to work with people who are a bit crazy – maybe because I’m a bit crazy myself.

Simone is one of many inspiring leaders who participated in the THNK Executive Leadership Program.

To champion innovation in your own organization, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.