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Why Serial Innovators Matter

Ben Franklin

Image: Photo taken by Black Elephant Blog author.

A trip to the historic landmarks of Philadelphia reminds one why serial innovators matter.  The list of Ben Franklin’s (January 17, 1706 – April 17, 1790) accomplishments alone testifies to this: how one person could pioneer so many new initiatives in one lifetime is amazing!  (According to Wikipedia, Franklin was a polymath, a person whose areas of expertise span many domains.) But it took commitment, courage, curiosity, collegiality, and a large team composed of diverse skills, perspectives, experiences, and relationships to forge a Declaration of Independence and a new Constitution, as well as a new flag, for a new country.  These were just a few of the innovations occurring in Philadelphia in the late 18th century.  Those involved took enormous risks.

Unforgettably well-informed and  eloquent guides (who clearly cared about what they were doing) from the U.S. National Park Service remind visitors to Independence Hall that the leaders who signed those founding documents could not know ahead of time if their efforts would succeed. We tend to forget, said the guides, the risks they were taking because we have the benefit of hindsight.  But, at the time, Ben Franklin famously said, “If we don’t hang together, we will hang separately.”  It was definitely not business-as-usual.

But not all of the otherwise clearly remarkable founders of the United States were “serial” innovators, as exceptional as they each probably were as individuals.  So, what is a “serial innovator,” why do serial innovators matter, and what kinds of conditions enable them to succeed?  Would Ben Franklin have been as productive as an employee making his way up through the ranks of a modern multinational corporation or public sector institution today?  What would it be like to be the manager of Ben Franklin?

Fortunately, many of these questions are addressed directly or indirectly in the careful research presented in the book, Serial Innovators:  How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms by Abbie Griffin, Raymond Price, and Bruce A. Vojak (Stanford Business Books, 2012).   Griffin holds a Chair in Marketing at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business; Price holds a Chair of Human Behavior in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the Co-Director of the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education; and Vojak is Associate Dean for Administration in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Adjunct Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering.

The authors interviewed over fifty serial innovators (providing examples and case studies from these interviews) and a larger number of their coworkers, managers, and human resource managers to develop their research findings.  The organizations studied for this research were firms with substantial R&D programs, like Proctor & Gamble.

This book provides some answers and guidelines for organizations, managers, and “serial innovators” that would be useful anywhere where traditional approaches might not be sustainable or standard ways of doing things may no longer meet new requirements. According to the authors, such serial innovators exist in many organizations–although in small overall numbers–and have an impact “that greatly exceeds the frequency with which they appear.” Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard/Agilent, Proctor&Gamble and Alberto-Culver have made hundreds of millions of dollars of profit from the products that four serial innovators named in this book have invented and commercialized.

Managing these innovators requires special skills, conclude the authors. Because “the Serial Innovator’s interpretations usually contradict how the majority view the same data, paradigm changes are more challenging and more likely to produce significant conflict in the organization,” write the authors.

According to the authors, serial innovators are “individuals who have conceived ideas that solve important problems for people and organizations, have developed those ideas into breakthrough new products and services, inventing new technologies to do so as needed, and then have guided those products and services through the corporation’s commercialization processes and into the market.”

Serial innovators are important to corporations because “they can generate millions of dollars of revenue” and their products frequently “change the lives of millions of people for the better.”  While some serial innovators, such as those in the “creative arts” (like Paul McCartney, say the authors), innovate independently or with a friend, the focus of this book is on serial innovators who work in large mature firms.

  • Different types of innovation include:  innovating to support the ongoing business; moving firms into new competitive space; and creating breakthrough innovation.
  • Different roles of innovators require different and complementary skill sets; inventors, champions, and implementers need to have different degrees of technical savvy, market insight, “political” savvy, and project facilitation knowledge.

One of the defining personality characteristics of serial innovators is that they are “systems thinkers,” according to the authors.  “For them, the whole is much more than just the sum of the parts.”  They tend as well to have a blended perspective that is both “business-oriented and idealistic.”  They have a high motivation to create, and “it is a strong and interacting combination of external and internal forces that motivates” them.

Serial innovators’ processes are:  1) highly-dynamic across domains; 2) nonlinear, with much more overlap, iteration, and feedback “than is found in a firm’s typical linear product development process”; and 3) “are more far-reaching” than typical processes.  These processes are the subject of close study by the authors who share the results of their research in several chapters in the book, placing it within the context of mainstream technological innovation and personnel management issues.

In the “nature” versus “nurture” debate, the authors found that “the characteristics associated with personality are those that align most closely with nature.”  The qualities of serial innovators tend to be “inherent rather than cultivated.”   These include:

Curiosity:   These type of innovators “naturally need to understand ‘why.'”  They have a broad range of interests and an ability to dive deeply into subjects when their interest is piqued, write the authors.

Intuition:   They have “an informed or expert understanding of something based on experience, deep knowledge in a domain, and a keen sense of ‘what might happen'”, write the authors. This intuition enables the innovators to develop “hunches about what ideas to pursue.”

Creativity:  Serial innovators  “generate many ideas and [can] contribute from different viewpoints or domains.”  They tend to “reframe” or redefine the problem.  Almost every Serial Innovator the authors interviewed “did some type of reframing to approach a problem from a new angle, which enabled them to create an unconventional solution.

Systems thinking:  Serial innovators “focus on ‘making sense’ of complex situations,” write the authors.  They also are invested in the “greater good,” typically trying the balance the needs of all interested parties.

These serial innovators truly value the contributions others can make and their “positive perspectives about people enable [them] to get others to join them on challenging, difficult projects,” write the authors.

The nature of breakthrough innovation “requires a long-term perspective,” write the authors.  Those who care about staying ahead in a topsy-turvy world of change will want to read this book for its well-researched tips on what it takes to manage a serial innovator in an established organization. As one might expect, it isn’t easy for anyone, not least the serial innovators themselves.

Future posts on this blog will return to these issues as this book’s findings implicitly raise important questions about other endeavors in a world of nonlinear systems.

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