What it Takes to be a Serial Innovator

In an intriguing new book, researchers Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price and Bruce A. Vojak discuss the characteristics of people who successfully develop significant innovations in established companies.

It’s not easy to develop a breakthrough innovation in an established company and bring it to market successfully — and even more challenging to do so more than once. In their new book, Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, May 2012), Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price and Bruce A. Vojak describe several years of research they have conducted about a type of employee who can do just that.

Griffin is the Royal L. Garff Presidential Chair in Marketing at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and a former editor of the Journal of Product Innovation Management. Price is the William H. Severns Chair of Human Behavior in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Vojak is associate dean for administration in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as well as an adjunct professor there.

Serial innovators, whom the authors define as people who develop and bring to market at least two successful breakthrough products in an established company, are not all that common. Griffin, Price and Vojak estimate that they represent anywhere from one in 50 members of an R&D and engineering staff at a smaller organization to one in 200 at a larger organization — and perhaps as few as one in 500 at most Fortune 200 companies.

From the authors’ descriptions of the typical characteristics of serial innovators, it’s clear why serial innovators are fairly rare: They possess an unusual combination of skills. Typical serial innovators have a track record of technical excellence (which helps them gain freedom to innovate within their organizations) and a strong focus on solving important problems for customers (which helps them choose commercially relevant problems to tackle). They also have a willingness and ability to “cross the bridge,” as the authors put it, from merely inventing a good solution to taking on the organizational politics required to convince others in the company of the value of their innovation.

Characteristics of serial innovators

Serial innovators’ additional characteristics include curiosity and systems thinking. As the authors explain, “systems thinking enables Serial Innovators to integrate disparate data and information. Curiosity drives them to seek the dots for a puzzle, whereas systems thinking looks for patterns that help creatively connect the dots in logical and powerful ways.”

What makes serial innovators different

The chapter titled “The Processes by Which Serial Innovators Innovate” is one of the most interesting sections of the book. Whereas formal product development processes in large companies tend to have linear stages, the authors say, “Serial Innovators approach product development nonlinearly,” and their approach involves “much more overlap, iteration and feedback” between stages than is typical of more formal new product development processes. For example, a serial innovator may go back and forth between aspects of developing the product and creating market acceptance for it, or between understanding the problem and inventing and validating solutions to it.

Serial innovators also invest a lot of time in the very front end of innovation — in identifying an important problem and understanding it from multiple perspectives. This can be a problem in impatient, results-driven business cultures, because while serial innovators are in this phase, the authors observe that it may be “many months… before they have a concept that is developed sufficiently to enter the firm’s formal NPD [new product development] process. During that time, they can appear highly unproductive, as little physical output may be generated.”

More generally, serial innovators can be at odds with the conventional processes in their organizations. The innovations themselves compete with the company’s existing products for resources, and, instead of working with management-assigned teams, serial innovators often prefer to enlist simpatico colleagues as volunteers. Serial innovators also like doing their own market research; in particular, they want to spend time with customers and ask a lot of “why” questions to understand customers’ needs.

The hard life of the serial innovator

Griffin, Price and Vojak acknowledge that life in established organizations is not always easy for serial innovators — or for the people who manage them. The book contains some fascinating anecdotes about serial innovators. Chuck House, who developed a number of new products for Hewlett-Packard, was awarded a “Medal of Defiance” by Hewlett-Packard’s then-president, the authors write, “as a reminder to all the firm that breaking the rules can be associated with great reward.”

They also tell the story of Adam Gudat at Caterpillar, who started creating GPS navigation systems for farm equipment. Combining that with technologies such as satellite mapping and sensors has yielded “precision farming” techniques that allow farmers to adapt to conditions field by field. Another serial innovator described in the book, Tom Osborn, was at one point in danger of losing his job at Procter & Gamble while he advocated for a new model of feminine sanitary pad different from the company’s existing successful products at the time. Osborn’s approach eventually made it to market — and delivered substantial profits to P&G.

Making your organization more hospitable to serial innovators

The authors include practical recommendations for serial innovators and aspiring serial innovators, for the managers who work with them — and for HR professionals who may find the serial innovators in their companies challenging. Ironically, the authors report that a number of the serial innovators they interviewed thought that if they were just starting out today, their companies would not hire them. That is a troubling sign for businesses. But if you’d like to make your organization more hospitable to serial innovators — or if you or someone you know aspires to be a serial innovator — this book is well worth reading.

This article is adapted from “What It Takes to Be a Serial Innovator” by Martha E. Mangelsdorf, which appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.