Achieving radical innovations in an established company

What does it take to create a successful radical innovation within a big company? New research offers some insights.

What characteristics does it take to successfully develop a radical innovation in a large or mid-sized company? A fascinating article in the new March 2009 issue of the Journal of Product Innovation Management looks at that topic, in the context of the electronics industry.   (The article, "Voices from the Field: How Exceptional Electronic Industrial Innovators Innovate," is available to Journal of Product Innovation Management subscribers or for a $29.95 pay-to-view fee.)

Researchers Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price, Matthew M. Maloney, Bruce A. Vojak and Edward W. Sim interviewed 11 of 58 individuals cited for lifetime achievements by the magazine Electronic Design. All 11 engineers whom the researchers were able to interview had achieved their breakthrough innovations while working in medium to large companies, so the research illuminates innovation within established companies rather than more generally.

And, the findings suggest, exceptional innovator-engineers within established electronics companies are notable for a number of characteristics, including:

  • starting with a customer problem, where a solution has business potential
  • spending a lot of time defining the problem in the early stages; this phase includes planning and interacting with customers
  • being systems thinkers
  • having deep knowledge in one area but also acquiring knowledge in related areas
  • working well with others and using their people and political skills to get their product developed. (One interviewee told the researchers that, when the company was not supporting his idea, he started leaking word to customers about the product's capabilities. When customers started calling the CEO asking when the new product would be available, it got the funding needed for commercialization!)
  • spending energy making sure the product, once launched, gained market acceptance.