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. Serial innovators’ additional characteristics include curiosity and systems thinking. As the authors explain, “systems thinking enables Serial Innovators to integrate disparate data and information.