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Serial innovators: how individuals create and deliver breakthrough innovations in mature firms: benefiting from the unique abilities of serial innovators requires not only recognizing them, but developing and managing them in very particular ways.

Over the past decade, we have had the privilege to interview, study, and collaborate with a set of powerful and capable individuals whom we label "serial innovators." (1) These are people who have been credited by managers and colleagues alike with creating and bringing to market multiple breakthrough innovations. These are not CEOs or senior managers but unique individuals embedded in their organizations who contribute disproportionately to these fortunate companies' innovation output. And they are very rare, appearing in mature organizations at the rate of 1 in 100 to 1 in 500 of technical staff members. While every company would like to have the kind of results that serial innovators deliver, many don't know how to engage with them. Benefiting from their expertise and unique abilities requires not only recognizing them, but developing and managing them in very particular ways. What's more, the entire organizational culture must be innovator friendly if these individuals are to emerge.

Interestingly, the three of us embarked on this study independently, yet on similar paths, more than a decade ago. We each were intrigued by the role of people in innovation, in contrast to the more commonly held process perspective, with Abbie approaching it from the perspective of her expertise in marketing and new product development, Ray from the standpoint of his work in organizational behavior, and

Bruce from the context of strategic technology management. As we learned of each other's work and interests, the collaboration grew naturally, with our combined perspectives offering new insight into how breakthrough innovations have occurred in mature firms. With each successive study we conducted, we uncovered more definition about how serial innovators operate and how to manage them. Thus, each study led us to ask either deeper or broader questions in a subsequent study.

In this research stream, carried out in five phases, we conducted over I60 in-depth interviews with serial innovators, their managers, and their coworkers (see "The Study," above). By engaging with these exceptional individuals and their colleagues and managers, we have come to understand more clearly who serial innovators are, how they create, and how they navigate within their organizations. This has helped us see just how unique they are and understand how to identify, develop, manage, and support them.

Serial Innovators

Tom Osborn was a serial innovator who had significant impact on the feminine hygiene product industry during his career at Procter & Gamble. When he began in this industry, the generally held perspective was that the purpose of a feminine hygiene product was merely to catch fluid, similarly to the way in which a diaper performs, and the goal of innovation was to improve performance within this diaper paradigm. Tom, however, sought to understand the problem in a deeper, more nuanced way. He did so through various methods, such as working with medical models, reconsidering commonly held assumptions, testing prototypes, and constantly iterating. In doing so, he realized that he needed to reframe the problem, from a diaper to a garment paradigm--that is, a paradigm in which the product behaved like a garment, yielding a more comfortable fit while still performing as required. This reframing, he believed, could provide great benefit to P&G's customers and shareholders, as well as to his coworkers and management. While he nearly lost his job in the process, Tom was able to navigate his organization effectively, ultimately gaining strong management advocacy, resulting in a breakthrough innovative product, Always Ultra, now one of P&G's billion-dollar brands. In recognition of his contributions, Tom was inducted into P&G's Victor Mills Society, the highest technical-ladder level and honor in the company.

Serial Innovators: Who They Are

Tom is an exemplar serial innovator. He exhibits all of the characteristics and behaviors that make these rare individuals stand out. So what are the marks of a serial innovator?

Serial innovators are self-motivated to solve customer problems. They seek good, challenging problems for which a solution would benefit customer, colleague, and company alike. Serial innovators come to their organizations as agile learners, with both breadth and depth of knowledge. They are curious systems thinkers, creatively connecting the dots as they make new insights. Yet, they understand that contribution at this level does not come easily. They are tenacious, seeing challenges through to completion. While our study focused entirely on innovations with a technical component, serial innovators see technology as the means to an end. They not only understand and accept that businesses exist to create value and make profits, they embrace this concept. Yet, they are not cold, hardened economic machines; they are passionate about doing their best for customers. Nor are they independent heroes or lone rangers. They value people, treating others with respect while exhibiting the courage to move the organization from within.

Perhaps the best way to identify potential serial innovators is by considering how individuals engage with problems, projects, business, and people. In observing how serial innovators engage with problems, we observe their curiosity, systems thinking, and creativity. In their engagement with projects, we observe their tenacity, their determination to see projects through to completion. In their engagement with business, we observe their belief that businesses exist to create value and that technology is only a means to an end. Finally, in their engagement with people, we observe their valuing of others, seeing the strengths and enlisting the help of their peers and colleagues.

Although this constellation of characteristics separates serial innovators from their coworkers, these traits do not alienate them from others. Instead, managers and colleagues recognize serial innovators as passionate, positive contributors to the organization.

Serial Innovators: How They Navigate Their Organizations Virtually all of the serial innovators we have interacted with began their industry careers with the naive view that invention is sufficient, that there is intrinsic value in an invention. They expected managers to recognize and act on their inventive insights and carried the belief that their tasks were complete once the invention was developed.

In sharp contrast to other inventors within the firm, however, serial innovators "cross the bridge" to accept personal responsibility for promoting their inventions to the rest of the firm. They become willing to engage, to apply their profound creative problem-solving abilities to the political task of navigating an organization. They recognize that innovation requires the participation of, and contributions from many people. As a result, they work outside their technical comfort zones, seeking investment and resources from management and active contributions from colleagues.

Their ability to negotiate organizational politics reveals the highly integrated nature of serial innovators' characteristics. That they accept responsibility to move the organization is closely tied to their self-motivation. That they succeed in doing so reflects their creative problem-solving abilities, now turned on the political task. That they value others leads them to engage managers and colleagues, not merely tolerate or, even worse, disdain them.

Serial Innovators: How They Create Breakthrough Innovations

Serial innovators also approach the innovation process in a different way. In contrast with the prevailing linear combination of a fuzzy front end followed by a gated process, the serial innovator's path to innovation is more consistent with the hourglass model of innovation (Figure 1). Not a process to be followed like a recipe, but a collection of recursive, iterative, contingent activities, the hourglass model truly characterizes serial innovators' practice in pursuing breakthrough innovation. The considerable retracing of their steps that is apparent in serial innovator behavior as captured in this model--occurring at both macro and micro scales--implies a great deal of nonlinearity in their process of innovation. Such nonlinearity suggests a deep complexity, with all of the associated implications regarding the chaotic nature of breakthrough innovation.

The hourglass model represents neither a technology-push nor a market-pull approach. Similarly, serial innovators continually adjust their focal attention, between customers and technology--back and forth--with an occasional foray into the market in aggregate, ultimately converging on a solution that addresses technology, customer, and market. Finally, we observed patterns of holistic discovery from serial innovators. They simultaneously synthesize the many facets of a highly constrained system, ranging from customer, market, and technology to manufacturing, finance, and distribution, grasping these insights collectively. Their systems thinking capabilities enable them to envision breakthrough innovation and understand how it fits in the organization.


Managing Serial Innovators

The implications of the serial innovator's organizational engagement and ways of working are perhaps most novel for their direct managers. Because serial innovators, on their own, are inclined to serve customer, colleague, shareholder, and firm alike, they must be unleashed, not driven. They must be protected from unproductive activities, enabled in their desire to engage with customers, and supported and encouraged as they develop their influence skills.

Managing serial innovators requires a relatively unique, highly individualized, relational form of management. The patience that comes with understanding that breakthrough innovation is not simply a process to be accelerated and the authority to provide time and resources is a must. This might be succinctly stated as a willingness to accept uncertainty while expecting serendipity. To benefit most effectively, managers must recognize that serial innovators are unique individuals to be appreciated and understood in unique ways.

Dennis Andersh, currently senior vice president and Dayton regional executive at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), is an exemplar when it comes to managing breakthrough innovators. Hired by the founder of a technology-based company, Dennis led the firm in its sale to SAIC and its transition to being an SAIC operation. After a few years as part of SAIC, Dennis recognized that his unit's innovation pipeline was drying up. In response, he rehired the founder (a serial innovator) and provided him and other technology leads in the operation the time and resources to understand customer needs more deeply and develop innovative ways to address them, reestablishing the flow of new ideas and products. Not only did Dennis exhibit sound judgment in making these moves, he also exhibits a unique richness of understanding when he speaks of the serial innovators in his organization. It is precisely this relational nuance and insight that Dennis demonstrates in his interactions with serial innovators that is key to his ability to manage serial innovators. By having a firm grasp on who they are as individuals, Dennis is able to understand their needs and address them in ways that other managers are unable to do.

Although what would generally be considered good management practices are evident in Dennis's actions, the key element is that serial innovators do not appear sufficiently frequently for most managers to develop a sense of how to manage them. Generally recognized good management practices are designed to create economies of scale and scope by minimizing unexpectedness, uncertainty, and other variables. With serial innovators, managers must accept uncertainty, expecting serendipity, It is this ability to accept the role of serendipity, provide an environment that encourages it, and establish a context for its acceptance that separates Dennis from the pack of direct managers just as clearly as serial innovators differentiate themselves from other, very capable technologists. That our results have struck resonance with all practitioners--and especially with the serial innovators--with whom we have discussed them suggests that exemplar managers of serial innovators are also rare.

Since the best managers understand serial innovators in ways that others do not, they also are able to address their needs in ways that others do not grasp. Understanding that breakthrough innovation takes time, these managers accept the long latency associated with it, exhibiting patience with and trust in the serial innovator. They enable their serial innovators to focus by running interference with more senior levels of management and by enabling the innovators to have contact with customers. What we see is that the best manager-serial innovator pairs exhibit an informal, highly relational interaction; they know each other and complement each other. Like ballroom dancers, they are keenly aware of their environment and each other's moves, and move together fluidly. As we heard during our interviews, when the manager-serial innovator relationship works well, it is almost magical.

While serial innovators are intrinsically motivated, when the serial innovator-manager relationship fails, serial innovators can become distracted and lose motivation. Among the most obvious failures in managing serial innovators are those who either micromanage or are distant and aloof. Without exception, the worst managers are transactional, rather than relational. Less obvious, but equally important shortcomings include managers who are stingy with resources and impatient, pressing innovators for results too early in the effort, or those who take credit for the serial innovator's contributions.

Of particular interest is that both the strengths of the best managers of serial innovators and the weaknesses of the worst are informal management techniques. Having said this, formal techniques also play an important role. Most notably, serial innovators seek rewards in the form that the company values most, money. While they are not in it for the great financial gain that may be realized by successful entrepreneurs, serial innovators recognize that managers prove that they value an innovator's contribution by compensating that person accordingly. Conversely, by rewarding the "wrong" people, those whose contributions are minimal or fabricated, management demonstrates a lack of insight and understanding.

It is critical to note that this high degree of relational management is not appropriate for every employee. It works only by virtue of the serial innovator's unique talent and the manager's insight, relational skill, and ability to protect and provide.

The Executive's Responsibility

Proven serial innovators are concerned. Although they are themselves typically valued and recognized in their companies, almost to a person, they expressed major concerns about the current focus and culture in their organizations. Collectively, they are concerned that:

* They and, more importantly, those with their skill sets and orientations would not be hired today. * The next generation of breakthrough innovators is not being adequately identified, developed, supported, and encouraged.

* Due to extreme pressure to accelerate innovation and deliver near-term results, the time required to develop truly breakthrough innovations is increasingly difficult to find.

* The financial controls in their firm are so tight that there is little flexibility to "hide" exploratory projects or to pursue interesting, serendipitous ideas and insights.

* Great managers of innovation are hard to find, even in R&D organizations.

* It is challenging to find the organizational patience to stay with new ideas until they have matured sufficiently to transform the market.

They see their firms losing people with breakthrough innovation skills, not hiring people with the potential for breakthrough innovation, not developing people with the potential to grow into this role, investing insufficiently in breakthrough innovation and losing what was left of an innovator-friendly culture, while becoming increasingly incremental and short term in their focus.

Yet, as senior executives told us, they have trended in this direction for some very understandable reasons. Their education and experience base increasingly reinforce the belief that the most important elements of business are both operational and measurable. Their near-term focus is more and more driven by financial markets, the press of which means that their time and attention are in short supply. As a result, executives only have the time to understand in order to decide. In sharp contrast, serial innovators understand in order to master and create. Thus, executives and serial innovators think differently.

Collectively, these pressures and patterns unfortunately set up a challenging tension within the firm--the tension between the optimization culture that sustains the existing business and an innovator-friendly culture that enables the firm to regularly transform itself through breakthrough innovation. The optimization culture is characterized by predictability, stability, and reliability. Those individuals who contribute to and thrive in an optimization culture require structure, are looking for predictability, and focus on cost reduction. In contrast, the innovator-friendly culture is characterized by a level of surprise, uncertainty, and volatility. Those individuals who contribute to and thrive in an innovator-friendly culture navigate challenges with agility, engaging in their roles in a personalized way as they work in the midst of a complexity that others see as chaos.

The challenge for executives is to establish and maintain a healthy tension between coexisting cultures rather than letting the optimization culture drive out innovation, which it frequently does. Unfortunately, it is easier and cleaner, although deadly in the long term, for the firm to avoid dealing with the tension. But not dealing with it will eventually push the firm into irrelevance as competitors release new innovative solutions. In contrast, addressing the tension requires executives to invest personally, take responsibility for actively encouraging an innovator-friendly culture, gain an appreciation of the value of breakthrough innovation, and resist the tendency to drive every part of the business toward optimization. Executives must understand that breakthrough innovation is not merely another process to be optimized; it requires reflection and time to understand both the breakthrough process and the culture required to sustain it. Because breakthrough innovation is a highly personal act, executives must also give those with the skill to contribute at this level "permission to think," along with the time and resources necessary to realize true breakthrough innovation.

So, once they have made the commitment to develop an innovator-friendly culture, how can senior executives assess and enable their organization's ability to sustain the critical tension between optimization and innovation? We suggest they begin by reflecting on three key questions:

* Are we identifying and developing the next generation of serial innovators?

* Are we investing sufficiently in breakthrough innovation?

* Are our breakthrough innovation efforts getting results?

First, we suggest they ask themselves whether they are identifying and developing the next generation of serial innovators. A quick review of the pipeline of existing and potential serial innovators is a place to start. Is the firm losing the formula, benefitting from the contributions of current serial innovators with no obvious heirs to assume the role? Is the pipeline talent rich but innovator light, with a number of promising individuals but no experienced serial innovators to guide the aspiring next generation? Or, is the pipeline full and fruitful, populated both by experienced serial innovators and promising, young talent in development?

If the pipeline is anything other than full, executives would be well served to dig deeper, questioning their firms' hiring assumptions. With the rise of increasingly professional and intentional human resource practices focused on securing very specific skills, we have observed that some important but not easily quantified skills related to breakthrough innovation may inadvertently be filtered out of organizations. Beyond hiring, we encourage executives to reflect on their firms' investment in developing aspiring serial innovators. Do rising innovators have the opportunity to develop their understanding with varied assignments? Are they assigned to direct managers who know how to develop their talents? We observe that funding to help managers become better optimizers is nearly always available. In contrast, funding for innovator development is typically almost nonexistent. As a result, firms spend increasing amounts on the diminishing returns associated with optimization, often missing the critical--albeit highly uncertain--opportunities for breakthrough innovation. In firms where optimization is most comprehensively implemented, even a relatively modest investment in innovator development can be expected to return in unexpected, manifold ways.

Second, we suggest executives ask whether they are investing sufficiently in breakthrough innovation. Once the right people are hired, identified, and effectively developed, they must be provided the resources to make breakthrough innovation happen. In response to the press of current business and the relative certainty offered by investment in incremental innovation, we find most firms pursuing a modest level of incremental innovation and almost no breakthrough innovation. As a result, even a slight redistribution in the direction of breakthrough innovation has the potential to deliver a significantly different future for the firm.

Third, we encourage executives to think critically about whether their firms' breakthrough innovation efforts are truly yielding results. In no way do we imply that breakthrough innovation is, in and of itself, what the firm should pursue. In the end, without a clear contribution to new revenue growth and a strong financial return on investment, attempts at breakthrough innovation represent nothing more than window dressing. Investment in breakthrough innovation must be held to the same high standards that all parts of the company must meet. However, we also caution that the leading metrics and evaluations applied to optimization activities typically do not work well to assess breakthrough innovation efforts. Instead of considering only acceleration, firms also should determine whether they have exercised sufficient persistence, perseverance, and tenacity in seeing potential breakthrough concepts through to the market. Thus, a more nuanced and insightful evaluation of preliminary results is necessary to realize the desired financial return.

The most senior level of executives in the firm must lead the cultural transformation that will enable an innovator-friendly culture to survive and thrive in tension with the optimization culture. They must take ownership of the change to ensure that their firm develops broad skill in identifying and developing serial innovators within the organization. They must identify and develop managers with the skills necessary to unleash serial innovators. They must give permission to their direct reports to invest wisely in breakthrough

innovation. And, they must monitor results and performance metrics with nuanced insight.

Concluding Thoughts In the end, successful breakthrough innovation hinges on three factors:

* The right people--serial innovators and their managers and colleagues;

* Deep, personal, and relevant insight by all participants; and

* An innovator-friendly culture thriving in tension with a healthy optimization culture.

How senior executives in mature firms respond to these factors will have significant and lasting implications for the long-term viability of the firm. These senior executives are critical because they set the tone for what is important in their organization, determining if the organization will focus on growth over the long term or on short-term, quarterly performance. They will determine if serial innovators will find a welcome home.

Our hope is that our results encourage the most senior executives to believe that breakthrough innovation can occur in their large, mature firms and that serial innovators and their direct technical managers are critical to making this happen. Our fear is that they may be pulled too easily into the tyranny of the optimization impulse, guided too much by the immediate needs of the business cycle.

Our expectation and challenge, then, is that senior executives take our message to heart. In doing so, they will have served all, playing a key role in bringing important new products to customers and fulfilling the most challenging investor expectations, both near and long term. If they don't rise to the challenge, although their organizations will very likely survive comfortably for some time, they will eventually lose the ability to remake themselves. Rather than growing, they will wither.

The Study

These individuals were employees of mature U.S.-based technology-dependent corporations. All of the firms studied were technology-driven companies with over $1.5 billion in annual revenue relying on innovation for long-term success; the firms represented a range of industries:

* Aerospace and defense

* Automotive and transport

* Chemicals

* Computer hardware

* Computer services

* Consumer products manufacturers

* Electronics

* Industrial manufacturing

* Medical equipment

* Telecommunications equipment

In most cases, we studied innovators in more than one company within the industry. To identify serial innovators, we networked with our corporate liaison contacts, asking them to identify individuals in their firms who were viewed within the organization as being responsible for an innovation (and involved in it from its inception to its finish) that represented a significant breakthrough, one which successfully came to market and significantly impacted their firm and its customers. These individuals also typically had track records of other significant innovative contributions, although not all at the identical level of impact. The research was conducted in five broad phases:

1. We began by asking 10 technology managers to define the characteristics most frequently observed in serial innovators. We then conducted a large-sample survey of over 400 industrial physicists in order to determine, through statistical analysis, how important and pervasively observed these characteristics were (Vojak et al. 2006).

2. As a means of exploring serial innovator characteristics in depth, as well as the processes they employ and how they navigate organizational politics, we conducted an in-depth investigation of how 11 of the 33 still-living inductees of the Electronic Design Engineering Hall of Fame created their breakthrough innovations (Griffin et al. 2009).

3. Next, to understand how serial innovators are best managed, we explored serial innovator motivation and demotivation through structured in-depth interviews with 24 serial innovators from 17 companies, as welt as with their 22 direct managers and 18 human resource managers (Hebda et at. 2007, 2012).

4. To distinguish between the contributions of serial innovators and the roles of other key participants in the innovation process, we conducted in-depth interviews with three serial innovators, two inventors, two champions, and two implementers in one organization, as well as 17 of their coworkers and managers (Sim et al. 2007).

5. Finally, we conducted a more comprehensive study, interviewing 19 additional serial innovators, in most cases several times, about their approach to innovation and to navigating organizational politics to bring innovations to market. In addition, we interviewed over 30 of their coworkers and managers, producing a very rich set of data (Price et al. 2009).

In total, we interviewed over 160 individuals involved in breakthrough innovation in mature firms; nearly 60 were serial innovators. With the exception of the motivation and demotivation study (in phase 3, in which we asked specifically about motivators and demotivators and their efficacy), the interviews with serial innovators focused on two or three of the interviewee's success stories. Similarly, our interviews of their managers and coworkers addressed the innovators' actions and behaviors around these same successes, as perceived by the interviewee.

All interviews were recorded and transcribed. The transcripts were reviewed by two members of the research team to identify key themes. Relevant phrases were coded for their relevance to particular themes, at which point the entire research team gathered to review each coded phrase, seeking recurring patterns of responses. By repeating this process across the various studies, we were able to discern common personal characteristics, patterns of innovation processes, ways in which innovators navigated organizational politics, and motivators and demotivators.


Griffin, A., Price, R. L., Maloney, M. M., Vojak, B., and Sim, E. W. 2009. Voices from the field: How exceptional electronic industrial innovators innovate. Journal of Product Innovation Management 26(2): 222-240.

Hebda, J. M., Vojak, B. A., Griffin, A., and Price, R. L. 2007. The motivation of technical visionaries in large American companies. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management 54(3): 433-444.

Hebda, J. M., Vojak, B. A., Griffin, A., and Price, R. L. 2012. Motivating and demotivating technical visionaries in large corporations: A comparison of perspectives. R&D Management 42(2): 101-119.

Price, R. L., Griffin, A., Vojak, B. A., Hoffman, N., and Burgon, H. 2009. Innovation politics: How serial innovators gain organizational acceptance for breakthrough new products. International Journal of Technology Marketing 4(2-3): 165-184.

Sim, E. W., Griffin, A., Price, R., and Vojak, B. 2007. Exploring differences between inventors, champions, implementers and serial innovators in developing new products in large, mature firms. Creativity and Innovation Management 16(4): 422-436.

Vojak, B., Griffin, A., Price, R. L., and Perlov, K. 2006. Characteristics of technical visionaries as perceived by American and British industrial physicists. R&D Management 36(1): 17-24.

(1) The key findings and themes presented here, and in a related presentation at IRI's Annual Meeting, Indian Wells, CA, May 2012, are discussed in detail in our recent book, Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

Bruce A. 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. Additionally, he teaches and conducts research on innovation and serves on the board of directors of Midtronics, Inc. Before joining the university, he was a director of advanced technology at Motorola and earlier held business development and research positions at Amoco Corporation. He earned BS, MS, and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MBA from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

Raymond L. Price holds the William H. Severns Chair of Human Behavior in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the codirector of the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education. Prior to joining the university, he held management positions at Allergan, Boeing, and Hewlett-Packard. He earned a PhD in organizational behavior from Stanford University. His research focus is on innovation, creativity, and new product development. He collaborated with Charles H. House to author The HP Phenomenon: Innovation and Business Transformation (Stanford University Press, 2009).

Abbie Griffin holds the Royal L. Garff Presidential Chair in Marketing at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business. She earned a BS in chemical engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from Harvard, and a PhD in management of technology and marketing from MIT. Her research investigates how to measure and improve the process of new product development. She has been the editor of the Journal of Product Innovation Management and has served on the board of directors of Navistar International Truck and Engine.

DOI: 10.5437/08956308X5506899
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Comment:Serial innovators: how individuals create and deliver breakthrough innovations in mature firms: benefiting from the unique abilities of serial innovators requires not only recognizing them, but developing and managing them in very particular ways.(FEATURE ARTICLE)
Author:Vojak, Bruce A.; Price, Raymond L.; Griffin, Abbie
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:1U5VA
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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