Serial Innovators

Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms

Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms

Dr. Abbie Griffin, Dr. Raymond L. Price, and Dr. Bruce A. Vojak

Originally published: PDMA Visions Magazine Issue 2, 2012 • Vol 36 • No 2
Read time: 10 minutes

Can large, mature firms routinely create successful breakthrough innovations? At best, such efforts have proven problematic. Indeed, some academics even suggest that large, mature firms cannot be successful creating breakthrough innovation. Yet, such firms need to develop and commercialize new products to renew their current product lines. More importantly, they need new products to better serve their current customers with new and different products or to move the business into new markets. Formal product development processes, such as Stage-Gate®, have been helpful in successfully developing evolutionary new products that support the ongoing business.

However, figuring out how to consistently commercialize successful breakthrough innovations that move the firm into new product space has been far more challenging.

Our research, though, has found individuals in virtually every large, mature organization we have studied who have developed and commercialized one successful breakthrough innovation after another. After studying more than 50 of these individuals in depth, as well as many of their managers and coworkers, we dubbed them “Serial Innovators.”

These are not people like Steve Jobs, who reside at the top of corporations and thus can dictate what an organization will develop, nor are they entrepreneurs who can take their startup firm into whatever direction they please. These are individuals who reside in the middle levels of large organizations and must thus work within the organization’s established processes and political constraints. While rather rare—typically only one in 100 to one in 500 of the technical employees in the organization—they are responsible for products and services worth millions of dollars of revenue and profit for their organizations.

Who are these Serial Innovators?” They are people like Tom Osborn at Procter & Gamble, who created Always Ultra, the thin feminine hygiene pad that revolutionized that industry. They are people like Adam Gudat who moved Caterpillar to create the precision farming market. Numerous other innovators illustrate our points about what makes Serial Innovators so successful.

The problem with Serial Innovators is that because they work differently than other technologists trying to create breakthrough innovations, they can be difficult to effectively manage, and even more difficult to identify early in their career. One of the challenges is to make space inside the company for these types of people. Are they welcome? Are they even looked for in the organization?

Most firms seeking breakthrough innova-tions charge their inventors in the research and development labs with developing new technical capabilities that can be turned into breakthrough products. These are re-ally smart people, but typically they know very little about business, even less about customer problems and nothing about managing the politics in the company that will allow the project to move from the lab and into development. This situation frequently results in unsuccessful outcomes in two ways. First, some technology is developed for technology’s sake and not to solve any particular customer problem. There is no product application for it. Second, because these technologists feel it is someone else’s responsibility to “sell” the project to the firm, technologies that cannot find an outside champion to manage the organization’s political processes and gain acceptance into the formal development pipeline fall into the “valley of death.” They languish in labs with no payback to the firm for the money spent in development.

Serial Innovators follow a very different development model. As Figure 1 illustrates, they start from a customer problem and work to understand it completely. They oscillate between developing a deep understanding of individual customers’ problems and developing a deep understanding of the technical constraints and possibilities associated with potentially solving those problems. At various points, they also take a step back and look at the market in aggregate: Is there sufficient demand in the marketplace associated with this problem to make it an interesting one to try and solve for this firm?

Figure 1


Figure 2 is a more detailed model of how Serial Innovators develop breakthrough in-novations. We hesitate to call this a “process” because it is so very iterative in nature—just the opposite of the purpose of the firm’s formal new product development (NPD) process, which is to eliminate iteration. Actually, for the serial innovator, the firm’s formal NPD process resides in the “execute” node in the bottom left of Figure 2.

Figure 2


Serial Innovators spend the vast majority of their time and effort in the fuzzy front end (FFE)—before the formal process in the firm is initiated. They start by seeking a problem that is important to a set of customers. They then assess the quality of the problem based on market size, revenue stream and acceptability to customers and their managers. They spend time to fully understand the problem; not just the technical aspects but also the benefits and limitations of current solutions to the problem, the competitive landscape, and the intricacies of the customer experience. At times, creating this understanding means that they will circle back to the task of redefining or reframing the problem to look at it from a different perspective. This part of the cycle may take months or even a year to complete—during which the serial innovator looks as if they are not doing anything to some in management, a situation which makes managing them effectively a bit tricky.

Only once they have understood a problem in all of its dimension and determined it to be “interesting” (customers would be willing to pay to solve it, lots of people have the problem, it fits with the firm’s strategic aims and it seems feasible to solve) do they actually move into inventing a solution and validating that customers would accept that solution. Note that, even at this stage, sometimes the Serial Innovator finds that a solution is not feasible, and they must move back up into the “find and understand” circle.

After a solution has been invented and validated with customer groups, Serial Innovators take the responsibility to gain political acceptance for the project, allowing it to move into execution—the firm’s formal NPD process. Actually, they start working the political acceptance process long before then, starting once they think they have found an interesting problem and are just themselves coming to understand it.

Once the project has gained organizational acceptance, Serial Innovators find execution the easiest part of commercialization, because their companies typically have in place both formal processes to do this and project man-agers trained in facilitating projects through that process. Thus, at this point, while they may turn the day-to-day project facilitation over to someone else, they still act as champions to maintain resources flowing to the project as needed and run interference with senior management.

They also, however, spend time specifically driving market acceptance of the product. During execution they start working with the sales force and important customers, introducing them to the product and educating them about it. They use this opportunity to further increase their understanding of customer needs, which allows them to bring ideas on how to further improve the product’s performance back into the firm.

It’s important to understand how Serial Innovators create breakthrough innovations because how they do it provides insight into both how to better manage them and how to identify them earlier in their career, so that they can be nurtured into their full potential for the benefit of the corporation.

From the brief description above of how Serial Innovators create breakthrough products, it should be clear that they are different from the firm’s typical technologist. On the one hand, they can and do invent new technologies, just like other exemplary technolo-gists. On the other hand, however, they also understand customers, business, strategy and politics. They take on the role of the cham-pion, act as a project manager facilitating the project’s movement through the formal process and finally even take on part of a salesperson’s role. As Figure 3 illustrates, rather than having different people with different skill sets managing different parts of the breakthrough innovation process, Serial Innovators possess all of the skills necessary to discover, invent and commercialize breakthrough innovations.

Figure 3


An important question, then, is how can the firm identify potential Serial Innovators early in their career so that they can maximize the probability of developing them into full-blown Serial Innovators?

We found five differentiating characteristics that can be used to identify potential Serial Innovators. In addition, Serial Innovators develop four other capabilities over their careers that also provide indications as to who does and does not have the potential to develop. Serial Innovators exhibit these five innate characteristics:

  1. Systems thinking: The ability to connect the dots across seemingly disparate pieces of information;
  2. Above average levels of creativity (but not extreme levels);
  3. Curiosity that extends across multiple domains;
  4. Intuition based on deep expertise; and
  5. Intrinsic motivation to solve customer problems for the greater good.

Identifying potential Serial Innovators requires looking at the mix of how these characteristics manifest themselves collectively in the individual—they all must be resident. These characteristics typically are hardwired and difficult to develop, and thus they can be screened for in the hiring process. However, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions in identifying potential Serial Innovators, and they have to be looked at collectively, rather than just on a characteristic by characteristic basis.

The collective manifestation of the five characteristics above moves some individuals to act differently from the typical technologist in how they engage with problems, projects, business and people. These capabilities are listed in this order because this is the order in which Serial Innovators tend to become more adept at them. Very early in their careers, potential Serial Innovators engage differently with problems and projects than do other technologists, but they usually develop business and people engagement skills later—and this is something that managers who identify them early based on their personal and problem-engagement characteristics can help jump-start.

Potential Serial Innovators are not content to solve a problem as given. They are driven to expand their understanding of the peripheral sphere around the problem to ensure that the solution they come up with is the best one possible. They also have the confidence and independence to take calculated risks in the path they take to solve technical problem, frequently pursuing a more risky technical path, which if it works, will have a larger payoff for the firm, than the safe and sound technical path.

As their careers progress, other cues about their approach to problems, projects, business and people also emerge. For example, they have the tenacity to stay with complex, large projects over time. They educate themselves about the business and strategy aspects of the firm, in addition to deepening their technical understanding. They build a network of individuals with other talents and expertise across the firm. These are capabilities that management can proactively help develop.

In short, Serial Innovators are important to the ongoing success of the firm because they have the ability to create breakthrough products that can provide the firm with significant new revenue streams. As they are rare, companies need to put in place special mechanisms to identify them in the hiring process and early in their career. The standard human resources approaches to hiring are not geared to identify them. Our research points to a number of characteristics and capabilities that can be used to screen for potential Serial Innovators—systems thinking, creativity, curiosity, intuition and intrinsic motivation to solve customer problems. Organizations that identify people with these five characteristics and manage them effectively, will greatly improve their odds of successful breakthrough innovation.

Additional Reading

Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price and Bruce A. Vojak have also published the following academic articles on Serial Innovators and how they create breakthrough innovations in large, mature firms:

  • B.A. Vojak, and R.L. Price (forthcoming, 2012), “On the Epistemology of Breakthrough Innovation: the Non-Linear and Orthogonal Natures of Discovery,” in Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, D.E. Goldberg, N. McCarthy and D. Michelfelder, editors, Springer: New York, NY.
  • John M. Hebda, Bruce A. Vojak, Abbie Griffin, and Raymond L. Price (2012), “Motivating and Demotivating Technical Visionaries in Large Corporations: A Comparison 0f Perspectives,” R&D Management, 42:2, 101-119.
  • B.A. Vojak, R.L. Price and A. Griffin (2010), “Corporate Innovation,” in Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, R. Froedeman, J. Klein and C. Mitcham, editors, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
  • Raymond L. Price, Abbie Griffin, Bruce A. Vojak, Nathan Hoffman and Holli Burgon (2009) “Innovation Politics: How Serial Innovators Gain Organizational Acceptance for Breakthrough New Products,” International Journal of Technology Marketing, 4:2-3, 165-184.
  • Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price, Matthew M. Maloney, Bruce Vojak and Edward W. Sim (2009), “Voices from the Field: How Exceptional Electronic Industrial Innovators Innovate,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, 26:2 (March), 222-240.
  • Abbie Griffin, Edward W. Sim, Ray Price, and Bruce Vojak (2007), “Exploring Differences between Inventors, Champions, Implementers And Serial Innovators In Developing New Products In Large, Mature Firms,” Creativity and Innovation Management, 16:4 (December), 422-436.
  • Matthew Marvel, Abbie Griffin, John M. Hebda and Bruce A. Vojak (2007),
    “Studying Highly Valued Technical Professional Motivation Using a Corporate Entrepreneurship Framework: Voices from the Field,” Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice, 31:5 (September).
  • John M. Hebda, Bruce A. Vojak, Abbie Griffin, and Raymond L. Price (2007), “The Motivation of Technical Visionaries in Large American Companies,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 54:3 (August), 433-444.
  • Bruce Vojak, Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price and Konstantin Perlov (2006), “Characteristics of Technical Visionaries as Perceived by American and British Industrial Physicists,” R&D Management, 36:1, 17-24.

About the Authors

Dr. Abbie Griffin holds the Royal L. Garff Presidential Chair in Marketing and is chair of the marketing department at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. Griffin’s research investigates how to measure and improve the process of new product development.

Dr. 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. In addition, he teaches and conducts research on innovation and serves on the board of directors of Midtronics, Inc.

Dr. 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 co-director of the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education. His research focus is on innovation, creativity and new product development.

Editor's Note

The authors of the forthcoming book, “Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms,” report on what makes Serial Innovators different than other technologists, how they create breakthrough innovations, immerse themselves in customer problems, manage the politics of the organization to gain project acceptance and how organizations can find, develop and manage them more effectively. Doing so is crucial to the success of large, established companies to deliver break-through innovations.

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