I first encountered the term “serial innovator” in the book by Abbie Griffin, Raymond Price, and Bruce Vojak titled “Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms.” The book is based on interviews with over 50 serial innovators and focuses on how organizations should enable this type of employee to foster breakthrough innovations. In the description of the book, the authors characterize a serial innovator as:
cutting-edge thinkers who repeatedly create and deliver breakthrough innovations and new products in large, mature organizations. These employees are organizational powerhouses who solve consumer problems and substantially contribute to the financial value of their firms.
While serial innovators bring their organization benefits, they too frequently are not valued and even seen as trouble makers. The authors shared (p. 3):
Serial Innovators work differently from the typical development employee. Thus, they need to be managed differently. Although these employees can bring in huge revenue streams, their unconventional innovation processes and the way in which they navigate the politics of project acceptance are so different from the firm’s formalized processes, they inherently cause problems for the organization.
To explore what it is really like to be a serial innovator, I interviewed Steve Pierz, engineer and innovator for 24 years at Caterpillar. He shared his reflections as a serial innovator and also offered suggestions to help organizations improve their overall innovation capability.
See link for podcast interview below.
The Challenges Serial Innovators Face
Fundamentally, innovation is looking at things differently and questioning traditional wisdom. In established organizations, many employees do not value the questioning of the traditional ways work is accomplished. Instead, they rely on the past actions that made the organization successful. In contrast, serial innovators tend to question the established norms as they consider radical improvements – not merely incremental innovations, but breakthrough changes.
Consequently, serial innovators can be irritating to the established experts in an organization who do not welcome having their work questioned. These innovators can quickly earn a reputation for discarding old ideas in favor or exploring new ideas. This can result in uncomfortable first meetings. As Steve shared, when meeting people in the organization, he often receives an “Oh, I have heard about you,” and what they have heard is troubling to them.
No wonder it is challenging to be a serial innovator – frequently rubbing against the cultural grain of the organization.
How to Create a More Supportive Innovation Culture
The paradox of innovation is that organizational leaders ask employees to innovate, yet their basis of knowledge typically only supports incremental innovation, not radical innovation. It takes new ways of thinking that lead to breakthrough ideas. An excellent catalyst is incorporating external influences.
To help promote new ways of thinking, Steve started a weekly webinar for anyone at Caterpillar to learn more about innovation, called “Friday Morning Coffee and Disruptive Technologies.” Each week attendance has dramatically grown, from a handful of participants in the beginning to several hundred now. Participants are from a wide variety of functions, not just engineering. Frequently, external experts are invited to join the webinar to present ideas and processes and further contribute to disruptive thinking.
While Steve has always had the mindset of a serial innovator at Caterpillar, it took a couple decades before he was given the freedom to control the innovation efforts he gets involved in. He encourages serial innovators to not give up!
Listen to the interview with Steve Pierz on The Everyday Innovator Podcast.
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Chad McAllister, PhD is a product innovation guide, innovation management educator, and recovering engineer. He leads Product Innovation Educators, which trains product managers to create products customers love. He also hosts The Everyday Innovator weekly podcast, sharing knowledge from innovation thought leaders and practitioners. Follow him on Twitter.