SALT LAKE CITY -- The stereotype of a successful innovator is some combination of mad scientist and inventor working in a garage and emerging with a new technology or product that takes the world by storm.
However, a new research-based book contends that many of the most creative and successful business innovators are actually found within large corporate structures-and they are far from your typical corporate drones.
Abbie Griffin, marketing expert and professor at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business, wrote Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms--along with co-authors Ray Price of Stanford and Bruce Vojak of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign--to showcase successful serial innovators, and show companies how best to use the creative minds in their workplaces.
"These people don't fit into your typical organizational boxes," Griffin says. "They are the proverbial square pegs in round holes. They do more than just the typical inventor in the research-and-development lab does. Instead of just knowing about technology and technology strategy, they also know about business and markets, and they want to do their own market research."
Griffin and her co-authors interviewed more than 50 serial innovators, and many more of their co-workers, managers and human-resources administrators, through years of research in order to gain an understanding of what makes these creative people tick. They found serial innovators in a variety of roles, in fields including electronics, medical devices, agri-chemical, engineering, the heavy equipment business of Caterpillar and the feminine-hygiene consumer-product field of the Always Ultra pad, created by Proctor & Gamble serial innovator Tom Osborn. Osborn's story opens the book, published by Stanford University Press and available now on Amazon.com.
"Here's a guy working in a category where men aren't usually thought of as the target market, and yet he actually reframed that entire category and created products that have produced billions of dollars in profit while materially changing women's lives for the better," Griffin says, noting that Osborn was actually in separation talks twice with P&G management over his daring innovations with the Always products.
Osborn's experience points to one of the main goals of Serial Innovators; besides introducing the reader to noteworthy success stories of people like Osborn, the book is a tool for corporations. The authors describe how to find serial innovators, how to support innovators properly within an existing organizational structure, how to motivate them and enable their skills to shine, how to find them during the interviewing process, and how to keep them once the benefits of the serial innovators to the company are evident.
Griffin and her co-authors found that companies have found several ways to manage their serial innovators. Some companies have created Fellow programs, giving their in-house talent great freedom and flexibility. Some serial innovators were given positions that put them between the Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Technology Officer, directly reporting to the CEO in the corporate structure. And some have left their innovators in the companies' R&D departments, pairing them with managers who understand how to get the most out of the serial innovators' unique talents. In one case, the authors found a serial innovator who worked with the same manager for 26 years, and the duo moved up the corporate hierarchy together.
As much as large companies need to find and nurture serial innovators among their employees, the authors found that the innovators also need that large corporate culture to flourish. They are politically savvy in the workplace because they have to be to get their creative visions to come to fruition, and they have to establish extensive networks both inside and outside their organization.
"They need the organization," Griffin says. "They are not a Steve Jobs. Serial innovators are not entrepreneurs and they don't want to be in a small business. They like the resources of a large business. They like the like-minded, knowledgeable colleagues. They need both the technical and financial resources of a large company."