Book Review – “Serial Innovators“ by Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price, and Bruce Vojak
I do not remember who recommended the book “Serial Innovators” to me. But that person surely was wise and had a lot of insight into the area of innovation.
If you ask me who should definitely read this book, my answer is clear. Everyone who has an obligation to work with inventors, because their own future is related to new products and services. To start with, that will be all owners of existing companies. (Maybe minus those company owners who do not acknowledge that their future depends on the growth driven by regularly developing and adopting new technology.)
But it is not only owners of companies who should read this book. Fundamentally, “Serial Innovators” is written for these owners’ commercial representatives and employees, who are responsible for developing and adopting new technology within their companies.
The Protagonists Of The Book
While “Serial Innovators” does not say it, the ideal case is a private company—where the owner is a single person or a group of persons, with one single person having absolute say in the company. Such an owner makes the decisions to innovate. He then delegates its implementation to a number of employees. These employees have specific orders and powers when it comes to their individual shares of the innovation workload.
Successful owners of companies know that not every inventive person has the ability to provide better solutions to customer problems, and to also earn the company profits. The book dubs these rare people as “serial innovators”. The authors have also used this term as the title of their book, because the concept of providing better solutions AND making profit is the heart and the goal of all innovation.
Inventors Are Not The Protagonists Of The Book
The book contrasts “inventors” with “serial inventors”:
“Inventors … are primarily idea generators and technology solution providers. If allowed to operate without guidance and direction from the marketplace, such individuals may develop into “profitless prolifics,” generating one new patentable technology after another without any profitable application and, therefore, without any financial return.” (page 177)
Now, if that statement does not kindle your interest, then you are probably not working with innovation.
The book “Serial Inventors” does provide insights and solutions for the fact that Serial Innovators are a rare breed of people. It also shows how to identify, hire, and keep them engaged.
The Core Problem And The Book’s Solution
You can already see where this is going. The approach taken by “Serial Inventors” is very different from many other books about innovation that I have read. In fact, the core of the book is found on page 150:
“Large international corporations spend millions identifying and developing managers to optimize Serial Innovators’ potential. Yet relatively little is spent identifying and developing nascent Serial Innovators (and then supporting them appropriately) to generate the future growth that companies need.” (text in brackets added by me)
The “Serial Innovators” book tells us what to do in order to solve this problem. In other words, the book analyzes how the natural process of profitable innovation can work in a large international corporation.
The book is insofar realistic: people who work for a large international corporation are forced to take short-term views. For them, it often pays to take the path of least resistance, whether this positively impacts the firm’s future or not. All this undermines the work of actual Serial Innovators.
The book includes one more important insight into innovation: companies default to “incremental innovation” as opposed to “breakthrough innovation”. This is because it pays much more for the technical executives to “succumb to pressures of the rest of the organization, by taking the less difficult incremental innovation path without planting the seeds of long-term, sustainable organizational success.” (page 199).
My Practical View On The Theory In “Serial Innovators”
I have seen this happening often. A company decides to implement a non-incremental innovation, hoping that one day it will become a breakthrough innovation. This important task is just thrown at the existing structures of the company, which may or may not see it as a threat. In 99 out of 100 cases, the existing structures will win.
For new products and services to successfully gain customer satisfaction, the owner must plan through every step of the process. If you just throw in something innovative, the existing structures will kill it in 99 of 100 cases. This is like what antibodies do with alien tissue in the human body. This is not always obvious because initially, everyone in the company will be overly in love with the idea of a promising new technology. But precious few have a realistic view of these antibodies and what they are able to do.
As my LinkedIn friend Matthew Wahlrab put it recently:
“From a very simple standpoint, new innovation’s biggest threat is actually the incumbent technology. The incumbent is the beneficiary of widespread adoption, has perfected the marketing game, has resources, and is a pain in the neck to compete with because the incumbent technology is enjoying economy of scale.”
And that is why, if you are an innovator with an urge to change the world, I do not recommend joining an existing company structure. (Unless you have the supernatural powers described in the “Serial Innovators” book.) For most innovators, there are other, more rewarding battles out there. One option would be to open your own company and to innovate there.
What Makes This Book Different
Having said all that, this is what makes “Serial Innovators” stand out from other books in the crowded innovation field: it does not jump right into R&D or IP problems and how to solve them, and it does not focus on how to manage incremental innovation.
There is one refreshing section about “Stage-Gate” processes and why Stage-Gate may work for incremental innovation, but not for the breakthrough innovation that moves the company into new competitive spaces:
“Stage-Gate types of processes are not helpful in navigating through the “Fuzzy Front End” (FFE) of innovation or in obtaining initial corporate approval and funding for a project.” (page 16-19)
If you are an innovator who is frustrated with the question, “Has marketing already signed off on that?”, you will love the “Serial Innovators” book, I promise!
What Makes This Book Difficult And Inaccurate
However, this book has weaknesses. Similar to other books in the field, it uses slang words and acronyms that make it difficult to follow. Especially if the reader is a newbie and not well-versed in terms of innovation theory. A glossary that explains the concepts and terms used in the book would be helpful. Well, the authors did provide a large index and a long list of references, which may compensate for the extra work of writing your own glossary.
“Serial Innovators” was published by its three authors Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price, and Bruce Vojak in 2012, after a 10 year-long research phase. This explains why no state-of-the-art personality tests—such as Levenson, IQ, Big5, and HEXACO—were applied to its protagonists, the serial innovators.
Instead, the book characterizes this rare breed of people with laymen terms. Nevertheless, these terms can be somewhat useful for the HR people involved in selecting and hiring these serial innovators.
My Own “Serial Innovators” Reading Experience
Let me finish this book review with my own reading experience. I bought “Serial Innovators” as a Kindle e-book, as I do with all new books because this format is so easy to handle. After a few pages, I realized that this book is outstanding, because I highlighted 80% of the text and took many notes. This has seldom happened in my life (and I am talking as someone who has read more than a few thousand books).
Generally, I throw away most of the paper books that I have read, but keep most as e-books. The very special ones I do keep on paper, if available. This is why I have ordered “Serial Innovators” as a more expensive hardcover version. I have also read it a second time. I myself qualify as a Serial Innovator; reading the book, I find truth both in the data provided and in the conclusions drawn.
If you have also read my “4×4 Innovation Strategy” book, you will see that both books talk about the same “forest of trees”, but from a different perspective. While my book stems from lifelong experience of the practical side of innovation, “Serial Innovators” takes a scholarly approach to the same area.
In short, I find the book “Serial Innovators” fascinating.
You can check out the book on Amazon (click here) and read the book reviews there.
Then buy the Kindle version and read it. If you like it, buy the hardcover version.
If you work professionally with innovation, you will need both versions: the paper version for your notes, and the electronic version for searching and citing.
Martin “Serial Innovation” Schweiger