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Book Review: How Breakthroughs Happen
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Book Review: How Breakthroughs Happen by Andrew Hargadon

How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about How Companies Innovate

Written by: Andrew Hargadon. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003. 254+xvi pages.
Reviewed by: Gregory D. Githens

How Breakthroughs Happen

Andrew Hargadon, a professor at University of California–Davis, wrote this book from his Ph.D. research on technological innovation, as well as his engineering employment at IDEO and Apple Computer. There Hargadon experienced the front-line challenges of turning a product vision into a reality. He observed that managers place a media spin on product design innovation so that the media, which likes a compelling story with a neat script and hero, can report about the product. But the story told did not match what Hargadon experienced as a product engineer. There was “more to creativity than designing the innovative organization, picking creative people, and keeping them happy” (p. 222). Instead, the best ideas came from outside the organization, originating from lots of site visits, vendor discussions, and working with engineers from other disciplines.

In his Ph.D. work, Hargadon developed a theory of invention and innovation as a combination of elements that already existed rather than inventing completely novel solutions. He collected data by observing engineers in action at IDEO and by examining innovations originating from Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Robert Fulton, Elias Howe, and others. I think this work would be most useful for a graduate level course on technology management. Hargadon needs to present his ideas is a more straightforward and prescriptive way if he wants to satisfy his intended audience of managers. Technology Brokering would be a more suitable title for this book. The author writes, “This book is fundamentally about the advantages that a strategy of technology brokering provides established organizations” (p. 31). Four chapters use technology brokering in the title, and the index lists entries for technology brokering far outnumbering the citations forinnovation.

Technology brokering recognizes that everything you need to innovate is available and known to someone. Innovation is a social process: One should find and connect with others, adapt technology, and blend that into one's own product or process. Technology brokering is based upon two central ideas. The first is that technologies are formed by tightly coupled arrangements of people, ideas, and objects. Secondly, innovation is a process of reassembling these elements in new combinations. Thus, technology brokering is a strategy for exploiting a social network. In a network, the greater someone's range of contacts and information, the more territory he or she is able to cover, for the least cost. An effective technology broker will maximize the range of connections, putting her or him in a better position to be the first to see how the people, ideas, and objects of one world possibly could provide valuable solutions in another. For example, Ford combined expertise from meatpacking and other industries and was able to create a huge manufacturing advantage from the interchangeable parts, continuous flow production, and assembly line concepts he discovered. He hired people with experience in other industries. Ford's competitors had the same access to the technology as Ford did, but Ford made better use of his network. Hargadon casts Edison's Menlo Park laboratory as an organization of technology brokers. Thomas Edison was only one member of a remarkable collection of technical individuals but became the “face” of many inventions stemming from the networked environment they created at Menlo Park. “The web around Edison was thick with ties to other people, ideas, and objects that together made up his particular invention” (p. 7).

Although the key word of this book's title is breakthrough, this word does not appear in the book's index, and Hargadon devotes insufficient attention to it. The concept of breakthrough or radical innovations as an element of business strategy was not addressed. The difference between breakthrough and incremental innovation is not a trivial point for the targeted audience of this book. Especially for mature companies, the product development capability must be able to do both, and different methods are needed. “How do breakthroughs happen?” Hardagon's goal is, in part, to provide “practical and valuable lessons for anyone attempting to build the innovative capabilities of his or her organization” (p. xv). For the most part, the author uses the word how descriptively, not prescriptively. He convincingly demonstrates that technology brokering is a valid concept for managers a century ago as well as contemporary ones, but he needs to provide more specific, concrete guidance to practicing managers.

The final four chapters of Part Three, “How Firms Pursue Innovation through Technology Brokering,” are the author's attempt at this more prescriptive approach. The chapter on “Technology Brokering as a Firm” primarily describes firms like IDEO that are organized exclusively as a technology broker, and it is the most detailed chapter in Part Three. The chapter on “Technology Brokering within the Firm” does a nice job of describing activities at Hewlett Packard, Xerox, and 3M. The chapter titled “Exploiting Emergent Opportunities for Technology Brokering” looks at one-time opportunities. Hargadon uses the example of Xerox's failure to exploit the inventions of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) to show how PARC used technology brokering to create technological innovations but failed to exploit it. Xerox, contrasted to the more hands-on style of Ford and Edison, acted like a patron rather than an investor. Interestingly, Hargadon also includes a near-century-old example, “Gunfire at Sea,” that describes the challenges that a young naval officer had in getting the U.S. Navy's management to adopt a superior method for using artillery. The Gunfire-at-Sea example illustrates a weakness of the book: While it convinces the reader of the significance of technology brokering in historical accounts, there is much less to say about contemporary innovation efforts. Given the book's promising title, I had hoped for more relevance to contemporary managers. The “surprising truth” promised in the subtitle is that innovators do not work in isolation. The success of Edison, Ford, and others was due to the collaboration of a team of people. They were not particularly heroic, imaginative, nor alone.

Perhaps it will surprise the layperson to find out that that innovation is not about the solitary pursuit of an invention, but academics have looked at the role of individuals and cross-functional teams in creating radical innovations. For example, see the chapter titled “Driving Radical Innovation” in Leifer et al.'s (2000)Radical Innovation. The classic work of Rogers (1995)Diffusion of Innovations, devotes at least seven pages to describing reinvention and two chapters to describing innovation networks and the role of change agents. While it is not necessarily a weakness that Hargadon does not cite Rogers at any point, it is interesting that Hargadon's extensive reference and reading list does not mention Rogers.

There is not a single graphic in this book, and I think this weakness undermines the book's effectiveness. For example, some compare-and-contrast tables, matrices, and influence models would be easy to develop to illustrate the points and to help highlight the main points. It would have strengthened the promise to the “mainstream audience” that the book provides some useful pragmatism. Even some photos of Edison's Menlo Park laboratory or Ford and his management team would have made the book more interesting.

This book is an excellent description of the social structure and cultural context of the innovation process. Hargadon's technology brokering concepts are logical and have great potential for helping companies improve invention and innovation. The book is not a failure; it just does not live up to its hype and is missing a focus on the needs of practicing managers.

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