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Book Review: Serial Innovators
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Book Review: Serial Innovators by Claudio Feser

Serial Innovators: Firms that Change the World

Written by: Claudio Feser. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. xvi+202 pages. 
Reviewed by: S. S. Pal

Serial Innovators

Man is an innovating animal. Coming to live in groups for man is an inborn trait. Ample historical evidence exists for man's innovative accomplishments in the civilizations over the ages. Why then must innovation be a serious cause of concern in his industrial endeavors in the later years? Why, which happens to be instinctive in the personal domains, should become so troublesome to bring about for the organized groups? There ought to be some very typical reasons. Claudio Feser's Serial Innovators takes up some such questions to give us a direction in comprehending the issues rooted deeper in the context.

Today's situation cannot be more alarming or urgent. Research studies on survival rate of organizations provide ample cause for worry: organizations have very low average life expectancy, of about 15 odd years. “In fact, only 14 of the top 50 companies in 1960 (28%) retained their status and remained among the top 50 U.S. firms in 2010. Thirteen companies (26%) that were on the 1960 list have been outgrown and surpassed by firms that were smaller or did not exist in 1960, and are therefore no longer on the top 50 list in 2010. Twenty-three companies (46%) listed in 1960 no longer exist” (p. 12). From here, Feser takes us through the influencing constructs from behavioral economics, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, network theory, anthropology, organizational science, sociology, and strategy, in order, toward providing “some” insights, ideas, suggestions, and perspectives on the organizational personality of a serial innovator that continuously reinvents itself, changes industry, and remains in the business of business.

Organization life cycle studies tell us that firms are born, grow, mature, and eventually get sick and die, maybe like biological organisms. But, when the aging is arrested, when the life cycle is renewed (on another S-curve), they thrive. Serial Innovators makes its main contribution here to suggest how it may be done and why it has a point. Its auxiliary contributions include extension of the arguments beyond just business, to also other types of long-lasting institutions, like “families, academic, and religious institutions, that have lasted for centuries and fundamentally influenced the development of humanity.” The author's thesis interestingly unfolds in the book through the fictitious (but quite engaging) story of one Carl Berger, the fictitious new president of a fictitious problem company, American Health Devices, Inc. (AHD).

Contrary to the evolutionary perspective that “the ultimate objective of a company should be to survive and replicate, or grow,” Feser takes a view that “companies are not biological cells whose sole purpose is to survive and replicate (or grow).” “Organizations consist of human beings … who naturally long to make a difference in their lives” (p. 142). Organizations do age and die when they develop rigidities they cannot overcome. These rigidities, whether individual or organizational, are both man-made. They originate in two areas: in the human brain and in the organizational constructs composed of human beings. In order to understand its context, the book first reviews three factors, namely, mental biases, lack of (task specific) self-confidence and inflexible brain conditions, respectively from behavioral economics, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience that reduce the ability of individuals to adapt to changing situations and pose as rigidities adversely affecting the ability of organizations to address the challenges they are facing. Following next are the understanding and mellowing of inhibiting organizational rigidities caused by dense bureaucracy, low sense of purpose, dysfunctional culture, mindlessincentivization of tasks, and capabilities as a constraint.

Reviews of various academic fields in the book show that informed and thoughtful managerial interventions can interrupt, or at least slow down, the process of aging and decaying of firms. Seven interventions find particular relevance:

  1. Cultivating a firm's members’ desire to make a difference,
  2. Building a team of learners at the top,
  3. Framing the vision and strategy positively,
  4. Building on self-managed performance cells,
  5. Promoting the firm's members’ drive to perform and grow,
  6. Investing in capabilities to quickly develop new assets and skills, and
  7. Cultivating a culture that fosters execution and promotes challenge.

Firms that adapt and thrive in dynamic markets resist the aging process: they are serial innovators as acts of human creation; they continuously reinvent themselves; they change their industries. Serial innovators are created by company leaders. Creating serial innovators is also creating a leadership legacy, according to the author, which he distinguishes from the established view of what one wishes to be remembered for after one's departure, on two different dimensions: “First, developing a legacy is building an organization that builds human passion, self-confidence, values, and capabilities. Second, developing a legacy is building an organization that has a positive impact on society” (p. 163). The author substantiates his argument by examples of two firms, Ford and Apple.

Serial innovators live long. Serial Innovators is also likely to live longer and remain relevant in the reckoning. It is well-known that any war is won (lost) twice, once in the mind and second in the field. This book can help you likewise win your company's existential wars in your endeavors. The story line of the book is artfully woven; every chapter provides a cue to the next in a plausible progression. Feser's characterization of Carl, the CEO of AHD, is very engaging. There may be a little bit of Carl in every manager's life. As if I was reading a thriller, I must admit, I got so immersed, almost to the extent of getting carried away by its developments, that I was finding it quite difficult to maintain the clinical detachment of a reviewer while putting together my responses here.

Nevertheless, before I close, I must bring to the fore certain opportunities for improvements in the book which appear important. First, grammatical incongruence (as in p. 11), which may of course be simple typographical errors, should be weeded out thoroughly from the entire text with care. Second, instead of nonvalue-adding repetition of same paragraphs twice in two places (as of p. 82 in p. 146, and of p. 152 in p. 155), other ways of cross-referencing could be considered. Third, while summarizing multiple issues of the same previous research on a given theme in consecutive paragraphs (as in pp. 40–41 for Bandura, 1977, in p. 114 for Harder, 1999, etc.), it may be superfluous to cite the same author repeatedly at the end of each of those paragraphs. Fourth, the index is found incomplete on authors, as sampled for Bandura or Beinhocker. The index may be safely done away with without any loss of attractiveness, or maybe a subject index will only suffice, if at all required.

However, the impact of these observations on the overall charm and utility of the propositions are very little. These might get noticed only per chance but maybe nice to repair in the next version. In sum, reading Feser's Serial Innovators has been for me both an emotionally and intellectually enriching experience. This book can be, without any reservation, recommended for the practitioners and academics alike.

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