Serial Innovators: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 19th, 2012 by bobmorris

Serial Innovators: Firms That Change the World
Claudio Feser
John Wiley & Sons (2012)

How and why continuous innovation and adaptation can help an organization “live” longer

What we have here is a “hybrid” narrative that develops on two separate but interdependent levels: a fictional account that focuses on Carl Berger (CEO of American Health Devices or AHD) and Claudio Feser’s exposition of a core thesis that continuous innovation and adaptation can help an organization “live” longer. Only a few years ago, these were corporate equivalents of thriving organisms: Bethlehem Steel, British Leyland, Commodore, Digital Equipment Corporation, Enron, General Foods, Lehman Brothers, Pan Am, Polaroid, RCA, Texaco, TWA, Union Carbide, Uniroyal, Westinghouse, and WorldCom. Today? All gone. And keep in mind, this is only a partial list of organizational fatalities. Of the Top 50 in 1960, only 13 are among the Top 50 in 2010. As for the other 37, 23 have either filed for bankruptcy or been acquired.  The remaining 14 are well-known but endangered.

Frankly, I am much less interested in fictional accounts (however well-told in narrative form with setting, characters, plot, conflicts, etc.) than I am in research-driven revelations based on real-world situations. Feser is a highly-skilled storyteller, to be sure, but I now focus on what he has to say about extending corporate longevity. Here are some of the passages that caught my eye in Chapters 1-5:

o  Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s pioneering research on three heuristics of judgment (anchoring, availability, and representativeness), Pages 27-29
o  Mental biases (framing, optimism, loss aversion, and status quo) and the rigidities of bounded rationality, Pages 29-32
o The Theory of Self-Efficacy Beliefs (i.e. task-specific self-confidence), Pages 40-45
o  Plasticity, learning, and behavioral change, Pages 61-63
o  Large-scale rewiring of brains, Pages 63-65

And then in Chapter 13:

o  The role of a company’s leaders during its transformation, Pages 161-162
o Two elements of Feser’s concept of developing a leadership legacy: (1) “building an organization that builds human passion, self-confidence, values and capabilities,” and (2) building an organization that “has a positive impact on society…one that – with its mission, values, and scale – continuously invents new products and services that make life healthier, better, safer; an organization that can change the world,” Pages 163-164

As I reviewed the material in the Appendix, “Analysis of the Top 50 U.S. Firms of 1960,” and learned what has since become of them, I was reminded of an observation by Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” However, as Charles Darwin’s research on what is now referred to as “natural selection” suggests, organisms – be they organizational or natural – either adapt or perish. Moreover, in recent years, adaption has required constant (“serial” and serious) innovation just to survive.

Although a world-class pragmatist, Feser has high-hopes and great expectations, indeed a rock-solid faith, that almost any organization can not only survive but thrive if (HUGE “if”) its leaders focus their thoughts and actions on what really matters, on doing good, on helping others grow. Yes, profitability is highly desirable and must be achieved and then sustained…but while “building institutions that develop passionate, principled, self-confident, learning individuals” who also do good, whose collective and collaborative initiatives “can have an impact on society.”

As for Carl Berger, good news. Everything eventually turned out well. The details of his story are best revealed within the narrative, in context. However, I do want to say I agree with Claudio Feser that Berger provides a compelling example of a young business leader who overcomes major challenges (including cancer), one who reminds us that we really can “live a life that matters, a life in which we can make a difference.”


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