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Colarelli O’Connor & McDermott – The Human Side of Radical Innovation

“Radical, breakthrough, discontinuous, step out, horizon 3, gamechanging innovation are all labels adopted in the academic literature and management practice to identify projects whose objectives are to create new to the world offerings and, concomitantly, whole new lines of business for companies. They are distinguished not only by the promise of reward they offer, which is not only large in scope and strategically important to the corporation in terms of organizational renewal, but also by the risk and uncertainty that accompanies their potential outcome. They are characterized by long-term (typically 10 years or more) development time and millions of dollars of investment. Because these projects operate in domains of high uncertainty, management practices associated with them must logically differ from those applied to new product development (NPD) projects whose targeted outcome is more incremental and thus, well understood (Morone, 1993; Leifer et al., 2000).

Typically radical innovation (RI) has been considered the domain of start up entrepreneurial ventures, who reject the processes and infrastructure of the large established company in favor of flexible, discovery based approaches to commercializing novel technologies. Large established firms have learned to excel at incremental or even generational improvement, operational discipline, and continuous refinement of known processes. Yet, even large companies cannot save and refine their way to strategic renewal, nor can they hope to achieve it solely through acquisition. Over time, lines of business wither and must be replaced. The value of specific capabilities erodes as they become established best practices throughout an industry (Eisenhardt and Martin, 2000). General Electric, Motorola, 3M, Kodak, Dupont, Texas Instruments and other large icons have, every once in a while, managed to spawn whole new lines of business through radical innovation. Previous research on radical in- novation has focused on factors impacting firms’ willingness to adopt them for their own use as a source of competitive advantage (Ettlie et al., 1984; Damanpour, 1988, 1991; Nord and Tucker, 1987), while others focus on the efforts (or failures) of firms to create radical innovations and leverage them in the marketplace (Burgelman, 1985; Christensen, 1997; Dougherty and Heller, 1994; Leifer et al., 2000; Tushman and O’Reilly, 1997; Van de Ven et al., 1989; Kanter et al., 1991).

The vast majority of the literature analyzing how and why radical innovations were successfully developed and commercialized focuses on the importance of the individual, his persistence, vision and drive to getting things done in the face of doubters and the bureaucratic systems of the company as a critical element in how radical innovation happens in large companies. Additionally, the need for senior management sponsorship as the project requires more and more investment is well understood. Yet few studies have reviewed, in a systematic way, the myriad mechanisms used in large companies to leverage the human element necessary for radical innovation. The objective of this paper is to build on the growing body of field research in radical innovation, with a focus on the human connections. We draw our observations from a recently completed longitudinal field study of twelve radical innovation projects in ten large established companies. We focus on practices that organizations are using, albeit unsystematically, to leverage the humanness of RI in ways that advance projects. We also note practices being used that, in fact, retard RI progress.

The research questions that guided this specific line of inquiry were rather simple—(1) what factors enable entrepreneurial people in organizations to succeed? (2) what factors inhibit their success? (3) what specific people related factors advance radical innovations in large established companies, and (4) what people related factors inhibit their advancement?

Given the importance of people’s passion and unique talent in driving RI, it seems critical to consider mechanisms that work and don’t work to leverage these human aspects of radical innovation. While the highly uncertain, highly volatile domain of RI requires situation-specific knowledge that is not necessarily codifiable as are more predictable business processes (Eisenhardt and Martin, 2000), a thorough understanding of the human side of RI will lead academics to consider how to develop support mechanisms, appropriate governance techniques, and enabling infrastructure to work with, rather than frustrate, those with talent and acumen for radical innovation.”




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