Serial Innovators book
Back to Our Insights John Wiley & Sons, 2011
Claudio Feser

Serial Innovators: Firms That Change the World

As firms grow, they develop individual and organizational rigidities that prevent them from adapting to change in the marketplace.

From Texaco and General Foods to Pan Am and Westinghouse, world-class companies consistently lose out, over time, to smaller, comparatively inexperienced, but agile newcomers. This new book by McKinsey senior partner Claudio Feser asserts that the problem is that as firms grow, they develop individual and organizational rigidities, preventing them from adapting to changes in the marketplace. This book outlines what those rigidities are, why they arise, and how organizations can resist them in order to adapt and grow despite their age.

Feser bases his findings on in-depth analysis of the latest advances in fields such as behavioral economics, psychology, neuroscience, organizational science, and anthropology. He combines these diverse perspectives with his own first-hand experience in working with CEOs at major companies throughout the world. He then illustrates his insights with the fictional story of a young CEO who moves his company from the brink of disaster to long-term health by combating the rigidities impeding its success.

Author interview

Rigidities that spell disaster

The author explores a host of individual and organizational rigidities including:

  • The challenge of change: How people interact, how they work, the decisions they make—are habits that take a lot of energy and attention to change. Building on an understanding of the human brain, Feser details approaches that companies can use to help their people alter typically inflexible brain connections.
  • Dense organizational hierarchies: Dense hierarchies that allow firms to organize the work of large numbers of people also prevent supervisors from receiving vital frontline information. The book shows how to design simpler, more functional organizations that are faster and more adaptive.
  • Lack of purpose: People have a desire to fulfill a mission, to give meaning to their lives. Feser advises leaders to build corporate ideologies that are altruistic and conveyed through stories.
  • Ill-designed incentives: Incentive schemes that focus people on the short-term may distract them from adapting for the long-term. The book explores the limits of financial incentives, and presents a variety of effective non-financial motivators.

"Rigidities are necessary for human beings and organizations to function well. However, they can also become the reason for organizational failure and even death," Feser explains. He calls companies that can overcome these rigidities "serial innovators."

They engage their employees with a mission for making an impact in society. They are led by a diverse set of people who complement each other with differing mental frameworks, and they are organized into small, nimble units. Serial innovators also experiment a lot. Therefore, when circumstances change, they're much faster than other organizations to build new capabilities and skills. And finally, serial innovators continuously challenge themselves, always asking "could we do this better or differently?"

Any company can become a serial innovator–one that is adaptive and has a positive impact on its stakeholders and society in general. In the words of Joseph Jimenez, CEO of Novartis AG, Serial Innovators is "an essential guide for anyone leading organizations in today's fast-paced global markets."