Facilitators of organizational innovation: The role of life-cycle stage

Christine S. Koberg, Nikolaus Uhlenbruck, Yolanda Sarason

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the most serious challenges facing an entrepreneurial company, particularly a high-technology firm, is knowing how to manage innovation as the organization evolves. Macro-level facilitators/inhibitors of innovation -i.e., organizational and environmental conditions of a firm that promote or restrain innovation such as the structure of an organization, its incentive system, resources provided by its environment, or its ways of analyzing firm-external information - and their relationship to the innovativeness of the firm are considered in this study. Two basic arguments have been put forward previously as to why the innovativeness of an organization may change as it evolves. First, it has been suggested that facilitators of innovation change over time and so will firm innovativeness. That is, the relationship between the facilitator and innovation stays unchanged but the facilitator itself is transformed, causing changes in firm innovativeness as it develops. For instance, it has been suggested that mature firms become less innovative because their structure becomes overly formalized to perform other functions more efficiently, which then stifles innovative processes. Second, other researchers have proposed that the relationship between a facilitator and innovation changes as firms evolve; for instance a formal structure may support innovation in a younger firm because it allows the entrepreneur to focus her energy, whereas it may suppress innovation later since it inhibits an innovator's interaction with other environments. The results of our analysis, using data from 326 U.S. firms in different stages of their development and involved in many kinds of high-tech industries, support the second theory. However, the results for the relationships of the individual facilitators to innovation were not always as expected. We found that formally structured young firms were less innovative than informal ones and that in older organizations, formalization had no negative impact on innovation. This finding possibly can be explained with micro-level facilitators of innovation: younger firms may have more entrepreneurial personnel whose ability for innovation is more inhibited through a formal structure than the more "seasoned" employees in older, larger firms. However, this finding implies that the concern for formal structures with respect to firm innovativeness does not necessarily apply as typically assumed. Of similar significance was our finding with respect to the relationship between financial incentives and innovation. It has been suggested that younger rather than older firms use incentives such as equity to encourage an innovative environment. Results of this research, however, show that innovation is associated with stock incentives especially in older firms. This may be an indication for older firms to use differentiated incentives that reflect the individual's contribution to the firm to retain innovative personnel, whereas start-ups might rely on the excitement of working in a new venture as an incentive for innovative behavior. More in line with expectations were the results for how firms process external information. Environmental scanning and data analysis were positively associated with innovation, and this more so in older firms, presumably because they have become more remote from developments outside the organization. This result confirms the notion that much innovation by a firm is initiated externally. However, the results also indicate that the conditions of the environment itself are of lesser importance to firm innovativeness than the firm's active pursuit of information from its environment. An often discussed implication of these findings is that the boundaries of a firm must be permeable, at least from the outside in, and systematic information gathering from customers, competition, research institutions, etc. may be necessary to the success of a firm that depends on its product development. This seems especially important for older firms. As expected, the centralization of power in an organization also affected innovation. Centralization correlated positively with innovation in new ventures and negatively in older firms. This indicates the importance of the entrepreneur and strong leader in a start-up. It also suggests, though, that as the firm matures, this person has to give up some of her control and may have to relinquish the job at the head of the organization to someone else. Finally, there are some more general implications of this work to managers involved with organizational innovation. First, reliance on past experience may be detrimental to future performance. Whereas a firm evolves through different stages, means that have facilitated innovation earlier may be detrimental to it now or tomorrow, and vice versa. Second, copying successful strategies for innovation from other firms may not necessarily work - not because their implementation was worse but because the conditions of the other firm, for instance its evolutionary stage or its micro-level facilitators, were different. Researchers who study innovation should consider including life-cycle stage as a potential moderating variable. Factors that facilitate innovation at some point during an organization 's evolution actually hinder it in another. Also, factors that were unimportant to innovation at the inception of a firm may facilitate it in later stages. This study supports the conclusion that the consideration of contingency factors, such as life-cycle stage, may enhance the development of a theory of organizational innovation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)133-149
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Business Venturing
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1996


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