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Learning from Charles Dickens: three steps to innovation success

It was March 1836 when Charles Dickens published the first instalment of The Pickwick Papers. It was the making of him both financially and as a writer. The Pickwick Papers tell the adventures of Samuel Pickwick and other members of ‘The Pickwick Club’ as they travel around England and share their experiences of life and human nature. Sales of the first instalment of The Pickwick Papers were slow, with only 400 copies purchased, but by the time the serialisation ended, with the nineteenth instalment, in November 1837, an astounding 40,000 copies were being devoured by his fans.

The impact of the serialisation went way beyond sales success. Bootleg versions were produced and there were several stage adaptations made, some starting even before the serialisation was complete. Several ‘Pickwick Clubs’ were founded, inspired by the story and there were even joke book spin offs. Dickens is widely credited with popularising the serialised format. So, what drove this spectacular increase in demand? How did Dickens capture the imagination of this growing audience? As John Mulan says in The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist,

‘His work was written for serialisation, not written, and then divided into serialised parts.’

Dickens began with a clear concept for the book in mind, but as he wrote, he constantly sought feedback, feeling for the public’s response. He never wrote too far ahead of the next instalment. Instead, he listened and learnt from his readers before moving onto the next chapter. He kept hold of an idea of the overall shape of the book, but he would often modify plot and character development because of the reactions of readers.

The innovation challenge

Fast forward to today and both the desire and need to do things differently is stronger than ever. ‘Make bigger bets, make more bets and do it faster.’ Or so say McKinsey, BCG and others. Big innovation is back.

In my experience, when the growth and innovation agenda and rhetoric ramp up in an organisation it can be a heady mix of exhilarating and terrifying. A client in a large FMCG business recently told me that they had a big innovation and reinvention mandate and an exciting new brief. The brief? Grow the brand and the category by half a billion dollars over the next five years. No more detail than that. Exhilarating…and terrifying.

Key lessons

So, what can we learn from The Pickwick Papers? And how can it help us to innovate more successfully?

I think there are two key lessons.

Lesson 1: ‘His work was written for serialisation, not written and then divided into serialised parts.’

Lesson 2: He didn’t just seek out feedback. He expected that it would have a big and immediate impact on what he was doing.

How often do we define a vision for an innovation and growth challenge and then break it down it a series of logical steps to get there and call it a road map? And how often are we surprised that something unexpected happens early on in our journey that 'messes up’ the next steps we had carefully planned out on our project plan?

We all know what happens next. The project stalls, doubt creeps in, and key stakeholders start to lose interest.

3 steps to success

So, what advice would Boz, the nickname Dickens chose for himself, give us?

  1. Have a clear idea for your ‘book’ and know the overall journey of the story.

  2. Stop endlessly ‘crafting the vision’. Instead, write your first instalment fully and get it published.

  3. Seek out feedback and expect that this will shape your work immediately and directly.

Then adapt the next instalment, publish and seek feedback again. Rinse and repeat.


The Pickwick Papers was a publishing phenomenon. Maybe Dickens’ success in growing his audience was because he was an innovator. Maybe it owed more to his starting out as a journalist, not a novelist. Or maybe it was because he was tuned in to the latest developments in printing and publishing. Whatever his edge, Dickens got the balance right between crafting a vision, having a process and taking action. Critically, he prioritised listening, learning and adapting along the way. Dickens was the original serial innovator.

How are you feeling about your current innovation challenges? Exhilarated? Terrified? A bit of both? Take a leaf out of Dickens’ book and follow his 3 simple steps to innovation success.

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