The Case for the Lone Inventor

I always underline teaming, collaboration, cooperation in our organization, in our customers. When I saw the below article I would like to share with you.

A large body of research has concluded that breakthrough innovation is more commonly achieved by teams than by individuals; indeed, some observers have proclaimed the lone inventor to be a myth. A new study finds a more nuanced picture: that the relative effectiveness of teams and individuals varies according to whether the invention can be broken down into discrete chunks of work.

The researchers studied more than 1.8 million U.S. patents filed from 1985 to 2009, dividing them into two groups according to patent office classifications. Utility patents refer to inventions involving function, while design patents relate to form. Looking at the most-successful design patents (determined by the number of citations), the researchers found that solo inventors were just as likely as teams to produce breakthrough innovations. That happened, they say, because design innovations tend to be holistic; the work doesn’t lend itself to division into separate chunks, so a team gains no advantage and incurs coordination costs.

With utility patents, the researchers found that solo inventors had a 17% lower probability of creating a break­ through. But the effect wasn’t universal. Because patent filings are highly structured-each aspect of an invention (and its variants) is assigned a subject and a number-the researchers were able to count the chunks of work in each one. They found that although teams outperformed individuals in conceiving highly modular inventions, there was no appreciable difference when it came to more-holistic ones. Further analysis showed that solo inventors performed well only if they had a rich history of collaboration, presumably because that gave them a learning platform to draw on when working on their own.

“Aligning the structure of the innovation task (creating a modular vs. an integral system) with the collaborative structure (working with others vs. working alone) is a critical decision that significantly affects the chances of a breakthrough”, the researchers write. “Managers can avoid or at least minimize coordination pitfalls if they ensure that invention and collaborative structures ‘mirror’ each other.”

Batur Erdogan

Source : Revisiting the Role of Collaboration  in Creating Break through inventions,” by Tian Heong Chan, Jürgen Mihm , and Manuel Sosa (Manufacturing & Service Operations Management)