Conventional wisdom has it that innovation is very much a team sport. To create a breakthrough innovation that is vastly more successful than its predecessors, you need to prioritize teams over the individual.
That's not always the case, according to Tian Heong Chan, assistant professor of information systems & operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School. It depends very much on the degree to which the invention can be broken down into discrete chunks of work.
Chan and colleagues from INSEAD published a paper, “Revisiting the Role of Collaboration in Creating Breakthrough Inventions,” in the Manufacturing and Service Operations Management journal in 2020. In it, they look at more than one million U.S. patents for new products filed between 1985 and 2009. The majority of these patents were awarded for innovations in function—machines, processes or products that delivered some kind of utility. The others corresponded to design; in other words, the distinct visual form or aspect of a product, like Coca-Cola’s iconic curvy bottle or the Apple iPhone.
Sifting these patents for breakthroughs (those ranked by citations as being in the top 5 percent of their product class), Chan and his colleagues were able to look at whether standout innovations were the product of teamwork or whether any of them had actually been developed by a lone innovator. And what they found sheds fascinating and useful new light on the dynamics undergirding the innovation process.
As a rule, breakthrough functional products—those awarded patents for some kind of utility—do tend to be created by teams. But when it comes to inventions that are centered on breakthrough designs, it’s a whole different ball game. Here, the solo inventor is every bit as likely to create a breakthrough as an entire team.
The study looks at a diverse cross-section of industries from computers to cars, Chan and his co-authors found that lone inventors do relatively better on these types of integral inventions.
It’s a fascinating work of research – and if you are looking to know more, then let us help.
Tian Heong Chan is an Assistant Professor of Information Systems & Operations Management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School. He is available to speak to his research and this important topic – simply click on his icon now to arrange an interview today.
Tian Heong Chan Assistant Professor of Information Systems & Operations Management