Revisiting the Role of Collaboration in Creating Breakthrough Inventions
43 Pages Posted: 3 May 2017 Last revised: 9 Jan 2019
Date Written: January 4, 2019
Problem Definition: Is teamwork better than working alone for creating breakthrough inventions? We challenge the widely accepted affirmative answer to this question. Academic/Practical Relevance: Extant research has consistently found that lone inventors significantly underperform teams in creating breakthroughs; thus it extols the benefits of teamwork while neglecting the role of single inventors. This paper provides an important counterweight to this empirical literature by identifying circumstances under which teams do not outperform lone inventors. Methodology: We use utility and design patent data for 1985–2009 to compare the effect—on the probability of creating a breakthrough—of working alone versus working with a team. Results: For utility patents, we do find that working alone reduces the likelihood of achieving a breakthrough. Yet this disadvantage of lone inventors is not evident for design patents. We theorize that the holistic (i.e., nearly non-decomposable) nature of design is a major factor contributing to the relative efficacy of lone designers at achieving breakthroughs. This theory is then tested in the context of utility patents, where we can observe variation in inventions’ decomposability (i.e., the range from integral to modular). We find that breakthrough technology inventions that are difficult to decompose also relatively advantage lone inventors compared with teams, and we show that the result may reflect greater coordination costs when teams work on difficult to decompose inventions. We also demonstrate that collaboration has a long-lasting effect: lone inventors with a large number of past collaborators exhibit a significantly greater probability of creating breakthroughs and may even outperform teams for both design and integral technology inventions. Managerial Implications: By identifying areas conducive to the success of lone inventors, this paper’s results deepen our understanding of the role that collaboration plays in different innovation settings. In particular, inventors should explicitly consider the targeted invention’s decomposability as well as their own history of collaboration when deciding whether (or not) to work with a team on a given innovation.
Keywords: Product Design, Technology Innovation, Patents, Inventor Collaboration, Innovation Teams
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