Revisiting the Role of Collaboration in Creating Breakthrough Inventions
31 Pages Posted: 3 May 2017 Last revised: 12 Mar 2018
Date Written: March 9, 2018
The empirical literature has consistently found that lone inventors significantly underperform teams at creating innovation breakthroughs; thus it extols the benefits of teamwork while neglecting the role of single inventors. We use utility and design patent data for 1985-2009 to compare the effect — on the probability of creating a breakthrough invention — of working alone versus working with a team. For utility patents, we do find that working alone reduces the probability of achieving a breakthrough. Yet we identify an important contingency: this disadvantage of lone inventors disappears for design patents, or innovation in product form. 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. We test our theory in the context of utility patents, where we can observe variation in inventions’ decomposability (i.e., ranging from integral to modular). In accord with our theory, technological inventions that are difficult to decompose also relatively advantage the lone inventor. These results uncover an important mechanism, the invention’s degree of decomposability, moderating the effect of collaboration on breakthrough performance. Finally, we show that collaboration has a long-lasting effect: lone inventors with a large number of past collaborators exhibit a significantly improved likelihood of creating breakthrough innovations and may even outperform teams for both design and integral technology inventions. 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 types of innovation settings.
Keywords: Product Design, Technological Innovation, Patents, Inventor Collaboration, Innovation Teams
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