Research has found that teams generally outperform individuals when attempting to create impactful innovations such as highly cited technological patents or scientific publications. But a new study uncovers a factor that plays a key role in determining whether team outcomes will be superior to those of lone inventors: the structure of the invention, that is the extent to which the invention can be broken down into separate components or “modules”.
It is widely believed that breakthrough innovation is more likely to be achieved by teams. Research has found that teams generally outperform individuals when attempting to create impactful innovations such as highly cited technological patents or scientific publications.
However, our research has uncovered a factor that plays a key role in determining whether team outcomes will be superior to those of lone inventors: the structure of the invention — that is, the extent to which the invention can be broken down into separate components or “modules.”
We analyzed 1,603,970 utility patents (awarded for innovation in function, such as for a product, process, or machine) and 198,265 design patents (innovation in form, such as a distinct visual configuration or ornamentation of a product), filed between 1985 and 2009 with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
We tallied the number of “breakthrough” inventions, defined as those whose number of citations is within the top 5% of its product class. (The success of an invention is commonly measured by how often it is cited in patents by subsequent inventors.) We then tested whether a given inventor was more likely to get a patent for a breakthrough invention when developing it as part of a team of inventors or as a solo inventor.
Similar to previous research, we found that a utility patent is more likely to be a breakthrough when a team of inventors created it. However, we also found that this team advantage completely disappears for design patents. Individual inventors are just as likely to produce breakthrough design patents as teams.
Why do teams lose their advantage when creating design inventions?
Consider iconic designs, such as the Coca-Cola curvy bottle or the iPhone, and how our perception of them is fundamentally holistic, meaning we perceive the entirety of their design and not their individual components, such as the opening of the bottle or the curvature of the corners of the iPhone. The elements all go together — they’re highly interdependent — so we can’t immediately isolate the exact contribution of each of the parts to the whole design.
We believe that this interdependency between the parts of an invention significantly influences the dynamics of the invention process. A team working on design is likely to struggle should it attempt a divide-and-conquer approach to finding a holistic solution.
Imagine a team attempting to create a new painting. It is possible, but the effort required to coordinate and communicate ideas among team members is time- and resource-intensive. By contrast, the lone inventor can mentally assess, iterate, and discard possibilities with ease, because they do not face a team’s communication and coordination requirements. These extra efforts would outweigh the benefits of working collaboratively when the invention at hand is holistic as most design patents are.
Our theory would suggest that the effectiveness of teams and lone inventors is strongly affected by a fundamental aspect of the invention: its level of modularity, or how easily it can be partitioned into its different components. Technology inventions vary in terms of modularity. Some inventions are very modular and can be partitioned into well-defined components. For example, Dell PCs are configured to accept a wide range of independent and interchangeable components that can be easily connected together, without affecting the overall functionality. If a team is working on a technological invention that is modular, team members may be encouraged to operate autonomously, allowing them to reap the advantages of knowledge diversity and shared resources with minimum coordination costs.
Other technological inventions, however, include many interdependent elements that are difficult to separate into individual parts. The reliable two-stroke internal combustion engine first invented by Karl Benz is an example of this kind of integral invention. Each component was specifically designed to fit within a tightly integrated and complex structure. These features could not be adapted or interchanged easily, since the components were heavily reliant on one another to produce the desired effect.
Akin to design inventions, we argue that the lone inventor is likely to make faster progress on integral inventions, since a team can be slowed down by communication and coordination challenges. On the other hand, breakthrough modular inventions can more often be accomplished through teamwork. When examining all the utility patents in our sample, we found that the probability advantage that a team of inventors would get a breakthrough would significantly decrease if the invention was less modular. Moreover, the advantage of teams would completely disappear when the utility patent was highly integral (or non-modular).
Does this mean collaboration has no inherent value for holistic innovations? Quite the opposite: We find that collaboration improves inventors’ development. Extensive collaboration allows inventors to assimilate their colleagues’ skills and build network resources that serve as channels of valuable information. Previous collaborators can offer feedback on ideas and identify other valuable resources, providing the lone inventor with some team-oriented benefits without imposing any team-induced coordination costs.
Accordingly, we find that lone inventors who never collaborate tend to perform poorly, whereas those who have collaborated often in the past exhibit a higher probability of creating breakthroughs when dealing with holistic inventions.
So in order to increase your chances of achieving a breakthrough, align the structure of the collaboration with the invention and its level of modularity – and don’t forget to consider innovators’ collaboration histories. The cost-benefit trade-off for teams can change dramatically depending on the degree to which the invention can be partitioned into independent components. Automatically assuming that teams are the best way to proceed may negate your innovation efforts. Lone inventors, particularly those who have built up an extensive collaborative network, need to be recognized as an effective resource for design and integral inventions.