When Individuals Are More Innovative Than Teams


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Tian Heong Chan, Jürgen Mihm, and Manuel Sosa for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Tian Heong Chan is an assistant professor of information systems and operations management at Goizueta Business School – Emory University.

Jürgen Mihm is a professor of technology and operations management at INSEAD.

Manuel Sosa is an associate professor of technology and operations management at INSEAD.

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