Revisiting the role of collaboration in creating breakthrough inventions


Is teamwork better than working alone for creating breakthrough inventions? We challenge the widely accepted affirmative answer to this question. 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 offers an important counterweight to those empirical results by identifying a fundamental contingency under which teams might or might not outperform lone inventors: the degree of decomposability of the invention. By ignoring this contingency, past literature has systematically underestimated the role that lone inventors can play for companies. 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 nearly nondecomposable nature of design is a major factor contributing to lone designers’ relative efficacy of achieving breakthroughs. This theory is then tested in the context of utility patents, where we can observe variation in inventions’ decomposability. We find that technology inventions that are difficult to decompose also relatively advantage lone inventors compared with teams, and we demonstrate that this finding reflects greater coordination costs when such inventions are attempted by teams. If one takes a myopic view of collaboration’s role, then our results suggest that working with others does not help develop outstanding nondecomposable inventions. Yet taking a long-term view reveals that lone inventors benefit more than do teams from having collaborated with others in the past. In fact, we find that past collaborations can help lone inventors outperform teams with regard to developing nondecomposable inventions. ast research has suggested that collaboration is universally beneficial in creating breakthrough inventions. However, such efforts have ignored crucial contingencies: we show why inventors should explicitly consider both the targeted invention’s decomposability and their own history of collaboration when deciding whether or not to work with a team on a given innovation.

In Manufacturing & Service Operations Management

Pseudocode for measuring “decomposability” of a (utility) patent

Patent claims are written in such a strict way that the subject matter of the claim - that is, the thing that the idea the claim protects - can be fairly easily identified. This in turn allows us to measure the degree to which the invention that the patent protects is decomposable. We say an invention is more decomposable (or modular) if it has more subject matters identified in this way. Conversely, it is less decomposable (or integral) if it has less subject matters identified in this way. (The intuition is that the more subject matters identified in an invention, the more one can apply ideas to individual parts of the invention without changing the rest).

I use this approach to show that an inventor is more likely to create breakthroughs when working alone (compared to working with others) especially when working on integral inventions (see paper and a shorter version on HBR online).

I use CoreNLP to identify the noun phrase.

  1. For each claim, identify whether it is independent or dependent by using a regular-expression search for the term “claim #”, where # signifies any number.
  2. If the claim is independent:
  • Break down the claim into individual words.
  • Tag each word in the claim with its type: noun, adjective, verb, etc.
  • Identify the root for each word (e.g., reduce the word “surfaces” to “surface”).
  • Identify the subject matter for the claim based on first-occurring noun phrase with adjectives (e.g., “outer free end”, “elastic strip”, “bioprosthetic mitral valve replacement”).
  1. If the claim is dependent:
  • Take the sentence starting after “claim #”—for example, from the text “A mitral valve replacement as in claim 1, wherein the base is…” use only “wherein the base is…”.
  • Return to the substeps of Step 2.
  1. Count the number of distinct subject matter in the patent.
Tian Chan
Tian Chan
Associate Professor (Information Systems and Operations Management)

Scholar researching and teaching in the areas of operations and innovation management.