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How important is collaboration to breakthrough innovation? And, conversely, how significant are the contributions of inventors who work alone? Earlier research on this question has shown conflicting results on the importance of lone inventors to breakthrough innovation. Now, in a recent working paper, Lee Fleming of Harvard and Jasjit Singh of INSEAD take a new look at this topic. Their conclusion, based on a study of U.S. patents, comes down in favor of the benefits of collaboration. When it comes to inventions, the authors conclude, collaboration reduces the probability of very poor results (perhaps because teams are better at screening ideas than individuals are by themselves) and increases the probability of very good results (perhaps because teams have greater diversity of knowledge that they can combine in new ways).
However, the authors note, their research doesn’t answer the question of whether the benefits of collaboration in innovation are worth the opportunity costs. In other words, a team may be more effective than one individual at generating breakthrough innovations — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the team is more effective than the combined effort of all the individuals on it would be, if they were each working alone.
“Breakthroughs and the ‘Long Tail’ of Innovation” (Lee Fleming, MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2007)
“Managing Innovation in Small Worlds” (Lee Fleming and Matt Marx, MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2006)