Lone inventors as sources of breakthroughs: myth or reality?

How does collaboration influence creativity and, in particular, the invention of breakthroughs? Recent research has attempted to resolve this question by considering the variance of creative outcomes, implicitly assuming that greater probability of breakthroughs comes at the cost of greater probability of particularly poor outcomes. However, through an examination of the overall distribution of outcomes in the context of patented inventions, we demonstrate that collaboration can have opposite effects at the two tails of the distribution: it reduces the probability of very poor outcomes while simultaneously increasing the probability of extremely successful outcomes. We find that these effects are at least partially mediated by the technical diversity of team members and by the size of team membersÂ’ external collaboration networks. We also find that large teams exhibit greater extent and breadth of technological search than small teams or lone inventors, and that such search behaviour is associated with greater impact.

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