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Lone Inventors as Sources of Breakthroughs: Myth or Reality?


  • Jasjit Singh

    () (INSEAD, Singapore 138676, Singapore)

  • Lee Fleming

    () (Harvard Business School, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts 02163)


Are lone inventors more or less likely to invent breakthroughs? Recent research has attempted to resolve this question by considering the variance of creative outcome distributions. It has implicitly assumed a symmetric thickening or thinning of both tails, i.e., that a greater probability of breakthroughs comes at the cost of a greater probability of failures. In contrast, we propose that collaboration can have opposite effects at the two extremes: it reduces the probability of very poor outcomes--because of more rigorous selection processes--while simultaneously increasing the probability of extremely successful outcomes--because of greater recombinant opportunity in creative search. Analysis of over half a million patented inventions supports these arguments: Individuals working alone, especially those without affiliation to organizations, are less likely to achieve breakthroughs and more likely to invent particularly poor outcomes. Quantile regressions demonstrate that the effect is more than an upward mean shift. We find partial mediation of the effect of collaboration on extreme outcomes by the diversity of technical experience of team members and by the size of team members' external collaboration networks. Supporting our meta-argument for the importance of examining each tail of the distribution separately, experience diversity helps trim poor outcomes significantly more than it helps create breakthroughs, relative to the effect of external networks.

Suggested Citation

  • Jasjit Singh & Lee Fleming, 2010. "Lone Inventors as Sources of Breakthroughs: Myth or Reality?," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 56(1), pages 41-56, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:inm:ormnsc:v:56:y:2010:i:1:p:41-56

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Kristina Dahlin & Margaret Taylor & Mark Fichman, 2004. "Today's Edisons or Weekend Hobbyists: Technical Merit and Success of Inventions by Independent Inventors," Post-Print hal-00480420, HAL.
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    6. Singh, Jasjit, 2008. "Distributed R&D, cross-regional knowledge integration and quality of innovative output," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 37(1), pages 77-96, February.
    7. Albert, M. B. & Avery, D. & Narin, F. & McAllister, P., 1991. "Direct validation of citation counts as indicators of industrially important patents," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 20(3), pages 251-259, June.
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    9. Ely Dahan & Haim Mendelson, 2001. "An Extreme-Value Model of Concept Testing," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 47(1), pages 102-116, January.
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    11. Jasjit Singh, 2007. "Asymmetry of knowledge spillovers between MNCs and host country firms," Journal of International Business Studies, Palgrave Macmillan;Academy of International Business, vol. 38(5), pages 764-786, September.
    12. Lee Fleming, 2001. "Recombinant Uncertainty in Technological Search," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 47(1), pages 117-132, January.
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