To understand how breakthroughs in innovation arise, managers first need to be aware of the different factors that shape the highly skewed distribution of creativity.
Many managers have little understanding of the process of invention. Nor do they possess much insight about the most likely sources of technological and scientific breakthroughs. Specifically, are blockbuster innovations more likely to come from a lone inventor or from a collaborative team? If it’s the latter, does greater diversity on the team help or hurt the group’s chances? And does a deeper understanding of science lead to more breakthroughs, or is such knowledge more likely to result in only incremental progress?
To answer such questions, managers first need to understand that invention is essentially a process of recombinant search. That is, I adopt the classic definition of invention as a new combination of components, ideas or processes. At its simplest level, this definition provides an accessible picture of the inventor as a tinkerer, trying different combinations of materials, gadgets and configurations, and every invention can be thought of as an assemblage of its constituent parts, including the steamship (sailing ship and steam engine), the automobile (bicycle, carriage and internal combustion engine) and Apple Inc.’s iPod (cheap memory, digital music and lightweight battery).
The prevailing view is that breakthroughs are impossible to predict, but that’s only partly true. Much of the misconception arises because people tend to focus on just the breakthroughs while ignoring the iterative process of invention and the resulting total distribution of outcomes. When all inventions (that is, all new combinations) are considered, they demonstrate a highly skewed distribution. (See “Histogram of Creativity.”) Almost all inventions are useless; a few are of moderate value; and only a very, very few are breakthroughs. Those breakthroughs constitute the “long tail” of innovation.