A new study shows that while innovators benefit from all collaborations, collaborations with creative stars are more likely to lead to breakthrough innovations — and enable the innovator to emerge as a creative star in his or her own right.
Past research has demonstrated the benefits of collaboration in creative endeavours. A new study drills down into the issue of collaboration and creativity by asking the question: does the quality of the collaborator make a difference? The results of the study are unequivocal: collaborator quality makes a difference in the outcome of creative innovation efforts.
According to the study’s result, innovators gain more benefit from collaborations with ‘creative stars’ — those who thanks to their extraordinary creative talent make disproportionally influential contributions to their fields — than with ‘non-stars.’ In fact, the results went even further by showing that innovators who collaborated with creative stars were more likely to become creative stars themselves.
The reason lies in the difference between the contributions of nonstar and star collaborators. Non-star collaborators help innovators get access to diverse sources of information and inspiration — different ideas, different personal backgrounds, different ways of framing problems — that they can use to generate new ideas.
Accumulating diverse information is important, but how do you transform that diverse information into breakthrough innovative ideas? This is where star collaborators stand out. Star collaborators teach innovators, through observation and practice, how to synthesize (i.e. integrate) diverse, even contradictory, ideas and information into a completely new idea. Creative synthesis knowledge and skills separate creative stars from non-stars — which is why acquiring these skills through collaboration can turn innovators into creative stars.
The study also looked at whether social network cohesion influenced the chances of innovators emerging from collaborations as a star. Social network cohesion refers to the level of overlap between the networks of an innovator and a collaborator. High network cohesion means that the innovator’s collaborators work with each other. Low network cohesion means that the innovators have collaborators who don’t know or work with each other.
High network cohesion can be detrimental to innovation because collaborators who consistently work with each other are often going to share common beliefs and experiences, which impedes the acquisition of diverse information.
Because diverse information is the principal contribution of nonstar collaborators, high network cohesion reduces the chances of an innovator working with a nonstar collaborator from emerging as a star. The opposite effect, the study found, occurs with star collaborators: high network cohesion increases the chances of an innovator working with a star collaborator to emerge as a star.
The reason is that the principal contribution of star collaborators is not diverse information but creative synthesis skills, which are positively impacted by high network cohesion. Collaborators with experience working with each other are going to have a common understanding of gaps and problems with the current paradigm of the innovation, and easily communicate with each other (many will share frames of reference), both of which support the process of creative synthesis.
The study revealed the same opposite effects when it focused on focused on expertise similarity (the overlap in expertise, for example, knowledge about techniques or new products in their fields — between the innovator and his or her collaborators). Again, high expertise similarity reduces information diversity, and thus reducing the benefit of collaborating with non-stars. In contrast, an overlap of expertise makes it easier for a collaborator to explain and guide an innovator in pulling together disparate ideas and information into a new idea. It is especially easier to adapt new knowledge when it is linked to familiar concepts and ideas.
In short, the study demonstrates that for a variety of reasons, the chances for an innovator to emerge as a creative star increases if the innovator collaborates with creative stars.
A Note on the Data
The study was based on statistical analyses of a database of design patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office between 1975 and 2010.
Design patent applications are a treasure trove of information, not only listing the name of the designer and date of the application, but also listing the designer’s collaborators and including citations of other patents that influenced the design.
The researchers used citations from other patent applications to measure the popularity of a designer: the more citations to a designer’s patent(s), the greater the designer’s influence. When the number of citations of a designer reached the level of the top 2% of citations, the designer had reached ‘star’ status.
From this database, the researchers could also put together a comprehensive collaborative history for each designer — i.e. whether they had collaborated with star designers and/or nonstar designers or whether they had any collaborators at all.
The quality of collaborators makes a difference in whether or not an innovator emerges from these collaborations as a creative star. Paradoxically, even elements that can undermine the effectiveness of collaborations, such as network cohesion and expertise similarity, can become assets if the collaborators are creative stars. Companies who want to develop their own stars should take care to ensure that their high potential innovators and other creatives collaborate as much as possible with the creative stars in their fields.
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