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Breakthroughs and the 'Long Tail' of Innovation

The largely erroneous perception that breakthroughs are impossible to predict arises from the tendency to focus on just the breakthroughs while ignoring the iterative process of invention and its distribution of outcomes. When all inventions are considered, they demonstrate a highly skewed distribution in which 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.

If managers wish to understand how those breakthroughs arise, they cannot ignore the process that generates the entire distribution. In particular, they need to keep in mind the following three measures of inventive success: shots on goal (the total number of inventions a company generates), average score (the mean value of those inventions) and maximum scores (the breakthrough inventions). Various factors can affect a company's inventive output, including the presence of inventors who work alone, the type of collaboration among those inventors who work in teams, the amount of team diversity and the degree to which inventors apply science in the innovation process. Greater team diversity, for instance, will help generate more shots on goal although, on average, those shots will be less successful. But diversity also will increase the variance of the outcome, such that failures as well as breakthroughs are more likely. Thus companies first need to identify how they want to improve their innovation process and then take the appropriate measures to address any deficiencies. Only then can they improve their capacity to innovate in ways that make the best sense for the organization as a whole.
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