Are You Brainstorming The Right Way For Innovation?

Sarah Kaplan discusses her research on brainstorming and innovation.

Conventional wisdom says brainstorming works best when people from different departments or groups come together to think of new ideas or solve problems. But research from Sarah Kaplan, senior fellow at Wharton’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management and a professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, shows that diversity is not enough. What is also necessary is in-depth expertise of the topic at hand. Those two factors together result in truly innovative ideas and also yield the highest economic value.

[email protected] recently spoke to Kaplan, who is a professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and a former Wharton professor, to discuss her research. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Focus of the Research

I have been conducting research … on innovation, specifically as looked at through the patenting of technological innovations. I published a paper recently with a former doctoral student at the Rotman School, Keyvan Vakili — who’s now at the London Business School — called “The Double-Edged Sword of Recombination in Breakthrough Innovation.”

I want to tell you a little bit about the double-edged sword that we found. Basically, in research on innovation, there has been an idea that breakthrough innovations, those with the highest impact, are ones that are produced through … what we call “re-combination” or combination processes of distant and diverse knowledge.

What we found in this study was that this is only one creative process and there are other creative processes that contribute to breakthrough innovation. Specifically, we found that different types of creativity contribute to the novelty in the knowledge space — how novel the idea is relative to the economic value that is created?Twitter .

In the study, we examined patents in the sphere of nanotechnology because it’s an emerging and exciting new field with lots of breakthrough ideas for over about 20 years and found few patents that were both novel in terms of knowledge and also high impact in terms of economic value.

Patents that were both novel and had economic value were the most valuable. And that was only about 1% of the total patents, so it’s very rare to have a breakthrough in knowledge and a breakthrough in economic value. But when you have that, you get the highest impact patent.

“Patents that were both novel and had economic value were the most valuable. And that was only about 1% of the total patents.”

Key Takeaways

For practitioners, the important thing is to remember that not all creativity happens through combination processes. We have this idea out in the world that … bringing distant and diverse knowledge together is the way to get creative insights, and that’s certainly true. However, what we discovered is that there’s an equally important process of the deep dive, of deep knowledge in one domain.

So, if you are only designing your R&D processes or your new product development processes around that kind of diversity of ideas and combination, you may be in trouble because you don’t have the deep knowledge you need.

This relates to the idea of brainstorming. Everyone thinks we’re going to solve a creative problem by coming together and brainstorming.

What this would say is brainstorming is not enough without the deep knowledge development that you would need in a particular domain to understand what the issues are so that you can break away from existing ways of thinking.

Surprises

This study was actually quite surprising and we found something that we did not expect to find at all. Prior studies of innovation — in particular, studies that look at patenting of scientific inventions — have only focused on measuring breakthrough innovations according to measures of economic value. In the patent world, a measure of economic value is how many times it then gets cited by other patents. What that means is any time you go to get a patent in the patent office, you are required to list prior patents that were essential to the development of your ideas. And the more times your patent gets cited as a prior patent that is essential to the development of ideas, the more valuable that patent is.

And so, in the field of innovation studies, we tend to measure breakthrough innovation as those patents that get many, many citations from subsequent patents saying that it’s really a foundational idea. That is the way historically that the field has always measured innovation.

We actually adapted a computer science method called “topic modeling” to look at the text of the patents themselves, to understand the language in the patent so that we could see when there were shifts in language that would allow us to understand when new novel ideas are being developed. So when the language changes based on this methodology, we are able to say, “That’s a breakthrough idea,” because it’s talking about the domain in a fundamentally different way.

“Brainstorming is not enough without the deep knowledge development that you would need in a particular domain to understand what the issues are so that you can break away from existing ways of thinking.”

What we did in this study is introduce this alternative measure of breakthroughs that focused on knowledge breakthroughs as opposed to just the economic value as measured by the number of times a patent would be cited. And what’s interesting about that is that prior studies had always assumed that if you got a high level of citations it was because the idea was very novel. And so, they just said, “Because the idea’s novel, it gets more citations and therefore, it’s a breakthrough innovation.”

What we found in our study is, in fact, that most of the patents that do get highly cited are not necessarily novel — truly novel from a language standpoint, from a knowledge standpoint — that is, they’re not breaking new ground in the knowledge space.

And so, we break down the set of assumptions that people have made before: that novelty automatically leads to high levels of citations. And by doing that, we’re able to then show that there are different creative processes that lead to novelty than those that lead to generating citations. That’s really the surprising part for me was finding out that the assumptions that the field had been making up until now about the direct connection between novelty and citations were not as neatly linked as people had assumed.

Practical Implications

When we think about any organization that is trying to promote innovation, it’s typically been recommended that you try to create processes that bring together distant and diverse knowledge. So we hear lots and lots of research about diverse teams, you know, bringing marketing and R&D and engineering and all the different groups together to generate innovation.

And while that is clearly very important, what we are finding from this research is that you also need different processes that allow you to do the deep dive into one knowledge space. So if we’re thinking about an R&D organization, that means really valuing the “R” part of R&D, the research part that says we’re going to really dive deeply into an area before we

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