Breakthroughs and the ‘Long Tail’ of Innovation

Breakthroughs and the ‘Long Tail’ of Innovation
Lee Fleming
MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2007

Many managers have little understanding of the process of invention, or the most likely sources of breakthroughs.

Specifically, are blockbuster innovations more likely to come from a lone inventor, or from a collaborative team?

As Harvard Business School professor Lee Fleming explains in “Breakthroughs and the ‘Long Tail’ of Innovation,” in the Fall 2007 Sloan Management Review, to answer this question managers first need to understand that invention is essentially a process of combining existing components, ideas, or processes into something new.

The steamship is a combination of the sailing ship and steam engine.  The automobile combines the bicycle, carriage, and internal combustion engine.  And the iPod is a blend of cheap memory, digital music, and a 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 are considered, they demonstrate a highly skewed distribution.  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 in creativity arise, they need to keep in mind the following three measures:

  1. Shots on goal: The first step in inventing a breakthrough is generating numerous draws because single attempts rarely become one-hit smashes.  If invention is a process of recombinant search, then generating draws requires putting together a lot of previously untried combinations.  Each new one is an invention and provides a shot at a breakthrough.
  2. Average score: Once a company is generating a sufficient number of shots on goal, the next step is to maximize the average score of those shots.  A crucial thing to remember is that organizations rarely invent a breakthrough if their average shot is worth little.
  3. Maximum scores: If a company truly desires a breakthrough, it needs to do more than simply increase the number and average score of its shots.  It also needs to expand the variability of those scores.  In other words, it needs to take wild shots at a rich target, be...