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Does Success Spoil Inventors?

A study of inventors in the disk-drive industry suggests that success can stifle creativity by channeling the mind along well-worn paths

2 min read

The inventor of the Post-It note, Arthur Fry, a scientist at 3M Co., in St. Paul, Minn., is a frequently cited example of a creative person who came up with an extremely novel and highly profitable idea. Following the genesis of this pathbreaking idea, however, he spent much of his time suggesting variations of the invention, such as the Post-It Pop-up Note Dispenser and the Post-It Flag. Instead of generating novel ideas, he made incremental variations on his original idea.

The story of Arthur Fry flies in the face of the conventional wisdom. Most scholars who study creativity would say that people should try to generate as many ideas as possible in order to maximize the chances of hitting on something truly novel. That is why the most influential scientists are often the most prolific and why brainstorming groups are told to suspend judgment and come up with as many ideas as possible. How, then, to explain what happened to Arthur Fry?

”Highly creative people become less creative over time, even as their employers give them ever greater shares of the research budget”

In a paper published in January in Management Science , ” Past Success and Creativity Over Time,” we suggest that the experience of success may stifle creativity by leading people to focus narrowly on existing solutions rather than by exploring new ones. Once you have succeeded in solving a particular problem, you tend to develop a rule of thumb that you then use to solve subsequent problems. These cognitive shortcuts work very well on problems similar to the ones you have solved, but they may block progress when applied to unfamiliar challenges.

To test this hypothesis, we studied 372 inventors in the hard-disk-drive industry, a setting characterized by high rates of technological innovation reflecting both incremental and divergent creative efforts. We found that although the most successful inventors produced the most subsequent patents in the field, each additional patent tended to be similar to the one before it. The inventors specialized increasingly on one narrow domain of research. Less successful inventors filed fewer patents in the field, but the ones they did file were more varied in approach.

Our findings led to the rather depressing conclusion that highly creative people become less creative over time, even as their employers give them ever greater shares of the research budget. But our results also suggested at least two remedies for this problem.

First, we found that collaboration reduces the negative effects of success. When people work together, they have the opportunity to share unique information and to question each other’s assumptions. Second, we found that organizations can foster norms that mitigate the tendency for successful inventors to stay within a narrow domain. The product design firm IDEO, in Palo Alto, Calif., is famous for doing such nurturing by providing highly creative people with an environment that stimulates collaboration and exploration.

Most managers spend a great deal of time trying to achieve success, but our research suggests that success itself can also present obstacles. Simply directing your R&D group members to generate as many new ideas as possible might be counterproductive if they are focused on recreating their last successful idea. In order to break out of this trap, it is necessary to encourage collaboration and make exploration of new domains a core value.

About the Authors

PINO G. AUDIA is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of California, Berkeley. JACK A. GONCALO is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.

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