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Traits of Innovative Agents

A guide to the kinds of characteristics correlated with innovative people, groups, and organizations.

Published onFeb 14, 2023
Traits of Innovative Agents
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This post provides a quick overview of claim articles in New Things Under the Sun related to the characteristics of innovative people, groups, and organizations, as well as how different traits are associated with different flavors of innovation.

Age and the Nature of Innovation

  • How do the discoveries of older and younger innovators differ?

  • Younger scientists are more likely to use recent ideas while older scientists are more likely to draw on a narrower, older set of ideas.

  • Younger scientists are also more likely to engage in “conceptual” breakthroughs, while older innovators are more likely to engage in “experimental” innovations (where experimental here means something specific and non-standard).

    • Nobel Prize-winning innovations tend to be clustered among the young for conceptual and theoretical breakthroughs, while experimental breakthroughs tend to be clustered among the old.

    • Younger scientists also tend to produce work that is more “disruptive” (by one measure of disruption).

  • (go to article)

Age and the Impact of Innovations

  • The share of mid-career scientists in the US has decreased over the past 26 years, with an increase in the share of late career scientists, especially those over 65.

  • Studies indicate that papers or patents published earlier in a career are more highly cited and cited by a more diverse group of fields than those published later in a career, and that aging may limit scientific and inventive output, particularly in terms of impact and novelty.

  • But these findings apply only on averages. In fact:

    • any paper written at any career stage has an equal probability of being a scientist's most highly cited paper.

    • The citations to top-cited papers produced early or in mid-career actually increase slightly (though they fall in late career).

  • The trends found in the study may not apply to patented inventions.

  • (go to article)

Gender and what gets researched

  • Scientists and inventors may be influenced by their personal experiences in deciding what to work on, including their gender (though gender may also matter for other reasons).

  • Patents developed by a majority of male inventors are more likely to relate to male-focused topics and patents developed by a majority of female inventors are more likely to relate to female-focused topics. This pattern is also seen in the products developed by startups with female founders.

  • Research articles with more women as authors are more likely to focus on female-related topics in biomedical research, and papers with more women coauthors are also more likely to include gender and sex analysis. In the field of history, research articles with women as authors have also tended to focus on different topics than papers by men.

  • There is evidence that increasing representation of women in science leads to a shift in research priorities, potentially due to increased awareness and empathy among male scientists or a mainstreaming of ideas and perspectives of women.

  • An increase in representation of women at all-male universities led to an increase in research related to gender, potentially due to increased hiring of women faculty and changes in research preferences of pre-existing faculty.

  • (go to article)

Teacher influence and innovation

  • Student and teacher innovative interests are correlated across several different domains:

    • undergraduates (in one historical sample) were more likely to later write on scientific topics favored by their instructors

    • postdocs are more likely to patent if their mentor is a patentee

  • These correlations persist when we try to eliminate the influence of self-sorting (students matching themselves to similar teachers) in various ways

  • The impact of a students later innovations also appear to be at least partially caused by having teachers with more impactful innovations

    • Active and productive researchers teach classes more closely related to recent research

    • Losing access to exceptional mentors (during Nazi era purges) led to sustained negative career impacts for German mathematicians

  • (go to article)

The “idea” of being an entrepreneur

  • Presents three arguments in favor of the notion that entrepreneurs transmit to their peers the idea that “yes, even someone like you can become an entrepreneur.”

    • Entrepreneurship transmits from peer to peer more readily when peers are similar.

    • The positive impact of being around entrepreneurs falls off quickly, once that idea has been planted.

    • Entrepreneurs self-report that role models are an important reason for starting a business

  • Closes with evidence that (relatively) pro-entrepreneurship television programming also increases rates of entrepreneurship

  • (go to article)

Entrepreneurship is contagious

  • The article summarizes studies that explore whether entrepreneurship is contagious.

  • People are more likely to become entrepreneurs if they have peers, coworkers, or neighbors who are entrepreneurs themselves.

  • It could also be, however, that people more likely to become entrepreneurs cluster together.

  • Experiments, adoption studies, and studies based on matching post-docs to advisors (for reasons not likely to be related to an interest in entrepreneurship) also appear to support the idea that exposure to entrepreneurship is causal though.

  • A study on Harvard Business School students challenges this idea, finding that exposure to successful entrepreneurs can discourage peers from starting businesses that are unlikely to succeed, but I argue this is likely because such students already thought of entrepreneurship as an option for their lives.

  • (go to article)

Highly cited innovation takes a team

  • The number of inventors per US patent has doubled between 1980 and 2018, and studies have found that bigger teams tend to produce higher impact innovation.

  • Bigger teams are more likely to produce patents that are heavily cited and less likely to receive zero citations.

  • One study has tried to pin down how individual contributions impact the overall (citation) success of projects, finding the least “talented” person in a team has the most weight in determining how a project gets cited.

  • Teaming up brings knowledge and expertise that may be necessary for high-impact ideas, but it may pose a complication to creativity, which is often about making connections between previously disconnected ideas; there is some evidence larger teams produce less disruptive innovations.

  • (go to article)

Remote breakthroughs

  • Remote work has long been considered suitable for knowledge work but not for collaborative creativity in breakthrough innovation, but advances in remote collaboration technology have challenged this view.

  • Studies have shown that physical proximity can play an important role in forming new relationships and facilitating novel combinations of ideas.

  • Remote work might not provide the same exposure to new people and ideas as colocated work.

  • But remote teams may be exposed to a wider range of ideas and end up producing more disruptive work via this mechanism.

  • (go to article)

The Size of Firms and the Nature of Innovation

  • Inequality of firm size is very large and rising.

  • This matters because:

    • Corporate R&D expenditures scale up proportionately with sales but…

    • Larger firms tend to get fewer inventions per R&D dollar spent.

    • Larger firms focus more on incremental innovations.

  • Note this post documents these trends, but does not attempt to explain why this is the case (which a future post will).

  • (go to article)

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