The one factor that can trigger innovation success in your business

When thinking about innovation, don’t assume that brilliant inventions always start from scratch: this preconceived idea is not always true.

Esade Entrepreneurship Institute

This article is based on research by Jan Hohberger

In his research findings, Esade Associate Professor Jan Hohberger demonstrates that you don’t need to be a creative genius to trigger innovation success, as long as you take into account one crucial factor: prior inventions.

Managers who ignore past ideas may be missing out: “Our research proves that prior inventions are a valuable source of information that can increase the potential success of new innovations.”

Science and innovation have long held that it is beneficial to build on previous ideas – or, to use Isaac Newton’s words, to "stand on the shoulders of giants.” However, to what extent this is true for breakthroughs was open to debate.

Breakthrough innovations are, by definition, rare events

Breakthrough innovations are, by definition, rare events. They are based on the combination of novel, emerging and pioneering technologies and require radical changes. They are often created in different ways than standard innovations.

What is the connection between past ideas and breakthrough ideas? Can previous innovations be the starting point for developing breakthrough innovations, or do firms and inventors need to start from a blank slate for these advances?

To answer this question, Hohberger analysed more than 139,000 patents from 552 US-based firms in the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries, both of which heavily rely on inventions and patents for optimal performance and survival.


Inventions pharma
The pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries heavily rely on inventions and patents

His study had two major findings:

  • First, for breakthrough innovations as well as normal innovations, prior inventions are a valuable source of information that can increase the chances of success of new innovations.
  • Second, building new ideas on prior inventions also helps to reduce invention failures.

How past inventions trigger breakthrough innovations

Prior and new inventions are like communicating vessels. When those in charge of designing and developing new innovations set aside time to analyse the value of prior ideas, their chances of success increase.

“Our analysis shows that analysing prior inventions has a positive impact on the performance of subsequent inventions,” writes the author in his findings.

But not all prior inventions have the same positive effect on future outcomes, according to Hohberger: “When prior inventions hold higher value, the positive effect on new innovations weakens and returns diminish.”

The findings show that valuable prior inventions also increase the likelihood that subsequent innovations will be breakthroughs. However, this breakthrough effect also decreases when prior inventions build on a larger number of breakthroughs themselves.

Management tip
When thinking about a breakthrough innovation, if you want to increase your chances of success, consider prior inventions but don’t necessarily pay too much attention to prior breakthroughs.

A safeguard against invention failure

The study also suggests that combining valuable past inventions limits the likelihood of poor invention outcomes.

Exploring both high-value and low-value inventions provides a potential safeguard against innovation failure and reduces the probability of extremely poor invention outcomes.

Management tip
If you want to prevent future invention failures, you can increase your chances of success by setting aside some time to understand why past failures didn’t work out.

Investigating past invention failures, explains Hohberger, is a useful strategy for managers: “Past invention failures provide a more nuanced picture of invention outcomes and help managers develop strategies to avoid or minimise future invention failures.”

This article is based on research insights published in Industrial and Corporate Change.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.