by Dennis Crouch
Susan Cain's book Quiet walks through an historic societal transformation toward an "Extrovert Ideal" that "dramatically undervalues introverts" and incorrectly equates introversion with shy and antisocial behavior. This transformation parallels the shift from a culture that values character to one that values personality. See, Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2013).
The movement toward extroversion is present within the patent system as well with a push toward "teamwork" in inventing. Team-developed inventions appear to be more likely to receive corporate backing and to be patented. What is unclear, however is whether the shift moves us toward better innovation. Arguably, the rise in collaborative inventing is driven by the complex nature of modern inventions and facilitated by our improved communications tools. However, I suspect that Cain's social thesis in Quiet provides a more compelling explanation: that social pressure and top business school training shift our attention toward the committee work (and hiring workers who do well in committee).
The great Steve Wozniak provides some opposite advice:
The inventors and engineers I've met are like me—they're shy and they live in their heads. They're almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention's design without a lot of other periople designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don't believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you're that rare engineer who'se an inventor and also an artist, I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You're going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if your're working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.
Of course, Wozniak did his most revolutionary work in the 1970's when two-thirds of patents listed a single person as "the inventor," today that figure has dropped to less than one-third. Over the past four decades, the number of inventors per patent has steadily crept upward as the lone inventors have gradually been crowded out.
The chart below shows the number of inventors per patent over the past eight years. What you can see is a continued increase in the percentage of patents with teams of inventors. In particular, the percentage of patents with only one inventor continues to fall while the percentage of patents with three or more inventors continues to rise.
Although inventing can still be a solo endeavor, patenting data indicates that paradigm no longer predominates.
See Dennis Crouch, The Changing Nature of Inventing: Collaborative Inventing at http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2009/07/the-changing-nature-inventing-collaborative-inventing.html; Dennis Crouch, Inventor Count at http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2013/01/inventors.html.