Brain power

How to innovate in a way that breaks from the past

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Most innovation today is what’s known as recombinative, in that it builds heavily on what has gone before. As a result, while innovation may be viewed as the creation of something completely novel, that is rarely the case.

There are undoubtedly circumstances in which such unique innovations are required, however. Recent research1 from Cornell explores how such innovations come about, with a particular focus on the team structure, the search process, and the assignees that result in novel breakthroughs.

Novel breakthroughs

The research extends this to also examine three distinct processes of knowledge creation that the authors believe are unique in terms of supporting distinct innovations: distant recombination, scientific reasoning, and long search paths.  These approaches have a number of advantages.

Firstly, they allow diverse teams to be brought together, which increases the chances of creating and exploiting truly breakthrough technologies.  Crucially, this diversity should not just be in the technical knowledge the team has, nor even in terms of the visual diversity of the team, but also in areas such as age, class, and nationality.

Secondly, if teams can make better use of the latest academic research in their innovation efforts it can help to drive truly novel breakthroughs.  The authors urge organizations to have better connections with the scientific community to help facilitate this exchange of knowledge.

Lastly, the authors recommend that organizations find a way to ensure teams have a degree of freedom to explore what might appear to be unusual paths of inquiry.  It’s often what looks like counterintuitive paths that can lead to truly innovative breakthroughs so this needs to be accounted for.

The researchers hope that their findings, which were based on an analysis of outlier patents as well as interviews with some of the innovators behind them, will help to guide teams on the ways in which they too can pursue breakthrough innovation.

Article source: How To Innovate In A Way That Breaks From The Past.

Header image source: pxfuel.


  1. Kneeland, M. K., Schilling, M. A., & Aharonson, B. S. (2020). Exploring uncharted territory: Knowledge search processes in the origination of outlier innovation. Organization Science, 31(3), 535-557.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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