Month: February 2012

Telling the Company Secrets – Strategic Publishing pt.1

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Strategic publishing is related to intellectual property rights in that its use is intended to clarify and ensure the inventors right to use their discovery or invention without the need for legal defense.  Within a corporate IP portfolio strategic publishing can be used in both a defensive and offensive manner.  Over the past two decades there has been a marked increase in the use of strategic publishing especially from the high tech electronics industries who have promoted its use to control their ballooning legal costs.  Globally, more companies are beginning to use strategic publishing in its defensive form as part of their IP management process and as a mechanism for driving resource demands out of their innovation programs.

Defensive publishing

Within the strategic publishing field by far the most common form is defensive publishing.  Defensive publishing is simply publishing into the public domain an invention or discovery with the express purpose of making it non-patentable.  The rationale for choosing defensive publication over patent filing can be complex and varied but within large companies the driver for this is generally one of three rationales, cost limitation, non enforceability and IP landscape clearance.

Requirements of defensive publication.

In order to be useful as a defensive publication the publication must meet a few simple criteria.

  1. The publication must be accessible to the public.  There have been lawsuits arguing the definition of accessible but generally all media that is shared with people outside the company is suitable including company sponsored literature provided it is circulated externally.  An example of this was IBM’s Technical Disclosure Bulletin which was published until 1998 with the express purpose of preventing IBM’s competitors patenting inventions it had developed but had chose not to pursue.
  2. In order to be useful the publication should be timely.  The creation of prior art is very much dependent on when it is published relative to any patented invention.  Fast and clear publication is as important to a defensive publishing strategy as it is for a normal patent strategy.
  3. The date of publication must not be ambiguous.  This can be especially important if the proposed publication is web based which can be open to challenge.  The best defensive publication strategies utilize printed and searchable journals.

Publication options.

Where to choose to disclose the invention is very much dependent upon the final publication strategy that is chosen but a number of more common options are listed below and assessed against the general criteria above.

Company Promotional Literature.

Publication of disclosures in company literature or the company website has the advantage of being simple and under the control of the company but fails against the accessibility and ambiguity tests described above.  In trying to block a future patent claim or avoid having to defend a process or invention in court proving publication date on a company website is unlikely to prevent any case incurring significant legal costs.  Company promotional literature also cannot benefit from anonymity which can be important for some defensive publishing strategies.

Company Report Series.

Company report series have been used by a number of corporations in most cases very successfully including IBM’s Technical Disclosure Bulletin, Siemens’ Zeitshrift among others.  The benefits and drawbacks are similar to those of company promotional literature.

Occasional Publications.

So called White Papers are often published (usually electronically) in order to disclose information.  Their limited circulation means that they often are not suitable as part of a defensive publication strategy unless the three requirements of the previous section can be sure to be met.

Grey Literature.

Grey literature is the body of presentations, trade posters and the like that companies generate as part of the routine industry networking process they are involved in.  Grey literature is very rarely monitored or routinely documented or archived and so does not generally serve the purpose of a defensive publishing strategy.  In cases where grey literature has been used as prior art it has generally been accompanied with dated filing with company attorneys which is not generally enough to avoid legal challenges going forward.

Commercial publication.

There are a number of commercial publications that function specifically as a method for disclosing inventions.  The longest running of these is the journal Research Disclosure (http://www.researchdisclosure.com/) which publishes both in paper and electronic form any research that a company may wish to bring into the public domain.  Research Disclosure does not require that the author is identified and so anonymous disclosures can ensure that a company’s longer term strategy is not compromised.

The relatively new intellectual property library IP.com (http://ip.com/) is similar to Research Disclosure in many ways but has a stronger focus on obtaining agreements with patent regulators to promote the use of their library as part of the routine prior art search conducted before the granting of any patent.  This facet allows defensive publishing an additional strategic advantage of possibly being used to clear IP space in an area where a competitor is active or increasing the likelihood of more obscure prior art being cited in any future search results.  More recently other commercial publication portals including Research Disclosure have begun including these agreements within their systems.

Journals.

One option for disclosing inventions is to publish in peer reviewed journals.  While meeting much of the criteria required of a defensive publishing strategy one major drawback is the lack of control over the timeliness of the publication which can often be delayed for months or even years.  Unless there is a higher degree of certainty of publication date than is afforded to the average journal this approach is limited in its use.

US Statutory Invention Registration.

In the US there is a provision for an inventor to divulge a non patented piece of IP to the public domain through the request of publication to the Statutory Invention Registration which is maintained through the US Patent Office.  The requirements are minimal and benefit from registration within recognized patent classes which in turn improves the likelihood of an examiner finding the disclosure however the registrations are not anonymous.  The original intent of the registration was to allow companies who had given up on pursuing patents a means of ensuring freedom to practice.

Patent Applications.

Since 1999 in the US all patent applications are published into the public domain once 18 months have passed from date of application.  Effectively this allows a company a means of creating prior art simply by filing a patent application and letting it lapse.  This approach benefits from having a high likelihood of being discovered in any subsequent search procedure however it cannot be anonymous and does require drafting in the form of a patent which means that the initial filing costs to a company are not offset significantly.

Defensive publishing and Osmotic Innovation.

The burden of IP management on a corporation’s innovation program is often significantly large.  Producing the data sets that support patents often goes well beyond feasibility evaluation and takes many people out of the core creativity roles they are hired for.  By utilizing a planned defensive publishing program corporations can reduce the burden of their IP portfolio and reinvest that resource back into more value added activities.  As part of your innovation management program, defensive publishing is a must.


Creating an Effective Innovation Group

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In the growing competitive corporate environment, the demand for new innovative products that help drive growth becomes of vital importance.  In Businessweek magazine[1]IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano was quoted as saying “The way you will thrive in this environment is by innovating – innovating in technologies, innovating in strategies, innovating in business models”.   This sentiment is echoed in companies like Google, Nissan, and Apple to name a few.  Therefore, to meet this demand it is rather common for most companies to conduct group innovation sessions.  Considering this, the question then is how we can create an effective innovative group?

In creating this, one of the most important steps is in choosing the participants.  But what kind of person are we exactly looking for?  There are numerous personality type tests one can use to either screen job applicants, or better understand the people within an organization.  With the demand placed on innovation it is no surprise that 80 percent of fortune 500 companies use some kind of personality test, with Myers-Briggs Type Indicator being most favoured, according to an article in Psychology Today[2].  These tests not only have their pros and cons in the Psychology community, but they can also be expensive and most likely need a professional to administer.  Therefore, I propose a more simplistic approach in modelling a group and deciding participants.

For the sake of simplicity, lets draw a line representing personality types and on the left side label it “Very Artistic” while on the right side we place the label “Very Structured”.  Who might we place on the left side of our graph?  Most likely “Very Artistic” conjures to mind those who are artists, dancers, improve actors, and anyone else with a talent or career that is solely dependent upon bringing to life limitless imagination.  Therefore, on the opposite end of the spectrum, defining “Very Structured” becomes rather easy: Accountants, Engineers, Mathematicians, or any type of person who is either drawn to a very structured environment or has a very structured career.  We can then consider the span between these two extremes as the degree to which someone is near either one – taking into consideration possible outside talents, interests, level of education, etc.  In thinking of a group structure, there will be varying levels of intensity toward either end, so the use of a box will perhaps best capture this.  For example, consider a company that is primarily focused on manufacturing and selling chemicals.  I’m sure we can all agree that such a company would likely have a research and development group containing a large percentage of people with some kind of focused technical background.  We can then pictorially represent this by placing a box near the “Very Structured” side (Figure 1)

On the other hand, consider a Theatre company employing a group of interpretive dancers.  In this case, one would expect most of them to be somewhere near the “Very Artistic” side and so with a box placed there, our graph would then look a bit like Figure 2.

In looking at the differences between the two examples, it can be hypothesized that the nature of a corporation essentially preselects the members of that group and therefore makes obtaining people from different end of the spectrum rather impossible.

Therefore, with use of such a model to describe the dominant nature of a group, one can then ask: is it advantageous to select people strictly from within the group, or would it be more valuable for the company to have a sampling from different locations on the graph?

Should we primarily select within a particular segment of the spectrum, we know we would get people who share a similar educational background and interest in the field they have a career in.  However, although a broad commonality is shared, each one of us is unique and brings to the table a spectrum of emotional and intellectual diversity that in of itself may be sufficient enough to tackle the challenge at hand.  Ask the participants about their hobbies outside of work and somehow incorporate that into the session.  Discover more about the people in the session and tap into their previous experiences and talents.  Using such methods will certainly bring something different to the innovation session, but the facilitator must still be wary of how immersed they are in the challenge.  Often times, even with these techniques, it is a bit difficult to get people thinking outside of what they are familiar with.  This brings me to the next (and personally preferred) method: inviting people outside the group.

In contrast to selecting within the group, we can consider the option to select people from different locations along the plot that exist outside the group.  In doing this, a wider array of creativity and alternate viewpoints can be introduced.  Think of what would happen if someone like a magician were to attend an innovation session being conducted by an engineering firm.  Would doing this successfully contribute anything?  If we consider the art of Magic, there is clearly lots of innovation and creativity that goes into any small to large illusion.  Therefore, one way to utilize someone like this would be to have them perform a few small tricks.  After each one, the engineers would be challenged to try and think of different ways it could have been accomplished.  In doing this, the engineers will essentially be solving a rather unique puzzle while getting their minds primed to think in a different way.  Have the magician then reveal the trick and allow the group to discuss the different ways they approached an explanation to what they just saw.  This is just one example of taking someone near what we termed “Very Artistic” and placing them into the group that may be more near the “Very Structured”.  I am sure with a bit of your own creativity you can come up with other examples.

With both options discussed, is one technique better than the other?  I challenge you to come to your own conclusion, but to those who think something very specific and technical is best solved by a room of PhD’s using complex equations – remember one important thing: Kekule daydreaming about a snake biting its own tail provided the structure for Benzene, which at the time revolutionized the field of Organic Chemistry.

Appreciating ‘Constrained Innovation’

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When Fast Company ranked the 50 Most Innovative Companies for 2011 a glance at the top ten would seem to tell you one thing: the cutting edge of innovation is headquartered on the web and that, by-and-large, companies in mature industries need not apply. Does this mean that companies in mature industries need to begin raiding Silicon Valley for a new wave of entrepreneurs to replace their failing ones? I think not, as I will argue below many of the companies on this list benefit from an overly positive view of the virtues of ‘creative innovation’ compared to ‘constrained innovation’.

Most readers will be familiar with Everett Rogers theory of diffusion of innovations[i] – in his book Diffusion of Innovations Rogers’ argues that as technology is applied to a market, penetration phases from low to high along an S-curve while adoption follows a bell-curve with innovators and early adopters in the first phases and laggards at the end.

Technology Development S-curve

The S curve model is often also applied to technology development. Traditionally, the focus is on the creation of new technologies (embodying radical or disruptive innovations) that can create a new curve (curve B) and restart the adoption bell-curve.

Long term stagnation for a technology or market

However, firms in established markets often face a reality where no new technologies or disruptions are available to replace the current one and ‘incremental’ innovations become the only currency for retaining and gaining market share in the face of slow segment growth. It is within this space, where market penetration is near complete and technologies are mature that innovation becomes a real challenge (line C extension of Curve A). This is not to argue that radical and disruptive innovation is unimportant for corporate strategy, rather that it is essential to utilize incremental innovation to maintain market leadership in the absence (or during the development) of these types of innovation.

But why is it that incremental innovation is so often ignored in favor of innovation occurring at the leading edge of technology? Disruptive or radical innovation has the potential to capture the imagination not to mention the market, however, it is the incremental innovation that sustains a company while it seeks out success in these riskier areas. Companies themselves often discount their own incremental innovations – selling the innovators and themselves short in the process. This is especially frustrating to those in these environments because successful incremental innovation can be very difficult.

Constraints increase with technology development.

To understand the key differences between innovation on the leading edge of technology compared to the trailing edge the curve could be moved to a graph that shows ‘constraints’ increasing as a market or space matures. This reflects the fact that in mature markets development is constrained by higher expectations and limiting technical specifications. For sake of simplification, the curve could then be viewed in two halves around the inflection point: to the left, the ‘easy to innovate’ space, and to the right, the ‘hard to innovate’ space. (Figure 3) It is important to note – ‘easy to innovate’ is no guarantee of commercial success. For a specific example, Pets.com seemed like an easy win or innovation early in the development of the web however was a commercial failure.

Radical or disruptive innovations aren’t necessary early in a technology or market development because artistic creativity or marketing can be nearly enough to ensure continued growth, while later in development high levels of skill are necessary to continue innovation for growth when it is most important. If it were to be considered in scientific terms, it is as if in the initial stages of technology or market development innovation is free from constraint – few rules apply as companies develop the market. Take a look at the lists of ‘Most Innovative’ Companies for 2010 or earlier – it will be littered with failed start-ups and failing companies. The winners, or those that define the market, find themselves in an interesting position when the market or technology has matured. At this point, the survivors are forced to work within a falsifiable system – a system with highly developed rules and limits to pure creativity. Masters of innovation in these environments are people that can operate creatively within a highly restricted area, like Einstein developing the theory of relativity within the bounds of Physics.

Innovation in a developed market or technology field means meeting a very advanced set of customer expectations. Staying a market leading company in this case requires maintaining an advanced core technical skill set, absolute focus on the customer, and the ability to quickly transform ideas into products with limited time for redesign. This balance of skills is what we referred to earlier as ‘constrained innovation’ – the ability to create new products and excite the customer while operating within a strict set of conditions established by the market.

Can and should firms focus on creating new markets using radical or disruptive innovation? Yes. However, one cannot ignore the fact that without a strong ability to deliver ‘constrained innovation’ firms will not survive long enough to implement the more widely appreciated types of innovation. That, the ability to grow and survive regardless the market constraints, is why ‘constrained innovation’ should be recognized as an essential and critical function for any firm that should be more widely appreciated by the world at large. Imagine if we recognized the best innovations of 2012 as those that succeeded despite constraints – would we be talking about the innovators from Ragu, Dunlop, Haines and Colgate instead of Facebook, Twitter, and Google?

Are Schools Killing Creativity?

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So far this blog has covered topics mainly focused on how to better enable innovation within your organization. But what if one of the problems you are facing is an educational system that produces people lacking creativity?

Here is Sir Ken Robinson making the case for re-imagining our educational systems and ultimately how we train people.

Decreasing Conformity in an Innovation Session

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If I were to ask you to quickly recall the last session you went to, most likely the first thing you will say is “Well, a group of us got together and…”  You will probably then continue to focus on what activities were done, where you went, and the results that were obtained. However, a critically important component is often overlooked – the effect of the group on an individual.  Are individuals in a group setting really contributing to the best of their abilities?  Yes, we all know there are the introverts and the extroverts, but despite that we still get the best from each person, right?  Don’t be so sure.

Lines from the Asch Conformity experiment.

Consider the Solomon Asch conformity experiment: A straight line was shown to a group of college students who were all in on the experiment except for a single test subject.  In the test, a card with a straight line (line A) was shown, followed by a card with another set of lines (lines B,C,D).  When asked which line is closest to A, all the students who were part of the experiment were instructed to purposefully give the wrong answer (line C).  Because the experiment was preceded by several sets of cards where correct answers were given by the group, and trust established, the test subject was in a position of distress: follow the group or give the correct answer?  Over-all, the test subject gave the wrong answer (line C) 32% of the time.  During the course of repeating the experiment, about 75% of the time the subject conformed at least once.  Only rarely was an individual observed who gave the right answer (line B) each time, while there was a minority (5%) that conformed to the group every time.

Experiments like this one and others that have been conducted in the field of Social Psychology demonstrate “Conformity”.  According to Elliot Aronson, author of The Social Animal, conformity is defined as “a change in a persons behaviour or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people.”  There are several factors that contribute toward conformity, but for simplicity, the main factor to consider is the desire for one to be accepted by his/her group of peers.  Considering this, the question for the innovator becomes one of how can we lessen this tendency and encourage more individuality when placed in a group setting?

The answer depends to a large extent on how the innovation session is conducted.  There are numerous techniques to engage people and bring out their creativity that are readily found in books, online, and even from professional facilitators.  Everything from the colour of the room to specific physical activities has been reviewed at one time.  However, one thing not often addressed is how to decrease conformity in a group and nurture an environment where individuals can contribute more to the innovation session.

Ok, so now what?  How do we do this you ask?  As one may expect, the size of the group has an effect on whether or not someone conforms to the group they are in.  As Rod Bond from the University of Sussex[1] describes, a maximum of 3 to 5 people induce this behaviour (with 5 people being where it levels out), while groups of two drastically reduce the effect.  This also ties into the next point: having an ally.  In a variation of the experiment conducted by Asch as previously described, one of the students acted as an ally to the test subject.  Just as before, all the students gave the wrong answer except for one student who was instructed to give the correct answer.  In this situation, when the time came for the test subject to provide an answer, the correct one was given.  What happened? The pressure to conform was drastically reduced.  What does this tell us? Try breaking your large group into smaller groups of two to accomplish a task.  Encourage those paired up together to share something funny about themselves.  In doing so, you will not only help people create an “ally”, but conformity will have been reduced because you have broken down the larger group.

Some other things you may want to try:

  1. Break a complex problem down into smaller, more manageable parts.  Typically when members of a group are uncertain about a problem, they begin to look to others for confirmation.
  2. Conduct innovation sessions without the presence of either someone of authority (e.g. Managers or Directors) or an expert in the field that is the focus of the innovation session.   This will reduce the tendency of others in the group to look to such figures of authority for approval by agreeing with them.
  3. Create an activity where members need to make a commitment to their initial judgment, idea, or response.  In doing so, their probability to change their mind or conform to the group will greatly decrease.

Why is this important for innovation sessions?  Think about it: the Asch experiment drives home that in a typical session, there is a high probability that people will not be giving their own true answer or contribution.  By using these techniques, the innovation session facilitator can likely maximize the contribution from each person and hopefully obtain even more ideas and increased levels of creativity.

Resources

Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal.  10th ed.New York: Worth Publishers, 2008.

Gleitman, Henry, Alan J. Fridlund, and Daniel Reisberg.  Psychology.  6th ed.New York: Norton, 2004.


[1] Bond, Rod; Group Process & Intergroup Relations, 2005 Vol 8(4) 331-354

Innovation ownership and the transition

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Most product development processes within corporations rely on a regular transition of responsibility as an idea progresses from conceptual to final product.  Some of the most common examples are transitions between inventors and feasibility assessment teams, feasibility teams and development teams and even marketing and R&D operations.  Often these transitions are also where we see the product development process fail as the product idea never fully takes hold in the imagination of the new team and fades away.  One of my preferred ways of visualizing the issues that can arise during transition is through an analysis of idea “ownership”.

Ownership 

The chart in figure 1 describes the level of ownership that a team developing a particular innovation may experience over time.  As the team starts out the commitment level is relatively low, no one has spent much time on the initiative and there are many different paths to success still available to the team.  Over time the team feels more commitment towards the innovation path and the sunk cost of the current program of work increases, this increases the ownership of the program.

Figure 1 © OsmoticInnovation.com 2012

Complexity expectation

Within every product development project there is a level of complexity that the team is expecting to encounter.  This expectation can vary significantly (think landing a man on mars vs. developing a new flavour ice cream) but the important factor is that there is an expectation.  Deviations from this expectation are what we call “problems” (or occasionally “lucky breaks”).  Tasks that do not deviate from our expectation of complexity are what we call our day job.   The chart in figure 2 describes an example of the complexity curve for a project over time.

Figure 2 © OsmoticInnovation.com 2012

If we begin to think about how we could measure complexity in the above example it becomes obvious that the level of complexity of a given problem could be measured by the level of commitment and effort required to solve said problem.  In essence what we are saying is that every problem we encounter within the product development process will require a particular level of “ownership” in order to be overcome.  This allows us to overlay the two previous charts with the common y axis of the theoretical construct “ownership”, see figure 3.

Figure 3 © OsmoticInnovation.com 2012

Ownership and the transition

Turning our attention to the concept of ownership as it relates to idea transition between corporate groups we can imagine a (worst case?) scenario where the ownership level of the accepting group post transition is extremely low, Fig 4.  This low ownership scenario can arise for many reasons including a lack of understanding of the idea potential, a poor incentive structure (the fabled “not invented here”) or simple housekeeping such as stressed resources limiting the interest in yet another project.

Figure 4 Project transition between two groups occurs at point A. © OsmoticInnovation.com 2012

Fundamentally, a project in a low ownership situation is fragile.  Problems encountered during this state can cause the project to fail as those responsible for the next development stage see the hurdles as insurmountable, Fig 5.  Often these same hurdles are seen in a very different light by those who continue to experience high ownership for the project.

Figure 5 An insurmountable problem occurs at point B as real ownership drops below required ownership. © OsmoticInnovation.com 2012

Bridging the gap

How then to avoid issues arising from transition fragility?  Obviously one cannot control when an unexpected problem may arise during a project but it is possible to influence ownership in the lead up to, and directly after a responsibility transition.  Examples of how this can be achieved are numerous but a couple worth considering include shadowing programs which engage the second group in the decision processes of a project prior to transition, Fig 6.  Shadowing programs allow a new transition group to develop understanding and commitment before they take ultimate responsibility for the project.

Figure 6 Shadowing programs and ownership during transition. © OsmoticInnovation.com 2012

Another approach uses dovetailed leadership structures which create matrix teams during transition, Fig 7.  In this instance a temporary matrix team is formed during transition consisting of the (low ownership) core of the second team reporting into the (high ownership) management of the first team.  After a fixed period of time the matrix team is disbanded and reporting lines are reset.  This allows for a soft transition where high ownership individuals are always present in the responsible project team.

Figure 7 Matrix management and ownership during transition. © OsmoticInnovation.com 2012

The innovation transition process within a corporate innovation program can be a very complex procedure in which success is as much down to the personalities of the individuals as the rigor of the systems employed to control it.  Companies that focus on solely on the mechanical aspects (document control, handover procedures, technology debriefings etc) may be leaving themselves open to failure through no fault other than the realities of human psychology and the timing of a project hurdle.  Innovation programs that incorporate ownership management within their transition processes go a long way to reducing that risk of failure.