Proactive Invention Management, a Guest Post by Bill Meade, Ph.D.

Posted by Stephen M. Nipper at October 26, 2005 10:28 AM

Proactive Invention Management
A Rethink(IP) Guest Post by Bill Meade, Ph.D.

The biggest problem managing invention is bias.  Not overt "I'm going to crush your skull because I hate you" bias, but instead bias that is made up of the compounding of ordinary little negative assumptions that crop up in IP management.  These are the cultural assumptions, sociological assumptions, and psychological assumptions that educated, smart, busy people agree about without realizing any agreements have been made.  I'm going to call the kind of bias that chills invention "invisibias."  Malcolm Gladwell in his book BLINK (page 81) discusses what I would call cultural invisibias in relation to race.  He describes a web site at Harvard where you can go to test your bias for or against blacks.  Gladwell describes taking the test dozens of times.  He describes his incredulity at being measured as slightly biased against blacks.  Gladwell is half black.

While I was the IP portfolio manager for HP's LaserJet group I discovered my own invisibias through an odd chain of events.  The chain began by giving invention workshops.  When clients asked, I would run invention workshops for them.  Every client asked for something different.  Some wanted short workshops with few people, others wanted medium or long workshops with many people.  Over a 6 month period I ran a variety of workshop formats that made up a sort of stratified random sample across who attended, how long the workshops were, and how focused the workshops were. 

The next link in my chain of invisibias discovery, was statistical regression.  That is, after about 15 workshops I realized that I had enough data to do some regression analysis to see what factors make high quality invention disclosures more likely.  I regressed filed invention disclosures against number of attendees, and length of workshop.  This produced an explained variation of about 18%.  So, the more people at a workshop, the more disclosures.  The longer the workshop the more disclosures.  But, number of people and length of workshop only explained 1/5 of the filed invention disclosures produced.  

This  told me that I was missing an important variable.  I thought about this and realized that my role as invention workshop moderator was probably an important variable.  Like most production process workers I reasoned, invention workshop moderators must go over a learning curve.  Learning curves have a well understood shape.  This allowed me to look at the 15 workshops in my data, and then estimate where on the learning curve I was for each workshop.  I quantified my guestimate and put these data into the regression. 

The explained variation of this equation jumped for 18% to over 90%.  This told me that I had learned, and that my learning explained a huge amount of the filed disclosures.  So, I leaned back in my chair and asked myself what I had learned over the course of these 15 workshops.  Two words popped into my head "Shut" and "up."

Shut up?  Yes.  You see, unconsciously over the first 15 workshops, I had cut down my presentation.  In workshop #1 I used a lot of formal information like patent trend graphs and problem framing exercises to help people be creative.  These formal techniques put attendees to sleep.   As the workshops progressed I dropped the formal slides and created new slides with answers to best questions employees were asking me.  By the time workshop #15 came around, I had churned the presentation 100%.  My presenting time was down, disclosing time was up, and the quantity of enthusiasm delivered to inventors was way up.  So, addressing the felt needs of the audience was a third link in the chain of discovering invisibias. 

In East Texas during the oil rush of the 1930s, some of the oil was only 6 inches down.  A management professor friend once told me this.  After running invention workshops where high quality invention disclosures began to pour in like an oil gusher, I remembered the East Texas example.  Think about making money from oil 6" down.   What is most important?

The most important problems in proactive oil field management are not the conventional problems of finding oil.  The most important problem is to not drown in oil.  Problem: How are we going to develop this field so that we can get the oil out without wasting it?  Problem: How do we develop the field without painting ourselves into a corner?  Problem: Where are the weak points in our infrastructure in handling unlimited quantities of oil down-stream?  

Likewise when you reduce invention invisibias, you don't have to worry about the conventional problem of finding high-quality invention disclosures.  The problem immediately changes.  For example, in IP departments without flexibility to reorganize and hire, the problem becomes maximizing value captured with a fixed department capacity to process IP.  Problem: What is the annual capacity in patents, trade secrets, and defensive publications of our current IP office?  Problem: How do we optimize our office capacity when we are getting 4x our capacity in good quality disclosures per year?  Problem: How do we raise the bar on quality?  Problem: Why do we have to raise invention quality?  Problem: How do we explain raising the quality bar to inventors?  Problem: What do we do about the applications we started last year that are not as high in quality as the inventions we are reviewing today?

Proactive invention management is a war with 2 fronts.  First, there is a front between inventors and the IP department.  The war on this front is waged to unblock invention and give the IP department full access to the genius of the organization.  The second front is indicated with the internal IP problems that crop up if your dream of capturing all the best ideas of your client base comes true.  You immediately run out of IP capacity.  You need to rethink IP business processes, IP business model management, and IP department specialization.  For the rest of this post, I'm going to ignore rethinking IP management in the IP department.  If there is interest, I'll write another post on this.  For now, back to invention management …

After I discovered invisibias I tried to reduce it by making 3 broad positive assumptions to try to cut out the compounding of many little negative assumptions that were costing invention disclosures. 

1. Big Assumption: We don't know who the most prolific inventors should be

It dawned on me that in making assumptions about who my best inventors were, I was excluding the creativity and ideas of the majority of my inventor population.  To reduce the invisibias I introduce into the process, I needed to include as many inventors as possible.  Operationally this meant I needed to stop trying to focus on high-payoff inventors and switch to inviting all employees to invent equally. 

This open door policy was a worry at first, but turned out not to be a big problem.  My patent attorneys were delighted to see the inventions they had been hypothesizing they were missing in prior times.  IP systems are great at killing invention disclosures down-stream.  The biggest problem to IP department capacity comes from invention disclosures that are too good to kill. 

2. Big Assumption: We don't know when an inventor will come up with an idea.
My invisibias on this at first, was that inventors invent in the process of releasing a product.  So, initially I thought the best time to capture inventions would be just after product release.  To minimize the bias I introduced by assuming a clump of inventing after product release, it seemed that I needed to assume that ideas were evenly spread across time. 

Operationally this led me to conduct invention workshops at timed intervals and to host weekly "office hours" for inventors where I made a double batch of chocolate chip cookies and scheduled a conference room to help organize isolated inventors into a community of kindred minds.

3. Big Assumption: We don't know what field an inventor will invent in. 

IP systems love to assume that inventors invent in the field of art in which they work.  But, in the information age just because an engineer works on a gear design team, it is not safe to assume that the engineer's inventions will be about gears.  The IP community in the US has for the past 5 years be inundated with ideas submitted by people who work in a technical field of art but who are into Linux, digital photography, or other hobbies.  To operationally reduce invisibias assuming a clumping of inventions in one field of art, I assumed that inventions would be distributed across all fields of art. 

On Open Mindedness

I'd like to close this post with the importance of open mindedness in proactive invention management.  Open mindedness is critical to success because of how people evolved / were created / are socialized.  Whatever his/her beliefs are, a proactive IP manager will realize that inventors are hard-wired to look into their eyes and see what is assumed about the quality of their ideas. 

Rigid open mindedness is the best big positive assumption I've found to police the compounding of little negative assumptions that hinder proactive IP management.  Policing assumptions is critical because little negative assumptions are the essence of bias.  After you get past the who invents, the what gets invented, and the when invented, of managing invisibias, you can still screw up.  You cannot over-do policing of invisibias.  There is always more bias to be removed. 

For example, when an inventor looks into your eyes while turning in an invention disclosure.  If s/he sees you roll your eyes.  If s/he hears you laugh.  If s/he detects any favoritism in how you treat disclosures, the inventor will instantly toggle from being an idealist ("I can help the company with my ideas!") to being a cynic ("Good ideas are pearls before the swine of management in this company.").  

A strongly held belief that all ideas are worth evaluating will allow you to look back into your inventor's eyes and sincerely thank them for turning in a completed disclosure regardless of novelty, non-obviousness to one skilled in the art, or utility.  Think about it, the purpose of an invention disclosure is to capture the minimum information sufficient to allow the company to evaluate investing in an idea.  If you can be proactive and force yourself to be open minded, you can conquer invisibias and have more, and better, intellectual property to manage. 


The author, Bill Meade, Ph.D., is the president of Basic IP Management, Inc.

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