The 6 Life Stages of Inventors

Posted by Bill Meade at January 11, 2006 11:29 AM

by Bill Meade, Ph.D.

Part 1: 1/11/2006

Employees don't turn in all the inventions they discover in the course of doing their normal jobs. Why? My answer is that employees self-censor because people are not logical. We are psycho-logical. We are socio-logical. We self-censor while at meetings. We self censor with spouses, kids, friends and in all social contexts. When thinking of bosses seeing our work, and then reviewing it with ... attorneys ... many employees would rather not think about inventing. Would rather not expose themselves to extra criticism or in today's work environment, extra uncertainty.

To understand inventor self-censorship I am going to constructively over-simplify in this article. Oversimplify by dumping all inventors into 6 life stages. Like insects going through life in stages (egg, larva, pupae, etc.), I assume inventors go through stages. Each of these stages in an inventor's development can be characterized by entry points, off-ramps, and managerial hand-holds. The purpose of this article is to discuss each stage in the hope of provoking discussion about how to manage the most non-linear variable in the IP system: inventors.

The 6 invention life stages are:
1. Discovery,
2. Calibration,
3. Status-seeking,
4. Mentoring,
5. Sensing,
6. Senescence

1. Discovery Stage

The key event of the discovery stage, is the inventor learning their ideas are important … as assets. In a training workshop where the importance of intellectual property was explained, an inventor raised her hand and asked:

“So, what you are saying is that my ideas are important to the company?”

Yes, exactly! This is the kernel idea of the inventor discovery stage.

I have seen 2 entry points to discovery: (1) Invention Incentive Programs, and (2) IP Training programs. An inventor who begins inventing because of an invention incentive program sees dollar signs. An inventor who starts inventing because of training program sees the importance of their ideas to the organization. Analytically, these are equivalent because they both produce invention disclosures for the IP department to evaluate investing in.

Invention off-ramps are any reaction of “organizational anti-bodies” to an inventor’s efforts, sufficiently strong to shut down the inventor from continuing to invent and/or from developing further as an inventor. Observations of inventors has led me to the conclusion that inventors are hard-wired to read the eyes, the words, and the group dynamics surrounding their ideas.

The big off-ramp for discovery stage inventors is short-term boss reaction. While the inventor may argue endlessly on principle with his/her boss over technical issues, when the boss “blows up” at the inventor for turning in an invention disclosure, the inventor is highly likely to take an invention off ramp and shut down. This happens, I think, because inventors being human are hard-wired to detect what people think about their ideas. When the boss thinks their invention was a dumb idea, the inventor is strongly inclined to shut down.

An important secondary cycle of invention development is the development of the inventor’s boss. The boss’s invention development often spins off a discovery stage inventor. Picture the inventor's 6 life cycle stages like a gear in a clockwise spin. Boss invention life cycle stages are like another gear that touches the inventor life cycle gear at at 1 o'clock (the "discovery stage") and spin counter clockwise through 4 stages.

Digression on the 4 Invention Life Stages of Bosses:

Bosses go through life stages in responding to invention, just like inventors. The first life stage of an inventor’s boss is alarm. Alarm at the inventor’s inventing is triggered in most companies, by >1 invention disclosures being completed by an inventor. The 5 word mantra of the boss in alarm stage is:

“S/he won’t do their job!”

These 5 words are complemented by 6 unspoken words :

“Because s/he will spend all day inventing!”

Is this hyperbole or is it a rational fear? Ask yourself "In my career to date, how many people have I observed not doing their jobs because they were inventing all the time?" How many employees have you seen that will hear this kind of hyperbole, and then sit down and spend all their work time inventing? Or, any of their time inventing?

The 2nd life stage of the inventor’s boss is saber-rattling. Examples of saber rattling:

• Vague verbal threats to “deal with” inventing while laughing,

• Mocking inventing while in meetings,

• Mock accusations of inventors not being "team players"

• A constant stream of cynical comments about inventing.

Stage 3 of the boss’s invention life cycle takes place once inventors shut down or go underground, this stage is “Forgetting.” Once the boss forgets about inventing inventors can watch and wait for the 4th stage which is the “this was my idea all along” stage. Once the boss takes credit for what s/he was recently rattling sabers about, inventors become free to invent again. And, inventors become free to continue in their development to the 2nd stage of development. Unfortunately, many inventors are “once burned twice shy” so that when the boss becomes alarmed and rattles the saber, these inventors are effectively turned off for life. Rookie bosses and invention programs go ill together.

The managerial hand-holds for the discovery phase are: (a) enlist the inventor’s boss, and (b) train the inventors. This can be done many ways. For example, if the CEO changes the organization’s logo by putting the word “invent” underneath it, many bosses will see invention to be their idea from the start. Other things that IP managers can do to enlist bosses:

• Ghost write an email to the inventor’s boss asking for support of inventing and have a CTO or other similarly high-placed technical manager send the email to the inventor’s boss. In most organizations email is cheap and CTOs are supportive of inventing.

• Cookies. BasicIP has had TREMENDOUS success using cookies in IP mangement. Make a double batch of cookies on Thursday nights and take them to rookie inventor bosses to "preemptively appreciate" the bosses for working with inventors. BasicIP's chocolate chip cookie recipe is stolen from the internet. Substitute as many uncooked oats as possible for flour (inventors don't like the taste of flour and cooked oats make the cookies too hard), and to add an extra egg, and 2 boxes of butterscotch pudding to the standard Toll House recipe. Inventors like this recipe.

• T-shirts. Buy 5 of your company’s logo shirts. Have them embroidered with “Inventor” on the back, and then offer the boss of the inventor a shirt if they will be supportive of their employees inventing. The old saying is that "Managers would rather live with problems they can never solve than with solutions they can't understand." But the IP truism is that managers are happy to live with programs they don't understand as long as you recognize the manager's position and importance in advance.

• Write up an invention disclosure and ask the boss of the inventors to be a co-inventor. Canny inventors often assuage alarmed or saber rattling bosses by using this tactic. IP managers can use it as well.

The discovery stage of an inventor’s development can be a lot of fun if well managed. Or, if poorly managed it can alienate inventors, make enemies of inventor bosses, and make the IP department look like a disruptive busy-body. The next post in this series will look at stage 2 in an inventor’s life cycle: calibration.

Please post comments or email Bill Meade ( with comments, war stories, criticisms, etc. No flames please. :-)

[Part 6 of this discussion is here.]
[Part 5 of this discussion is here.]
[Part 4 of this discussion is here.]
[Part 3 of this discussion is here.]
[Part 2 of this discussion is here.]
[Part I of this discussion is here.]

[Bill's previous post on Proactive Invention Management is here.]

| TrackBacks (2) trackback

Related Articles:
New Search Tool Released
In rethinking, size does matter
Five minute inspiration for inventors and innovators