The 6 Life Stages of Inventors: Part 2 Calibration

Posted by Bill Meade at January 12, 2006 12:12 PM

By: Bill Meade, Ph.D.

The second life stage of inventors begins the *instant* the inventor receives feedback on an invention disclosure. What is invention feedback? It is information on how the company will or will not use the invention. Will the invention be filed as a patent? Of so, on the fast track or slow track? Will the invention be kept as a trade secret? Or, will it be turned into a design patent or defensive publication? Or, will the invention be inactivated? Inventor motivation goes through a profound and often painful transformation during calibration.

Feedback on an invention disclosure is like receiving a grade on an essay question in college. Except, invention feedback is pass or fail. If the inventor’s disclosure gets filed on as a patent, s/he passes. Otherwise s/he fails. This is not to say that design patents, trade secrets, and defensive publications are not valuable. Instead, it is just pointing out that the vast majority of IP management systems are at root, patent management systems. The real goal for inventors is patents and they seem to learn this by osmosis in the process of receiving feedback.

As soon as the inventor’s first invention disclosure has bee declared good enough (or not) to file a patent on, the invention process ceases to be about money or whatever goal was talked about during inventor training. Feedback changes the invention game into a competition. A competition to have the most valued ideas (patents) in the organization. Inventors whether they were seeing dollar signs or ideals in completing that first invention disclosure, instantly transmute in the calibration phase. Before you have employees. After you have intellectual oxen pulling in the yoke of patentability.

To this point in my discussion of calibration the only entry point has been an inventor who has already invented. But, there are other entry points allowing pre-inventors into the calibration stage before they invent. That is, to have pre-inventors sit in on a patent committee meeting before they turn in their first disclosures. The patent committee meeting is where the organizations representatives from business and legal gather to decide how to dispose of the invention disclosures currently at hand. Patent committees are the source of inventor feedback.

Another entry point to the inventor calibration life stage could be exploited by forward looking IP departments. The idea is to allow pre-inventors to watch the patent committee invention disclosure evaluation process. Watching other people's ideas being processes, would provide pre-inventors with a measure of objectivity that would encourage them to internalize the criteria being used to evaluate ideas. Then, pre-inventors can write their first disclosures, and these pre-calibrated disclosures will be much better than they would have been without calibration.

The inventor off-ramps during the calibration phase are disrespect and unfairness. If an inventor hears laughter at a patent committee meeting (or even that his/her idea was laughed at). If an inventor asks why his/her invention was not chosen for patenting and receives silence or a dishonest answer (remember, inventors are hard-wired to detect physiological, psychological, and sociological truth about their ideas), then the inventor is likely to shut down inventing. Inventors who turn in a flock of disclosures in a burst of enthusiasm, and have them all inactivated, need honest feedback if they are ever going to turn in another invention disclosure. It is not uncommon for inventors whose ideas are all turned off to want to give back any invention incentives they received. Inventors whose first inventions are inactivated have a much higher off-ramp mortality rate than inventors whose first inventions are applied for as patents.

Unfairness is always closely monitored by employees, but in the realm of inventing, unfairness is monitored with electron microscopes, radar detectors, and office gossip. Unfairness in how invention disclosures are treated leads to “high-maintenance” behaviors. Behaviors like refusing to invent if the invention disclosures cannot be proven in advance, to be handled with respect. Behaviors like writing an ersatz-patent application as an invention disclosure. If you hear “A good invention disclosure takes 8 hours” from an inventor, chances are good that the environment is suffering from unfairness in how disclosures are treated.

Managerial hand-holds for inventors in calibration phase are many. For example strategic patenting targets. This is something that HP does very well. Every year senior R&D people are surveyed by the IP section of the legal department. The survey is described in Steve Fox’s chapter in Sullivan’s (1998) PROFITING FROM INTELLECTUAL CAPITAL. In short it consists of a list of 7 plus or minus 2 "strategic" technical areas where the R&D manager wants to capture IP in the next year. Having a list of what is wanted that can be communicated to inventors (for example, as a cover sheet to the invention disclosure form) to help inventors understand the criteria with which their ideas are evaluated.

In addition to strategic patenting targets, process rules can also help prevent inventors from being lost in the calibration phase. For example, good rules are:

• “No laughing at invention disclosures, … ever.”
• “Inventors deserve face-to-face explanations why their disclosures were or were not filed.”

Actually, the best tools for calibration-stage inventors are rules that are backed up with business processes. For example:
• Non-traditional inventors turning in their first invention disclosure get a special in-person support process where their invention disclosure is acknowledged with a phone call from a patent attorney who becomes their single-point of contact for IP issues with the legal department.
• When an inventor turns in their first invention disclosure, it gets logged and then kicked out to a pre-selected sympathetic mentor to review with the inventor.
• When an inventor turns in an invention disclosure, s/he receives acknowledgement within a week of the disclosure’s receipt and notification within a week of the payment of the invention incentive.

Rules implemented in business processes can cover a lot of ground in improving the quality of invention disclosures, and at the same time enlist a much larger segment of the company as inventors. If you want to take your company’s inventing culture to the next level, the first place to look is at the business processes backing up your IP policies.

Digression on feedbackless inventors:
What happens when inventors run without calibration? My experience is that 30% of the population of inventors will write up invention disclosures that will immediately be filed as patents. Another 10% to 20% of the population can’t be motivated to turn in an invention disclosure beyond a token first effort. This leaves about 50% of the population that can benefit from feedback. What is interesting, is that much of the feedback needed to write good quality invention disclosures, is a function of practice. That is, a lot of the feedback needed is self-feedback learned in the process of writing.

In an invention workshop I conducted in 2000, I had an enthusiastic pre-inventor. This individual had not heard about the company’s IP strategy until the attending the workshop. As the training proceeded, this person became more and more excited. When it came time to write an invention disclosure, this person quickly dashed off a 2 page disclosure that, when I read it, made my heart fall. “We are entering the, ‘I am not proud’ zone.” is what I thought to myself. Not even close to usable.

I did my best to maintain a positive countenance, and encouraged the inventor to write another disclosure. Of course, in my mind I wrote him off as never being capable of a good invention disclosure, but on principle, I was upbeat and encouraging. The 2nd invention disclosure was … A LOT better. “Still not in the ballpark of filing, but, surprisingly good for someone who won’t ever write a usable invention disclosure.” I thought to myself.

Invention disclosure #3 was BETTER again than #2. “A borderline file?” I thought. I kept smiling, kept encouraging, and started wondering why I had written this guy off after only 1 disclosure. Disclosure #4 was BETTER YET and was clearly of fileable quality. Disclosure #5 made me think “COOL!!” and Disclosure #6 was “Way Cool!”

The moral of this story was that inventors learn by practicing. Like a kid learning to walk, there are a lot of aspects to writing a quality invention disclosure that the inventors will pick up in the process of writing. A second moral was that I, the expert on getting people to invent, misjudged this guy (with certainty) on the basis of 1 data point. Another good rule for calibration stage inventors is to never give up on them until you’ve seen 6 invention disclosures.

The next post in this series will reivew the third life stage in an inventor's maturation process: status-seeking.

[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.]

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