The 6 Life Stages of Inventors: Part 4 Mentoring

Posted by Bill Meade at January 16, 2006 01:00 PM

*Note* To read comments on posts to rethink[IP] you need to click the permalink. Part 3 of this article series has a comment (with response) from Scott Allred. You can read Scott's comments at the bottom of this link..

The fourth phase in the transformation of an employee into an inventor is mentoring. The entry point to mentoring is having accomplished a body of patenting work, and the development of a sense of intellectual security. This security comes from a feeling of acceptance from other senior inventors in the patenting community at a company. Intellectual security as an inventor allows the inventor’s enjoyment to shift from creating, to creating with and through other people.

Inventor mentors are prolific in their own right. But, their significance to an IP management program is much larger than their individual inventions. Inventor mentors are recruiting on-ramps to the invention program. They are also scouts of high inventor potential, and walking rapid prototyping laboratories for improved IP business processes.

High Inventor Potential:
Inventor mentors specialize in finding what we at BasicIP call "chuckleheads." A chucklehead is often a young engineer just out of school or new to the company. Chuckleheads have are naive in the sense that they don't know what they can't do. The corporate culture-induced cynicism has not yet impregnated the chuckle head's mind and there is raw enthusiasm as well as talent waiting to be tapped. Inventor mentors are sociological chemists bringing enthusiasm, training, future-looking problems, and chuckleheads into inventing reactions.

Rapid Prototyping:
IP managers can be tempted to feel threatened by inventor mentors having to play with, refine, tinker, and invent improvements in, their business processes. I know I was threatened while at HP by my inventor mentors. Once inventor mentors see the invention disclosures that are inactivated by the patent review committee, for example, they often "improve" their process by emulating the patent committee immediately after inventing in a group. What happens is that the ideas and the enablements that would be inactivated by the patent committee, are simply not submitted by the inventor mentor's team. [*Aside* If any IP attorneys are reading this, I'd be interested in what you think about this. Would you trust a senior inventor to filter out ideas like this? What if you are getting 300 invention disclosures a year from an inventor-mentor-led team? In the beginning of the phone company, there were telephone operators that worked for end-users. As the system grew, the operating function shifted to the end users: we are all our own operators today. Is it appropriate for the same thing to happen in shifting invention filtering to inventor mentors?]

Managerial Hand-Hold:
The first managerial hand-hold for inventing mentors is infrastructure. Inventing mentors need a place and a time around which to form their inventing communities. One way to provide these is to set up inventing office hours. Reserve a conference room every Friday afternoon from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm for a year. Make a double batch of chocolate chip cookies on Thrusday nights (add 2 packages of butterscotch pudding and one egg to the standard Toll House recipe). Let all the employees at your site know they are invited to come and ask invention questions, eat cookies, and turn in any invention disclosures that they’ve completed in the previous week. Inventing mentors will learn of “office hours” and bring their rag tag team in every week.

A second managerial hand-hold to keep inventor mentors productive is fairness. Mentally put yourself into a patent committee meeting that is being fed by a team of enthusiastic inventors lead by an inventing mentor. At the table are:

- Patent attorney for the assigned business entity or technology.
- Managing Counsel who sits in on all meetings to keep patenting criteria consistent.
- Patent Coordinator from the business unit of the first inventor to speak to technical and market aspects of the invention.

When an inventor mentor's team gets into a hot strategic area, they will often have 10 to 50 invention disclosures per meeting to review. If there are say 65 disclosures total in a meeting, an unseen bias against the inventor mentor can creep in as disclosures are reviewed. Think about it a string of 5 invention disclosures all with better than average patentability that are directly on the strategic patent survey for the division. This is every patent attorney's dream. The first five are filed as patent applications without discussion.

Then, a couple disclosures from other inventors, and another string of 8 invention disclosures from the inventor mentor's team again. Something happens when the inventor mentor's name comes up again. It somehow seems unfair that this inventor is getting so many patent applications. Silently, the bar goes up for the inventor mentor. Unless the idea is so strongly non-obvious that the managing counsel in the meeting will want to write the patent, the rest of the disclosure with the inventor mentor's name, will be inactivated. Even though the idea quality, idea strategic value, and disclosure quality of the inactivated disclosures is higher than the quality of the disclosures that are selected to be applied for as patents.

An inventor mentor sees the patent committee meeting as a meritocracy: may the best ideas win. The patent committee will theoretically, see the process as a meritocracy as well. But the theory in use during the patent committee meeting will not be a meritocracy unless the IP management team intervenes. Patent committees evolve implicit norms as they meet time and again. These norms are not discussed. And their undiscussability is also not discussed. So, a simple managerial hand hold for keeping your inventor mentors going is to articulate the criteria that your patent committee should be using. Should be using according to company IP policy. If your patent committee follows the IP policy, your inventor mentors will not shut down on you.

Even if the policy is using a roulette wheel to select disclosures for patenting. People will deal with processes they can understand, inventor mentors see patent committee selection processes as just another corporate game that is fun to play. But, if your disclosure selection process selects disclosures based on reasons other than those articulated in the corporate policy, your inventor mentors will be at risk. The problem is that if your patent coordination process is a meritocracy, you will have to tolerate skewed distribution of patents among inventors.

At HP the top inventor as of 2005 had 145 patents. This inventor is a patent agent working in one of the HP IP offices. This could seem very unfair to some companies. But at HP the question is "how good" the IP is, not "how fair" the IP process is in terms of uniformity of patent distribution. At Micron four top inventors all have in excess of 400 patents. Again, the value seems to be "how good" not "how fair."

Many patent committees will not select patent applications based only on merit. A variety of other factors can crowd merit off the table. For example, "This is this inventor's first disclosure, we need to file on it to encourage them." Or, "We are not getting enough disclosures in this area of technology, we need to file on this disclosure because we need more coverage here." Or, my personal favorite non-merit-based reason "Might be useful." When taken with the "This person has more than his/her fair share of patent applications this meeting" norm that inventor mentors have inflicted on them, these seemingly innocuous norms can become an oppression to your company's best and brightest inventors, your inventor mentors.

Rag tag team:
Inventing mentors create inventing teams out of unorthodox collections of under-valued people. Chuckleheads, old birds that have never been appreciated for what they can do. An inventing mentor is a kind of recycling engineer of careers. The metric important to the inventor mentor is ideas that excite the patent committee. Given this metric the inventing mentors will provide resourceful combinations of under-valued people to generate a steady stream of strategic IP. Mentors build strong short-lived teams with norms like “No invention disclosure no cookie at office hours.”

The most common off ramp for inventing mentors is alienation from the patent committee. That is, going from closed loop interaction giving the IP department what it wants, to becoming open loop. When a mentor can feel the ground shake as s/he sends massive quantities of cool, strategic, licensable, and patentable, IP into the patent committee, the mentor is “in the zone.” But when patent committee feedback is delayed, or when feedback becomes negative because of unseen political realities, when negative feedback is condescendingly given by senior people, or when negative feedback suddenly starts to be given by junior people in the IP organization, inventing mentors shut down. When an inventor mentor sees the patent committee selecting randomly from his/her ideas, they fall off the grid.

[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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