The 6 Life Stages of Inventors: Part 5 Scanning

Posted by Bill Meade at January 17, 2006 11:16 AM

Even if you can keep your inventor mentors inventing and mentoring, you tend to loose them. It is not that inventor mentors are unwilling or unable to invent. The problem becomes that they have too much to do to budget any time to inventing. It is just a matter of time until an inventor mentor is promoted high enough to force their inventing into dormancy. If you look at senior engineering managers, you see a collection of dormant inventors.

As an IP manager though, you should not give up on these dormant inventors. I think of the dormancy stage as "scanning" because if you can tickle, suck up to, cajole, taunt, bother, flatter, or otherwise stimulate senior dormant inventors into staying in the IP management game, you can capture a tremendous amount of insight into managing your IP portfolio. Scanners are less prolific at inventing, but when they invent, they deliver strategic inventors that capture architectural control points in a technology.

A typical scanner IP contribution will go like this:

Step 1: Over time as the scanner has not invented, guilt builds up.

Step 2: Eventually, the guilt builds up to a critical mass motivating the scanner inventor to do something.

Step 3: Time and other constraints dictate that the scanner must do inventing covertly. Involving the IP department may be an unpredictable or too large a time commitment for the scanner to deal with. Scanners will put together a skunk works type invention project that works for them and their immediate engineering team given the constraints they are under.

Step 4: The team will invest a few intense, very focused hours into the scanner's approach and then do something in the way of inventing.

Step 5: The scanner inventor will returns to step 1.

To give a concrete example. A scanner inventor who had progressed through Steps 1 and 2 above decided to have their team look at all the team's past invention disclosing activity (Step 3: He came up with a project that worked given the team's constraints). Several years worth of disclosures were spread out on a conference table. The team spent time reviewing the gist of each invention disclosure. Once all the team members had reviewed all the invention disclosures, the scanner asked his team "What are all these invention disclosures telling us?"

In this case, the disclosures were all addressed to a process in a best selling product. As the team reflected on what they disclosures were adding up to, they discovered that in a piecewise way, the disclosures were adding up to protection of an architectural control point. The project the scanner put together had actually articulated an architectural control point. To that time, the team had known what they were doing was important. But articulating vague knowledge into an architectural control point brought clarity and efficiency to the team's efforts.

The team was able to say "Have we missed any ways to cover this architectural control point?" and then (Step 4: Do some kind of IP generation) they were able to quickly generate invention disclosures to complete the protection of a best-selling product's key advantage. Scanners put together covert projects like this that draw on a company's culture, its product market history, its competition, future technology directions, and its inventing potential, and they mix all these elements into a ready-made mini-IP portfolio for bureau-cat IP managers. I call scanner inventors scanner because they lay back and by osmosis scan many environments until they can bring together a critical mass of multi-environment information.

Word of advice: Suck up to your scanner inventors. In fact, for an IP manager, this is the key managerial hand hold. You need to dispense your time in such a way that your scanner inventors know that you know that they are strategic competitive advantages that walk on two legs. You won't have a monetary budget for insuring you fully appreciate scanner inventors. Instead you have a time budget. So you need to spend your time on scanner inventors wisely. Never miss an opportunity to attend a patent committee meeting where a scanner inventor will be present. Be resourceful in creating 1 on 1 time (i.e., buy the scanner lunch out of your own pocket) with scanner inventors. Do detective work on the scanner inventor team's invention disclosure history. Speak knowledgeably with the scanner inventor about the team output s/he is generating.

The only entry point I know of into becoming an invention scanner is being a seasoned inventor and an inventor mentor. Scanners ask the beautiful questions about inventions, and lead to IP managers to beautiful answers. IP managers, don't resent scanner inventors for doing your job for you. Celebrate them for doing your job. Create short circuits so that credit you get for what a scanner has done, makes its way back to the true contributor. Scanners will invent when necessary, and often motivate others to invent. But most importantly, they circle back and reflect upon inventing.

Mendeleyev (of periodic table fame) was a card fanatic. What game would you guess was his favorite? Right, solitaire. When Mendeleyev discovered the periodic table, many of the cells in the table of elements were empty. The missing cells in the periodic table allowed chemists to target and rapidly find elements to fill the missing places. Invention scanners do much the same thing for IP managers by articulating architectural control points for shipping products. They abstract the purpose in many small inventions, and then they ask themselves if there are other future-looking inventions, any gap-filling inventions, or competitively-preemptive inventions that could fill in the protection of an architectural control point.

One way to build an IP strategy is to assemble the architectural control points that scanner inventors have built in their work over the years. This is like assembling the periodic table from individual columns, but who cares how you do it? If you can assemble your IP strategy-in-use. That is, map the IP protection that is already in the portfolio, it is a huge step towards being able to manage the portfolio. And, this approach will give you a different, more reflective understanding of your portfolio than you will ever gain by reading patents.

The invention off-ramp for invention scanners is denominator management. When quotas fall mindlessly on patenting and invention capture efforts, and the invention scanners see their carefully developed protection of architectural control points disabled or inactivated, these managers will become busy somewhere else in their busy schedules. Think about it, the scanner comes up with a project to protect a new architectural control point. S/he gathers the invention disclosures to provide economical but full coverage of a key market differentiator. When s/he arrives in the IP department however, the answer is "Sorry, we've already reached our quota for the year. Come back next year."

What is wrong with this picture? A patent attorney telling an inventor to bring the ideas back next year. The person in charge of policing patent bars telling the inventor to bring back the IP after the patent bar has cut. Given the workloads scanner inventors carry, the next thing cut will be the inventing.

The final stage in the development of inventors is senescence. I will cover inventor senescence in the final installment of this article.

[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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