Like a golfer's swing, the invention process is a highly complex “movement” that ironically resists any direct attempts of the mind to control it. It responds as much to an intuitive feel for the art as it does to a cognitive analysis. And just as every golfer longs for that elusive repeatable swing, so every company would relish a greater degree of predictability to the invention process.
If only we could simply point our engineers in the right direction, let them have at it, and be guaranteed that we will get something that we can use, either in pre-commercial or commercial development. However, like most golfers' swings, there are variations due to stiff muscles, course conditions, how the ball is sitting on the turf, wind direction, humidity, etc. And the combination of all these factors determines whether the moment of contact between club and ball produces the intended result, or something else.
For several years now we have been organizing and facilitating invention workshops with a growing number of clients. Increasingly, many of these companies have realized not only that they may have some “Rembrandts in the Attic” in the form of under-exploited patents, but that they have potential future Picasso’s in their engineering and scientific communities. Furthermore, many of these companies are taking steps to do what can be done to increase the probability—though not guaranteed—that their aimed, collaborative invention efforts will produce useable and even intended results.
The legendary golf teacher, Harvey Pennick, had this sage advice for golfers: “Take dead aim.” Pennick’s advice may be just as applicable to a company’s invention efforts. How companies are "taking dead aim" can vary, but many of their methods involve bringing together three different perspectives—past, future and peripheral vision—when aiming their invention efforts.
Looking at what has happened in the past and how it has led up to where we are now can be useful in giving us a sense of perspective, not only on prior art, but also on where things might be headed in terms of both market and technology development.
Several years ago we were facilitating an invention workshop with a small group of engineers who verbally and non-verbally were saying "There is (or will be) nothing new in this area.” “What can be invented already has been invented” (to quote a previous patent commissioner!). Then, quite by accident, we ask them to create a chronology of the eras of prior art in this domain. These engineers took very little time to agree on the eras, both by duration and name. And when they had finished reconstructing a technological chronology of the various eras, we asked them simply “what's might you call the next era, the one we are headed for right now”? The response was surprising. Not only did they all agree on the next era, each engineer became re-engaged and highly motivated in the technical challenge; and we had one of our more productive invention workshops.
Looking to the future and identifying the emerging technology and market trends is not as difficult as it might at first appear. This can be done with varying degrees of thoroughness. However, we have been continually surprised at how quickly the major factors shaping a different tomorrow can be identified and agreed upon. Those factors about which there remains significant debate can lead to productive research. But where there is agreement reveals where additional patentable inventions are needed to fill out the company's portfolio.
Making assumptions about the future explicit is but one way of surfacing where the “white space” may be. Scenarios are another tool not only to raise awareness of how tomorrow will likely be different than today, but to help a company prepare for these differences.
Competitive analysis, patent mapping and other analytical tools and techniques can all help provide a company with the peripheral vision necessary to understand its current and likely future competitive context. We frequently ask select groups of business leaders to articulate what they believe to be true about the future. In doing so collaboratively with their fellow business leaders, productive differences of opinion quickly surface in a non-threatening way (who among us has a crystal ball on the future?), such that the group can work with and through these differences before attempting to formulate a strategy.
Debating different beliefs and assumptions about what the future holds can be a much more productive exercise in which to engage leadership. It tends to focus the debate on where markets or technology is headed and minimizes the blurring affect that political agendas can have on peripheral vision. This is but another way to efficiently identify where the “white spaces” of opportunity might be—prime targets for aimed invention efforts.
Just as a golfer shouldn't swing the club so hard or fast as to lose his or her balance, so preparation for an aimed invention process should attempt to stay “balanced” with the right mix of perspectives and expertise from within the company, with a proper upright posture to ensure the movement is natural and free flowing. Just remember Pennick's sound wisdom for both golfers and inventors: “take dead aim.”
This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in June 2001. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 460-1313.