Monday, April 25, 2011

Aimed Invention

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 or call (415) 460-1313.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Authentic Collaboration

Innovations will increasingly occur at the “seams.” This is especially true for innovations required by the so-called “grand challenges” of society (e.g., global warming, terrorism, incurable diseases, etc.) and even the grand challenges of our commercial enterprises (e.g., sustainable packaging, hydrogen vs. carbon based technology, etc.).  I suspect it has some truth to the not-as-grand innovation challenges of companies as well.

We have been hearing this prediction from many different quarters. Most recently we heard it from David Kelley (of the design firm IDEO and now at Stanford University); but David added an interesting implication. If more needed innovations will arise from the spaces “in-between” traditional disciplines or classical functions, we will need not only deep expertise—“deep” in knowledge within the respective function or discipline; but we will also need experts who can quickly establish, build and maintain what we would like to call “authentic collaboration.”

Kelley referred to this “T-shaped” capability in those who have technical depth (the vertical part) and an ability to connect with others outside their immediate expertise (the horizontal part). We have observed this ourselves repeatedly, especially in our collaborative invention practice.

The evidence is all around us. Procter & Gamble is changing the way it thinks about research and development. For P&G, it is no longer simply R&D; it is now C&D (connect and develop), by which they mean not only good lateral thinking abilities, but also experience and competence in networking with others, inside and outside the company. Henry Chesbrough’s Open Innovation is a manifesto for authentic collaboration, drawing heavily from the experiences (good and bad) of Xerox PARC. The open source movement, so instrumental in the development of the Linux operating system—the first legitimate rival to Microsoft’s de facto monopoly, is another example.

Nanotechnology may be itself an “interdisciplinary discipline”—a perspective and science that due to both size and geometrically induced functionality—cuts collaborative channels across multiple and varied disciplines, forging new conduits between need streams and innovation streams. If we were to look at any of our client’s various innovation efforts over the past several years, it would be safe to say that the “in-between” space played a significant role.

If skills in authentic collaboration are going to be increasingly critical for innovation efforts in the “seams,” what are the essential elements of authentic collaboration?  We would appreciate hearing your views. In the meantime, here is a start at what makes for authentic collaboration, whether within the boundaries of a company or across its borders:

  • Sufficient over-lap: As a practical matter, there need to be a sufficient over-lap of interest, motivation, experience and/or even expertise for authentic collaboration to occur. Without at least some degree of over-lap, collaborations are difficult to sustain for long enough to get results. Furthermore, while diversity of expertise is a necessary characteristic of the mix of expertise assembled for any sustained or ad-hoc innovation effort, it is possible to have too much diversity, making it difficult for participants to conduct anything more than transactional kinds of interactions—far from collaboration.

  • Trusted sharing: As our body’s vascular system distributes oxygen through the blood stream—critical the health of the body’s subsystems and organs, so the often tacit, two-way exchange of intelligence, experience, ideas, knowledge and skills—the “oxygen” of our innovation efforts—is distributed and flows in direct proportion to the trust between players in the network, community of practice or organization. When trust is lacking, the “veins” constrict, slowing down the free exchange of ideas, knowledge and intelligence, and starving our innovations efforts of their essential oxygen.

  • Empathy: When actual or potential partners are so absorbed in their own needs and objectives that they have little room or patience left for understanding and accommodating the interests of the other, collaborations will become transactional, at best. And while transactional relationships can be quite useful and productive, the demands of innovation efforts—especially innovations “in-between”—require relationships with more depth, commitment and longevity. Authentic collaboration requires give and take. All take or all give is typically short lived. Innovation efforts are more about influence than control, and there typically place a premium on relationship skills more than transactional skills. 
Authentic collaboration (some born out of so-called ‘creative collisions’), may undoubtedly have other additional elements, some viewed as essential. However, the most productive collaborations—at least those related to innovation efforts—occur in the context of a “community of practice.” These networks of practitioners get established, built and maintained largely on the authentic collaboration that occurs within them.

The Institute for Research on Learning coined the phrase “community of practice” several years ago when it discovered that real learning occurs in a social context—in essence, “in community.” Furthermore, practical learning, upon which successful innovations efforts are so heavily dependent, is learning that derives from one practitioner working with another, engaged in solving a problem together. Hence, “community of practice.” 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify, measure or place a value on the communities of practices that exist (and form and reform) within our companies, and even those that cross the borders of our companies. However, as the social capital that is so essential to sustaining a stream of innovations, communities of practices, and the authentic collaboration they are built with, may be the hidden treasure few of our enterprises can do without.  

We have been exploring and charting these innovation networks, communities of practices, and collaborations with subscribers to the Innovation Practitioners Network. For more information, please call us at (415) 387-1270 or visit our website at

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2004. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Innovation's Dew Points

When moisture in the air reaches a certain temperature and density, dew forms. Mist becomes water. Gas becomes liquid. Then, when water reaches a certain temperature and is still for long enough, ice crystals form. Water becomes ice; liquid transforms itself into a solid. 

Phase changes still hold magic and mystery, despite all the explanations of physics, perhaps because of them.

Innovations themselves also seem to go through phase changes. An innovation moves from the early, more gaseous state of words, concepts and sketches, to a more liquid state of experiments and actions, simulations and observations, to a more solid state of what one of our clients calls a stable product. Managing through these phase changes takes a tremendous about of energy—not to mention, patience—waiting for (and possibly encouraging) the right combination of external conditions and 'internal' readiness to develop. 

The physicists among you will know better whether phase changes in the physical world actually take more energy than do developments within the same state leading up to a phase change. You are also likely to know more about the mystery and magic of these phase changes in the natural world. However, unlike the science and predictability of phase changes with known materials, the timings of phase changes with innovations are difficult, if not impossible, to predict. Some can surprise us by how quickly they show up. Others never seem to happen at all. 

Several years ago one of our clients essentially lost patience with an innovation that appeared to have been "in development" for too long. The new product concept and prototypes represented what many thought was a new category niche, in between two other well-known categories. Partly out of frustration, and partly out of the need to show something for the effort, the lead developer finally declared a ship date—the crystallization point. Such a declaration certainly shifted individuals' priorities. Organizationally, a phase change was underway. However, the product itself remained in the liquid state. It was introduced only to have it withdrawn in less than a year.

Unlike many other companies for whom failure in the market is equated with the last nail in the coffin, this client took the failure as simply a sign that the phase change--the crystallization they had been hoping for, had not occurred. This did not mean that it could not occur. It just hadn't happened yet. They realized that they hadn't quite gotten all the external conditions to line up well enough with the internal factors. They did not know enough about what made for crystallization with this product. 

Eighteen months later, after some reworking of the product and some rewording of the message, the reintroduced version is doing better in the market than the first one. The second time around hasn't been exactly the charm for which they were hoping; however, they haven't given up because of first “failure.” In fact, they remain even more convinced of the opportunity, along with their own need for more patience, understanding and attempts to find what will make for the phase change they need for a stable product. This client knew from experience that phase changes go both ways: that they could return to the previous gaseous state and rethink and rework, knowing that “getting it right the first time” is largely a fantasy when it comes to innovation efforts.

What needs to happen at innovation dew points and innovation crystallization points may be different enough to make the former a poor predictor of the latter. This is one reason why productive experimentation is so essential to both the development and commercialization efforts for innovations. Given that we are dealing with novelty, the 'science' of what we are working with hasn't matured enough to give us certainty as to when and where dew or crystals will form. Hence, Stephan Thomke's counsel (from Experimentation Matters) is worth remembering: experiment early and often, and in the field. The more concrete evidence we can experience first hand at the dew (or are they “do”) points, the more confidence we may gain that our innovation is ripe enough for prime time.  

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2006. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 460-1313.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Nurture and Nature in Parenting Innovations

Twenty-five years ago I was lucky enough to find myself under the tutelage of a veteran innovator. His small group at Kimberly-Clark Corporation was called at the time “Exploratory Projects”—a name befitting the open-endedness of our charter. Shortly after I signed on, the name of the group was changed to Innovation Management. 

The group's reaction to the name change was mixed. Some of us felt vindicated. With a new name like Innovation Management, we now we had corporate legitimacy (instead of being “legitimate crazies,” as some were fond of calling us). Others felt an impending loss. The Innovation Management label threatened to erode the group's anonymity-born freedom to explore the next new profit source for Kimberly-Clark. All of us, however, saw the boldness of the assumption inherent in combining the two words—that innovation could be managed.  

Many believe that it is an oxymoron to put the words “innovation” and “management” together.  Like “jumbo shrimp” or “the lonely crowd,” innovation management brings two worlds together and holds them together in creative tension. Whether understood as an economic noun (an innovation), an entrepreneurial verb (innovating) or as an organizational adjective (innovative), innovation has to do with bringing something new into reality. Management, however, typically has to do with increasing the productivity of what is already in place through planning, organizing, controlling, evaluating and improving. While the two words are not opposites, they do not naturally go together.

Thinking that innovation—a developmental “process” quite unlike more operational processes—can be managed in a similar way as other areas of the corporate enterprise, is a presumption that only the uninitiated make. Most veteran innovators recognize that when it comes to managing the new, we have to stretch the muscles normally associated with the more operational assumptions about acts of management.

Through a stimulating conversation at this April’s Innovation Practitioners Network conference, what became clear is that after all these years of working under the conceptual framework of management, we are now convinced that a better word is parenting.  It is parenting innovation, not managing innovation. This is more than merely a semantic issue. While parenting includes managerial acts, what is involved in parenting in not adequately captured in the notions of management. There is something more and different going on, quite a bit more, actually.

Additionally, an article in the Journal of Business Venturing (February 2005) called “A Tale of Passion: New Insights Into Entrepreneurship from a Parenthood Metaphor” and discussions with Dr. Stuart Brown from the National Institute for Play suggest that intersection of nurture and nature is the source of driving forces shaping the development of any innovation, just as it for the development of a child. This intersection between heredity (technological/market “genes”) and environment (context) provides so much of the stuff that innovators must deal with as they parent the innovation. This intersection may be a new way of understanding the context of the innovator as an innovation parent.

To some extent parenting innovations can be systematic in balancing play and discipline to help the innovation grow and develop to its fullest potential. Drucker, Christensen, McGrath, etc., have written about these principles and practices and suggest systematic approaches. However, parenting innovations is not likely to ever become completely routine or systematized. Like children, each innovation is different from the next. 

What may clear to many aspiring innovators is that at various points in the development of an innovation, the innovators (parents) need to be more “playful” in their parenting. Like a child, the innovation has a need to grow and develop, to play. Do we inadvertently deprive our innovations of the developmental benefits of play by prematurely requiring certain levels of performance from them? It's a bit like requiring too much too soon from our children.

Perhaps we need to think more carefully, at least in the early stages of development, about playmates for our innovations (flanking versions of the innovation); playgrounds for our innovations (protected spaces for thought and actual experimentation); and playthings for our innovations (toys with which the innovation can interact).

Please let us know your thoughts about parenting innovations and the importance of play.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in July 2005. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 460-1313.