Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Certainty and Creativity—The Constraints of Mental Filters In Innovation

By James P. O’Shaughnessy

What is it about novelty that causes us to initially reject it? It is the process of mental filtering. Mental filters are strong barriers to creative thought. They impede us when formulating and then uttering our truly novel thoughts. Yet, these are the very ideas and raw material we strive to create while inventing.

As Will Rogers observed: “It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us so much, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Mental filters tend to be the things we know for sure; and most of these “certainties” are far from that—some are misleading and others downright wrong. Thus, the operation of mental filters is counterproductive to the overarching goals of an Innovation Workshop when we seek to develop a strategic portfolio of patents as well as corresponding innovations.

Innovation Workshops are exercises in thought experimentation centered on a concrete objective set forth as an opportunity statement. Its output is a series of strategic innovations within the scope of the stated opportunity, and, near term, patents covering those new creations. These innovations, due to their strategic characteristics, can often seed a company’s organic innovation processes as well.

The active workshop process unfolds over a several day period, during which participant inventors delve into the opportunity, harnessing their collective creativity to develop novel ideas within its milieu. The workshop is structured around an implicit tension between what is and what could be. That tension is embodied between the experts rooted in the subject matter and the catalytic thinkers who challenge the conventional or delivered wisdom of the field. Much like flint and steel, the creative sparks are seen to fly as the two integrated talents work productively in exploring new ground and, in that process, inventing during hundreds of facilitated thought experiments.

We know from experience that there is a direct correlation between the newness of an idea and its rejection, at first by its originator and then by its evaluator. We should be highly attuned to the rejection of an idea, for this is a telltale of novelty. These filters thus operate as first order tools of rejection of the very novelty sought in Innovation Workshops.  

The output of a workshop in large part is a strategic portfolio of patents as well as corresponding innovations. To qualify as “strategic,” this portfolio must embody two essential characteristics: the portfolio must have the capacity to “control, manage or influence;” and it must exert that capacity on “markets, sectors or relationships.” Putting this together, we aim to create a portfolio that strives to “control, manage or influence markets, sectors or relationships.”

Because most of us are steeped in the traditions of organic innovation, our mental filters are well honed to be egocentric. We invent and then patent things important to us (the ego). However, inasmuch as patents confer rights of exclusion, considerably greater value can be extracted from patents important to others (“allocentric”). Thus, throughout this description of mental filters, the reader would do well to keep in mind the simple and straightforward admonition: “Patent things important to others.”  

Here are some of the filters commonly encountered:

·      We don’t do/make that.”  This is the analog to “Not Invented Here” or “NIH.”  It is aptly termed “Not Sold Here” or “NSH.” We think, if we don’t make or do or sell that, whatever that is, then that is not important to us. Change your vantage—if it is or could be a good invention touching on or concerning products or services important to someone else, it has the very strategic component we seek. NSH is a common and pernicious filter.

·      We can’t do that” or “It can’t be done.” The logic of the statement often cannot be denied, were we limiting our consideration to a commercial product in the next few quarters or even years. However we strive for patents that have an enabled disclosure of a viable way to produce that product. Patents issuing on those enabled conceptions will have a life of 20 years from filing. It may be true that commercialization of the patented product may be infeasible now. But, having strategic rights for some balance of the lifespan of the patent can confer significant benefits as it eventually covers commercial reality.

·      It’s too costly.” Simply put, something too costly to produce at a reasonable profit today may tomorrow become the dominant design. It is often the case that other enabling technologies are required before a product is commercially viable. Once again, to have patents important to others for even a few years of the 20-year span can bestow strategic advantages.

·      It’s not practical.” This filter is based on a faulty premise that practicality will be measured tomorrow as today. It also fails to acknowledge that whatever impediment prevents practicality will fail to be overcome within the life of a patent.

·      It’s not reduced to practice.” Many inventors have been indoctrinated to believe an invention must be reduced to practice—saying that it must be tangible and shown to work. That is one of those things we know for sure that just ain’t so. If the inventor can conceptualize the invention and articulate a workable hypothesis for its operability, the patent application later filed on that invention constitutes a “constructive reduction to practice.” That is equally effective.

·      There’s no market for it.” This filter is predicated on a prediction of the future over a period too long to be susceptible of accurate prophecy. If the market materializes in even 15 years, an enormously long time in today’s fast-paced society, there will still be about five years during which the company can enjoy the commercial influence of the patent. That can yield tremendous market advantages.

·       “It’s not good enough.” An invention—because it is new—often lacks simple elegance. It can be rough around its edges and need more work to polish it. However, features not yet good enough are typically commercial attributes important when a product or service is marketed. Patents are more tolerant of such imperfections.

·      It’s silly.”  This common filter operates all the time in everybody. How often has it happened that we have an idea but fail to express it, only to find someone else with a lower threshold for silliness says the same thing to great acclaim? Along these lines, Albert Einstein once offered the acute observation that an idea that is not at first absurd has little prospect.  

·      It’s fractionally baked.” Some seem to think that so-called “half-baked” ideas should be rejected as ill-thought or ill-formed. In an Innovation Workshop, half-baked is wondrous while even smaller fractions are entirely welcome. The trick here is to find the kernel of the idea that has prospects, according to Einstein, and further develop that kernel into an invention.

·       “It’s already known/done.” When this statement is accurate, it is not a filter but very important information that guides an inventor’s productive energy. However, it is rarely the case that this filter is accurate. Moreover, when this filter operates, it tends to block the mental path of the participant inventors. It is okay that they follow the same trail others have blazed if it positions them to leapfrog earlier thinking.

·       “Party X would never let us do this.” Some companies exist in markets dominated by one or a few very influential companies. This can create an interfering mindset when workshop inventors filter out good ideas because they challenge or threaten to shift market power. But, again, 20 years is a long time for any company to hold market sway and, it’s better to be the party holding a patent than the one against whom it is asserted. Patents have the ability to change the rules of the market—good ideas should not be rejected because they threaten the status quo.

The power of Innovation Workshops lies largely in the ability of facilitators to create an atmosphere in which participants can be both analytical and playful with raw ideas in a comprehensive series of thought experiments. We all must be on guard for the operation of filters that will interfere with those dynamics. These filters are always present and it would be foolish to deny that reality. Thus, it is a matter of suppressing their harmful effects. This is a goal and responsibility of both facilitators and inventors alike.

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

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