Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Collecting Habit and Innovation and The Inventor's "Junk Pile"

“We'll know it when we see it.”  That is what is often heard in response to questions about how concepts will ultimately be judged. 

Yet “I’ll know it when I see it” is maddeningly subjective, especially for less experienced innovators. Some will attempt to eliminate or reduce this subjectivity as much as possible. Experienced innovators, on the other hand, have learned to not only accept it, but also to anticipate it. 

Recently I had the privilege of talking shop with Don Toht, veteran designer and head of research and development at RC2, a leading producer and marketer of high quality innovative collectibles and toys targeted to adult collectors and children. We were comparing the similarities of playing and collecting (e.g., collection being a more “adult” kind of play). Don revealed an interviewing strategy he has cultivated over the years to assess the interviewee’s proclivities for creative work. Don asks the prospective designer to tell him about his or her collection (Don’s collection, by the way, is robots!). How one answers this question, Don suggests, has been a fairly reliable indicator not only of someone’s passionate interests, but of their creative potential as well.  

Don’s strategy has the resonance of sound, practical wisdom. The principle behind itusing collecting as an indicator or window into someone’s interest and passion, not to mention a view into their creative skills—has been gnawing at me every since. When Dick Cheverton and I were working with Bill Wilson on the book, The Maverick Way, we thought there might be some significance to collecting. Bill had a passion for collecting that included rocks and gems, tools, miniature tin soldiers, and even life-sized tractors, not to mention his collection of people.  A frequent caricature of the inventor pictures him with a junk pile nearby.  “Almost all scientists start out as collectors,” says Elaine Hoagland, executive director of the Association of Systematic Collections. “Collecting teaches us to observe similarities and differences. In fact, children are the best at observing because they don’t have preconceived notions“(from Acquiring Minds by Lisa R. Price).

While there may not be a causal relationship between collecting and discovery, a hypothesis I would offer is that the two may be strongly correlated.  In other words, collecting can increase the probability of significant discovery or as Voltaire said, “chance favors the prepared mind.”

Of all the idea generating sessions I have facilitated, I find the most productive ones (those efforts which produced something that made it into the marketplace) have been populated by people who had both mentally gained some distance from the core business and had immersed themselves in a new context or frame of reference. As a result, we typically counsel clients to not be too quick to jump to idea generation activities, until the core team has done its market discovery homework or has deep knowledge of the invention domain(s).  

Collecting—prior to any formal idea generation—may be what those of us prone to confuse action with motion need to consider more often. Some form of collecting—whether artifacts, hypotheses, opinions, facts and/or observations—can help “prepare the mind” to increase the probability that serendipity will occur. Collecting can facilitate the immersion into a new frame of reference so necessary for the discovery of some new and proprietary insight, perspective, benefit or truth. The collection itself may even develop an aesthetic sensitivity on the part of the collector to enable the ability to recognize a truly elegant and fitting idea from one that is simply new.

Larry Pillote, a master and veteran innovator at Sealed Air Corporation, uses the term “cute” with investing sponsors to describe innovations that meet or exceed their explicit and implicit criteria. I suspect that the ability to recognize and differentiate ‘cute’ from less attractive candidates may have something to do with a life long habit of curiosity, collecting and connecting that experienced innovators like Pillote and Toht so ably demonstrate.  

The Inventor's "Junk Pile"
By Lee Murrah

Johnny once told me that every inventor needs a well-stocked junk pile. He said it as if it were a requirement and not merely a strong recommendation. Before he gave up his workshop at age 80 and moved to an apartment, Johnny had an outstanding junk pile to go with the 55 or so patents he had accumulated in his career as an engineer. 

Johnny’s junk pile was out behind the shop, under a scrub tree with unkempt grass growing all around and a dead briar from last summer curling up through a rusted roll of barbed wire salvaged from a long forgotten Texas Hill Country fence. The junk pile had a little of everything—an automobile axle here, some used water pipe there, some angle iron to the side, and a piece of corrugated steel protecting a few rusty pieces of re-bar, some with small chunks of concrete still attached. Several pieces of scrap steel with odd-shaped cutouts leaned on parts of an old windmill. 

Johnny could slide open the back doors to his shop, and there was the junk pile only a few steps from his cutting torch and welding machine. Johnny could build anything from that junk pile. Had he decided to build a nuclear reactor to power his home, a visitor no doubt would soon have seen a glow arising from his shop. The reactor would without doubt have incorporated a differential from 1964 Coupe de Ville scavenged from his junk pile.

Johnny had always had an affinity for junk piles. When he was a teenager, he found dozens of wrecked Ford Model Ts at the local dump. From this jumble of car parts, he assembled a dozen or so operating vehicles. He left them parked on a hill on the family farm when he went off to World War II as an artillery officer. When he returned, he found to his chagrin that his father had donated them as scrap for the war effort. 

War, of course, is another junk pile story—war creates the ultimate junk pile. Life was better in Johnny’s company because of those things he made from salvaged parts found, or “liberated”, along the war torn European roads. After he found a DC motor and rigged it up as a generator to a gasoline engine, he regularly lighted two tents—his, and the commanding officer’s.

Johnny’s ability to work with junk led to one of the most amazing war stories I ever heard. Just after landing his artillery battery on the Italian mainland, he faced a swarm of charging panzers. When Johnny’s men attempted to load their howitzers to return fire, they found that the shell cases had been bent in the rough Mediterranean crossing and would not fit into the gun’s breech.  Facing annihilation, Johnny grabbed an axe and told his men to stand back. He used the flat face of the axe to drive the shells into the howitzer. He knew that if his blows were flat the axe would not strike the shell’s firing pin. One errant blow and Johnny was a goner! But it worked! Johnny’s men copied his desperate method, and they drove off the panzers!

Johnny’s wife, Wy, is an artist—a painter. Seemingly, their philosophies could not be more different. To Johnny it doesn’t matter what it looks like so long as it works. To Wy it doesn’t matter whether it works so long as it looks good. But look a little deeper though, and you will see that Johnny is an artist too—his brush is a cutting torch and his canvas is out there behind the shop in the junk pile.

Johnny’s junk pile was a magnificent thing. When most people look at a junk pile, they see an ugly tangle of rusty things with sharp edges to cut fingers, heavy things to smash toes, and maybe even a rattlesnake under that disordered pile of galvanized water pipe. When Johnny looked at his junk pile, though, he saw free parts for his projects. But he saw more—possibilities. Johnny’s junk pile was not just junk—it was also inspiration—an amalgam of ideas and the means to carry them out.

Creating—whether the medium is Wy’s paint and canvas or Johnny’s steel and welding rod—is about “seeing” differently.  Johnny could “see” things that others could not—just as Wy saw beauty when she painted her Hill Country landscapes. Johnny has a God-given talent for seeing, but he used his junk pile to even better focus his mind’s eye.

A junk pile is a collection of disparate parts and pieces, but it is more than that. It is a catalog of seemingly unrelated ideas embodied in shapes, structures, and mechanisms that can be harvested, modified, and re-used. Those that are fans of the "Junk Yard Wars," which appears on The Learning Channel, watch as participants race around junk yards looking for parts and mechanisms to use in building their contraptions.  As often as not they fail to find what they are looking for. Instead they find something else that works as well or that may inspire them to design and even better junkyard marvel.

 A junk pile not only provides ideas, it suggests new ones by placing unrelated ideas in unusual and random juxtaposition. In the real world a windmill gear would never be located next to an automobile steering shaft; and a home water heater would not lie atop a Chevy V-8 engine. This collision of ideas that occurs only in corroded piles of scrap spurs creativity.

Creativity in one sense is bringing disparate ideas together in new, random ways and contexts that suggest new functionality. Recall that Samuel Colt got the idea for his famous revolver by watching a ship’s paddle wheel. Nikola Tesla was inspired to invent the AC motor by watching the sun arc cross the sky while sitting in a Bucharest park. By requiring that his junk pile be well stocked, Johnny increased the number of ideas and potential random combinations.

To most observers a junk pile is an end, a graveyard for formerly useful things. But Johnny knew that under the rust and beneath the weeds were concepts waiting to be reborn. All a junk pile really needs is a Johnny to explore the possibilities.

The author, Lee Murrah, retired a few years ago as chief intellectual property counsel at ArvinMeritor. He wrote this article about his friend, John D. Bennett, who is  over 80 years old and lives in Walls Falls, Texas. He is retired from Sunoco.

These articles were originally published in Innovating Perspectives in June 2003. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Free Range: A Well-Spring for Corporate Renewal

By Jane Gannon

While much of the territory once referred to as “free range” has long since been purchased, plowed or otherwise domesticated, another free range may be coming into view. This free range is about intellectual more than geographic territories. It is where ideas mix with theories, facts and the creative, inventive spirit. It is the place where new trends are born and old proclivities are transformed. It is a place where the boundaries that are crossed are more perceptual than geographic or political. It is a vast and rich territory that surrounds most every corporation, yet it remains unexplored and often ignored by many.

Few have experienced the potential that resides in these spaces. Fewer still have actually spent their careers mining this place for the seeds of innovation and corporate renewal. 

In mid-October, a group of veteran free range riders convened for a Mavericks Workshop in Tiburon, California. Experiences from multiple crossings of the invisible but distinct boundaries that exist between corporate “pastures” and the corporate free range were shared. Of great interest to this group was the role and contributions of the maverick in corporate innovation and renewal. 

Dick Cheverton, a top editor at the Orange County Register, who is writing the soon-to-be published book, The Maverick Way, kicked off the workshop by describing mavericks as those who straddle both the pastures of corporate life and the relatively vast, rule-less, and yet-to-be domesticated free spaces, which are rich with potential for corporate growth and innovation.

By being “unbranded,” the maverick moves freely within an organization, cuts across lines of power, brings people and ideas together, bends the rules and subverts authority. The maverick also moves freely outside the corporation, probing and exploring areas and developing relationships whose relevance to the corporation may not be readily evident, but frequently leads to significant innovations. Mavericks are motivated more by their love of freedom to pursue their interests. Mavericks use the corporation in which they work as a place to pursue this freedom, despite the corporation’s own ambivalence towards them.

While the workshop was titled, “Protecting Mavericks,” it became readily apparent that many of those gathered did not need or want protecting. Many did concede, however, that early in their maverick careers they did have “protectors.”

Bill Wilson, the retired Vice President of Innovation Management at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, who, as a master maverick, is the inspiration for The Maverick Way, suggested that the maverick poses a unique management challenge. By their nature, mavericks operate on the free range, between the confines of corporate boundaries and the wilderness of potential entrepreneurial opportunity. Working with mavericks requires different skills and philosophy.

Wilson defined a maverick as one who:

• thinks and acts in an unpredictable manner that results in innovative ways of living;

• doesn’t take no for an answer;

• doesn’t ask, and doesn’t tell;

• knows the network, the territory and where to go to get help;

• knows that where there is a will there is a way; and

• gets the insight into the product vision.

Leo Shapiro, Chairman of Leo Shapiro & Associates, who is a master trend spotter and analyst, described the various stages a maverick goes through as scapegoat, prophet and trailblazer. Despite being considered out of the mainstream, mavericks are in part defined by the “company they keep,” which is rarely limited to one company, field or area of expertise. Mavericks tend to operate as a member of a group that exists in his or her own mind rather than only as a member of the group of persons who are physically present.

Shapiro views the challenge of mavericks is to tell the corporation what it doesn’t want to hear. Successful mavericks have learned how to do that and not get terminated. As a result, mavericks are prey more often than predators, and have learned to be very aware and quick to react.

The workshop provided a chance for corporate mavericks to meet, share stories and ideas, and network with one another, an opportunity which all of the participants found valuable.

To keep this conversation and network of Mavericks forging ahead on the free range, we are promoting further discussion. Please call us if you would like more information on mavericks, the workshop, the book, or the Maverick Roundtable.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in November 1998. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Complementary Innovation

By Jim O'Shaughnessy

Targeted invention efforts complement a company’s organic innovation processes and thus have come to be dubbed “complementary innovation” or “non-organic innovation” to compare or contrast them with the former, more familiar innovation activities. The rationale for these complementary activities is rooted in the practical: no company can possibly afford to address every innovation challenge confronting it through its normal resource allocation process, yet no company can remain fully exposed to the innovation threats imposed by vigorous competition. This gap between necessity and affordability is the niche of complementary innovation.

The technique was born with a specific challenge in mind. In the early 1990s, Advanced Micro Devices was on the horns of a dilemma. It was paying Intel very substantial patent license fees it could ill afford but required the license from Intel as a market enabler. Intel’s portfolio was size dominant and AMD was compelled to true up the balance with cash.

This situation inspired the first targeted invention effort. Over a reasonable period of time AMD was able to complement the patent portfolio realized from its ongoing investments in organic innovation with new additions from this complementary process to achieve its goal of a strategic patent balance with Intel. AMD eventually cross-licensed with Intel at par. The complementary innovation strategy met its intended objective there—bulking up the size and diversity of the AMD portfolio to be found economically equivalent to Intel’s portfolio.

Similarly, at Rockwell we were disadvantaged for years in cross licensing in the field of telecommunications with AT&T and its patent successor, Lucent. We broke the paradigm in a way different from the approach we had previously adopted with AMD but based on certain principles that became evident in our work there.

Targeted invention efforts can contribute considerably to the negotiation calculus and dynamics. This can be exemplified by Rockwell’s negotiations with Lucent, assuredly a dominant party in telecommunications, where we used workshops to build quickly the size of our communications portfolio in comparison to historical organic innovation efforts. This had the added benefit of increasing patent velocity dramatically. In crafting the portfolio, and mindful of the typical lognormal value distribution that comes from historic practices, we determined to add to the portfolio based on a simple but powerful premise: patent things important to others, in this case, Lucent.

We took this aphorism one step further: determine where Lucent was vulnerable and patent into its weaknesses. Patents applied to points of vulnerability or weaknesses have greater blocking potential and can be felt by the other party to have greater relevance to its business. And, because we had a more favorable leverage ratio in the implicated market, the negotiation turned an important corner that favored Rockwell over the then dominant party.
This result did not occur overnight either in crafting the necessary portfolio, negotiating the cross license more favorably to Rockwell, or eventually in realizing the benefits of the investment. 

Complementary innovation is often used as a hedge. On the premise that no company can afford all the organic innovation it needs, here targeted invention can populate the portfolio with patents useful later as the company negotiates its entrĂ©e to the market otherwise foreclosed by competitor’s patents except perhaps at very high costs. The technique can also be used well in advance of market entry to begin developing a portfolio capable of sheltering the investments to be made as part of the strategic plan.
I have worked with many companies in many countries in many and diverse industries that use these and like practices to target gaps in their portfolios when assessing the capabilities of their patents to secure the desired or necessary objectives. This is a hallmark of complementary actions. 

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2008. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Innovation Playgrounds: Keep them close

While necessity may be the mother of invention, play is quite likely its father.  — Editor’s Note

By Stuart Brown, M.D.

Necessity and play are rarely allowed to be seen together, particularly in or corporate innovation efforts.  Operating realities tend to foster a necessity-born urgency which has no time for "play", Necessity so easily and frequently couples with fear (e.g., of the competitive threat that is knocking at the door) that inventions never happen.   Father play never gets even close enough to mother necessity to even meet, much less…(well you get the point). 

This largely self-imposed separation generally means that we have lost the intuitively operative key to new discovery that every freed up kid knows by being alive.  An example is in order:

I am looking at a toy truck. My mood is light, and memories flow.  I see in my mind’s eye my grandson playing with it as he did yesterday. His glee, vroom-vroom motor noises, enthusiasm, and great spontaneity, bring back to me, via my imagination a joyful state of body-mind.

Then I see and feel myself at age 4 on the floor with my little yellow dump truck.  As I reflect happily, I am mentally in 3 time frames simultaneously:  I’m in the here-and-now, the scene of yesterday and the past.   Then, seemingly out of nowhere, without a break in mood, I know how I will deal effectively with a problem that has been bugging me for some time.   I've got a solution, where before I had none.

What’s going on here, and can we bottle it? 

A short explanation linked to evidence-based play observations goes like this (while not yet hard science, it is close). Imagine that my brain is being recorded by the latest brain imaging equipment. As the visual image sparked by the toy makes its way through the anatomic paths in my brain nature has designed, the specific pattern of “truck” hits my visual cortex and leaves specific "truck" electroencephalographic blips. This in-the-brain sequence once was thought to be sufficient for the brain to recognize this as a truck. Not so. We all “see” (and hear and feel, etc.) in much more complex and contextually organizing ways than was once physiologic dogma. What we now know is in that short instant of spontaneous brain activity before I “know” it is a truck, a 10-fold automatic feedback system roars into action, energized, guided and lit up in large part by the playful “state” of the moment.

Each neuro-physiologic sequence of the here-and-now sensory signals, coupled with the near instant interactions with the there-and-then stored signals in memory drive this 10-fold feedback system; each piece of this amazing integrated event, a play-directed symphony. Simultaneously, as long as the fun lasts, more and more of the superfluous “uncommitted” neurons that form play-incited and play-related circuits are recruited. Not a bad design, Seems necessary for fun, planning for an unexpected future, and more.  The fMRI, SPECT and PET scans confirm that this play-evoked process lights up the brain, particularly the “highest” prefrontal cortical areas like nothing else.

If my state of mind-body had been anxious, fearful, angry, time pressured, sad, hungry, or anything but playful, the integrated problem solving experience that “found me” would very likely have been missed.

In short, I was, at the moments above, in my own private playground. [And by having a good time on the 'playground', I was able to invent a solution (or did it discover me?) that I may not have discovered as easily or at all!

The day before yesterday, my playground was the annual TED meeting in Monterey, with periodic states of play induced by sparkling speakers, action packed presentations, all containing more complex objects of Technology, Entertainment and Design than my grandson’s truck. But the contagious search for novelty, which is part of maintaining a state of play, was in the air, confirming for me the value for adults to gather at their playgrounds.

Wherever you are in your pursuit of excellence, happiness, and preparation for the future, play belongs. It is not trivial, it can be achieved by the most compulsive and driven of us, and its by-products are worth the personal search for it… if, as is common, it has been lost or buried by the demands of the day.

“I don’t go to work, I go to play. If you allow yourself a bit of time to try stuff out before you get serious, before you make plans, before you say “this is the schedule of inventions going forward,” you can get a feeling in your finger tips for what could happen if you do something.” Floris Jansen, GE global research (from an imagination notebook, a gift to TED participants, 2006).

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 innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.