Saturday, December 7, 2013

Effective Innovators Predict the Future

In college, my best friend told me that his favorite books were “Future History”, by which he meant “hard science fiction”, a genre where the author tries to depict a future based on technologies that scientists believe are possible.  Great innovators and hard science fiction writers are very similar in what they do – they learn about the state of the art, they learn how scientists think the world works, they learn where humans are concentrating their science and innovation efforts, and they synthesize all of that information into a cogent, plausible description of the future.  Writers and innovators diverge in what they do with this information.  Writers craft an interesting story; innovators design technology that combines and leverages tools that do not yet exist – but that are likely to exist in the future.

An excellent, if fictionalized, example can be drawn from the global positioning system (GPS).  An innovator at the time of sputnik could have easily predicted a future where satellites could be placed in geosynchronous orbit; where highly accurate timing signals (corrected as required by Einstein’s theory of relatively) could be transmitted by the satellites; and where computing devices could compare, or triangulate, at least three such signals to generate a location for the receiver.  Note that at the time, the technology needed to build each of those components was understood; it was highly likely that the components would at some point be built, but at the moment the components had not yet been built.  If an inventor had synthesized those pieces into a description of what we know today as the GPS system and GPS-enabled devices, he would not only have a head start (in terms of patents and lead time) when the building blocks of GPS were built.  Perhaps more importantly, the promise of GPS may have expedited the creation of those building blocks, or even altered how those building blocks were developed (for example, by incorporating GPS transmitters as standard equipment on early geosynchronous satellites).

A more recent example is the development of the iPhone.  The building blocks that made the iPhone an innovative leap were predictably on their way to deployment, but for the most part were not yet ready for deployment (technologies such as accurate touch screen displays, high energy density batteries, low power processors, high density non-magnetic storage, high bandwidth wireless connections, and robust content compression and digital rights management, among other things).  While the role of predicting the future in the development of the iPhone has not been documented, Steve Jobs’ combination of those future technologies could not have been accomplished without that kind of predictive imagination.  The quick success of the iPhone, and the notably slower and shallower success of competing phones that did less to integrate future technologies (e.g. Windows Phone) speaks strongly to the importance of designing products that take advantage of the world as it will be when the product is set to be released.  It is not a coincidence that Apple products are frequently in short supply because some cutting edge component is being mass produced for the first time, and cannot be made in large enough numbers to meet demand; rather, it is a predictable problem when releasing innovative products that combine technologies that were predicted but not yet developed at the time the innovative products were designed.

A final example is drawn from my own patented invention, “Method and Apparatus for Delivering Content Via Information Retrieval Devices”.  In the period leading up to my May 8, 2000 filing date, I recognized the future importance of what was then known as a “Personal Digital Assistant”, or PDA.  I also knew some things about the future:  Moore’s Law has processor power doubling roughly every 18 to 24 months; battery technology was predictably improving; memory density and cost were moving rapidly in opposite directions; digitization of human knowledge was increasing at an exponential rate; a lot of attention was being paid to improving user interfaces for small devices, increasing the likely rate of adoption; GPS technology was becoming cheaper and smaller; and wireless data availability, reliability, and speed were all improving.  I engaged in a thought experiment:  What would happen if I could take the processing power, storage space, and/or the network connection speed of a rack full of servers, and fit all of that into a small, hand-held device that would run all day on a single charge?  In other words, what if I could take my vision of what the future would bring and invent things that leveraged those future technologies?  The result was a set of highly innovative, forward looking (and patented) breakthroughs.  Inventing items that are a simple combination of existing, easily available technologies doesn’t hold a candle to inventing for the world as it will be.


Predicting the future is easy.  There are countless web sites, books, and magazines that document where the future is heading (although I’ve never considered it before writing this post, I think I’m going to add “hard science fiction” to my list of sources for understanding the future).  A core piece of any prolific innovator’s DNA is making sure that her understanding of the future is as accurate as possible.  Her reward is that she gets to invent in a space that is nearly devoid of other inventors:  The world as it will be.  There is also an added bonus for innovators who have this technique down: If you ever get bored with inventing things, you’re already 90% of the way to becoming a successful science fiction writer.  Just saying.

Monday, December 2, 2013

My Greatest Invention

I have been working diligently on my book about innovation, and I've rewritten almost every part of it at least once.  The dedication, however, has remained nearly unchanged.  It provides a compelling example of how an innovator can easily re-purpose the tools of innovation into tools of personal and family happiness -- a story I shared this morning with Al Diaz on his radio show.  That show inspired me to share the written version of the story without waiting for the book to be released.

My greatest invention will never be patented, licensed, or mass produced.  It is my blended family.  This [forthcoming] book is dedicated to all of them – my wife Dana, my daughters Eva, Sara and Bel, my ex-wife (and Eva’s mother) Margaret, as well as my daughters’ “bonus brother”, Jack.  Invention, you see, lies not in the complexity of a new idea but in the simplicity of challenging old ones.

It was 2004, and my only daughter Eva had just turned three.  Recently divorced, living and telecommuting in Fresno where Eva lived and where I was able to have half-time custody of her, I had hit an all time low.  I was worrying so much about my situation that I was nearly useless at work.  My inventing came to a near standstill because I was too distracted to connect problems with solutions.  I felt like I was a failure because I hadn’t been able to stay married.  I was sure I had let my daughter down because my family would now be a divorced family.  I went to bed and refused to fall asleep because I knew that I would awake having had nightmares.

What an opportunity I had to reinvent myself.  What an opportunity I had.

I decided to start dating again.  I decided I wanted to meet a woman with a cultural background similar to my own, and with a degree in a subject about which I knew nothing.  I thought I would enjoy the comfort of familiarity and the excitement of somebody who thought differently than I did.

I had no luck meeting such a person close to home, so I joined an online dating service.  I was immediately drawn to a beautiful woman with the user name “docdana”.  I read her profile, and my heart dropped (the sound you just heard was my heart dropping below the floor, since I was already feeling so low).  “Are you willing to relocate?” “No,” she answered.  “Are you willing to date somebody who is divorced?”  Again, her profile said “no”.  “Are you willing to date somebody with kids?”  A final “no” stared back at me from my laptop.

Inventors learn to embrace their annoyance, commit to solving their problems.  My big problem at that moment was that I did not know how I would find the right person when the right person was already staring back at me from my computer screen, telling me the three rules that meant I would never be with her.

Three strikes – and then the inventor genes kicked in.  I felt a rush.  Innovators know that identifying a “rule” that stands in our way is a huge breakthrough, because rules are not freestanding, immutable objects.  Rules are just a snapshot of our assumptions at a specific point in time.  I sure didn’t like the rules that “docdana” had, and I was going to approach this as an innovator.

Maybe she had it all wrong.  Why wouldn’t she relocate?  She said didn’t want to date a divorced man, but could she be convinced?  She wouldn’t date anybody with children, but I love Eva – why wouldn’t she?  I wrote her a note, striking the best balance I could between brevity, wit, and the quick, punchy sentences that would get my note noticed among the dozens this remarkable woman must receive daily.  Maybe each of those “rules” was just a limitation created from a flawed underlying assumption.

To my wonder, she responded.  We wrote back and forth, we talked by phone, and as quickly as I could, I arranged to visit her in person.  We dated, fell in love, and married.  We have since had two more children.  Yes!  Three flawed assumptions, three “rules” that were not really rules at all.  Wouldn’t relocate?  She was just assuming that she wouldn’t meet anybody worth relocating for.  Wouldn’t date anybody with children?  She was just assuming that she wouldn’t like the children – and wow, was that assumption going to change the minute she met my child.  Would not marry somebody who had been divorced?  She just had the wrong idea about how the family structure would play out.

It was so beautiful because it was completely driven by my subconscious – desire, attraction, intrigue, hope – and I didn’t let my analytical thinking stop me.  We have the same ups and downs as other couples, but refusing to accepts limits in the inception of our relationship has cast a wonderful light of possibility over the rest of our relationship.

I knew how critical parental cooperation is to childhood development, and I was determined to keep a strong, healthy relationship with my first wife.  As anybody who has been divorced with children will tell you, this is a tall order.  My current and former wives could, in a different world, have been close friends.  They had plenty in common.  Unfortunately, their first interactions were rocky at best.  Never giving up, I tried everything I could to warm the relationship.  While the vast majority of the work and the credit for achieving that goal rest with those two incredible women, I take great pride in the fact that within a year or two my current and former wives became best friends.  We parent Eva cooperatively, and we function as a healthy blended family.

My first wife has since remarried, we all welcomed her new husband into this healthy family ecosystem, and had a child.  My two youngest daughters now have a “bonus brother” born not of blood but of a loving extended family.  My oldest daughter has continuity of parenting, and a very engaged step-mother and step-father.  And all of us enjoy a family life that, whatever it’s challenges, was birthed free of the constant acrimony, stress, and trouble that plagues so many blended families.  Put simply, the four adults in this blended family are all friends, and that makes everything else much easier and better.

Inventions are all about challenging assumptions.  As I discuss in my book, rules are simply a reflection of our assumptions at that moment in time.   I knew three of Dana’s “rules” before I met her – she would not relocate, date a divorced man, or date a man with children.  While she surely believed in the validity of these rules, it turned out that her underlying assumptions (perhaps, my ego hopes, that she would never meet a man worth doing any of those things for) were wrong.  When the underlying assumptions changed, the rules no longer made sense and were quickly ignored.  I knew the “rules” of post-divorce parenting – even the best intentioned parents could cooperate on parenting issues but the relationship would never be warm enough to truly feel more “family” than “blended”.  Those rules, too, were built on a faulty assumption (perhaps that the bad feelings generated by a divorce would necessarily taint all that comes after).  When I refused to accept that assumption (and my current and former wives joined me in rejecting it), the “rules” about blended families quickly crumbled.

We all live in a world of our own invention.  Some inventions are closer to home, some can be built, some can be sold, some can be lived, but all are built on a stubborn refusal to blindly accept the validity of rules without looking at the underlying assumptions.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why We Need To Rethink Innovation -- A Story Told By Patent Statistics

I received my 100th patent (together with my 101st and 102nd) today.  This milestone gave me cause to reflect on the amazing experience of answering "what do you do for a living" with "I'm an inventor."  I started to say "inventor" when I had around ten patents, but it was always softened with "I do lots of things, including inventing".  Around fifty patents, the caveats fell away, and at one hundred patents I don't have any hesitation in describing my job as "inventor" (although I've added consultant, speaker and author along the way).

I started to wonder how many people have enough patents that they probably either earn a living as an inventor or are capable of earning a living as an inventor.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) does not keep a registry of inventors, so a search for "Smith, John" returns almost 500 patents, but no indication of which patent was invented by which "John Smith".  In the past I used faqs.org's inventor page and top 100 inventor page to get an idea about how many prolific inventors are actively receiving patents, but that data is based on patent applications and not issued patents.  Moreover, I have spot checked the data against inventors I know, and I was not convinced that inventors were accurately identified (for example, the page with Shuster has at least seven different entries for me).

I was thrilled this week to find http://thedata.harvard.edu/dvn/dv/patent/faces/study/StudyPage.xhtml?studyId=70546&tab=files, a Harvard University project that includes a database of all patents issued between 1975 and 2010.  Critically, the Harvard team processed the data using a complex Bayesian algorithm to generate a data point the USPTO does not provide:  A unique inventor ID.

I had 37 patents issue to me by the end of 2010.  The raw data contained 38 patents issued to a "Gary Shuster", but one was to "Gary B. Shuster", so it appears that the raw data is accurate.  Much more importantly, the data set assigned all 37 of my patents to a single unique inventor number.  I spot checked other inventors, and the unique inventor identification system seems pretty solid.

Digging into the numbers, the data set identifies 2,665,709 unique inventors with patents that issued between 1975 and 2010, inclusive.  Within that data set, 90% of all inventors have 7 or fewer patents; 95% of all inventors have 12 or fewer patents; 99% of all inventors have 32 or fewer patents; 99.61% of all inventors have 50 or fewer patents; and 99.925% of all inventors have 100 or fewer patents.  The actual number of human beings at each point is also illustrative:  2,665,709 inventors had at least one patent; 224,390 had more than 7; 133,443 had more than 12; 24,867 had more than 32; 9,949 had more than 50; and 1,953 had more than 100.  Taking it out to the points at which we cross below 1,000, 500, and 100 inventors, 999 inventors had more than 132 patents; 490 inventors had more than 173 patents; and 98 inventors had more than 305 patents.

The data becomes a lot clearer when graphed:


This chart shows how many inventors (Y axis) have been issued more than a certain number of patents (X axis).  So there are, for example, just under 1.2 million inventors who hold more than one patent.  As you can see from the chart, there is an extremely rapid fall off in the number of patents per inventor.  The fall of is so extreme that a logarithmic chart is more helpful in analyzing inventors of more than around 20 patents:


Done logarithmically, we can take the chart out to show inventors with up to 1,000 patents:


 Before we attach undue significance to the numbers, it is important to understand the limitations created by the range of data behind them and the trends in patent issuance.  First, the rate of patent allowance has been rising, as has the number of patent applications.  The USPTO reports that 276,788 patents were granted in 2012 -- more than double 1997's 124,069 patent grants and more than quadruple 1983's 61,982 patent grants.


The rise in patent grants charted from the USPTO data is quite steep, as shown on the graph above.  Because the grant rate was less than 82,000 patents per year in the years prior to the 1975 start of the Harvard data set, there are a smaller number of prolific inventors who were issued some of their patents prior to 1975 and some after.  Inventors who straddle the 1975 start of the Harvard data set present a problem in that they will be counted as inventors, but their total number of inventions will be under counted (as some of their patents fall outside of the lower bounds of the data set).  An analogous problem exists, but of a greater magnitude, for inventors receiving patents after the 2010 upper bound of the Harvard data set.

My own patent grant history illustrates the problem.  As of the 2010 cut-off date for the Harvard data set, I had 37 patents.  At the time I am writing this in late 2013, I hold 102 patents.  As a result, I appear in the data set as a moderately prolific inventor, in the top 1% of inventors.  However, my 102 patents would have put me in the top 99.987% of all inventors in the Harvard data set.

Another limitation is the Harvard study's failure to distinguish continuation application data from original application data.  Inventors can obtain multiple patents based on a single patent application, usually in the form of patents that issue from continuations of the original filing.  It is common for patent families to exist, representing multiple patents based on a single original patent application.  Some of the patents in a single family are deemed by the USPTO (sometimes incorrectly) to be sufficiently similar that a "terminal disclaimer", tying the expiration date of one patent to the expiration of another similar one, is required.  Continuation practice serves a very important purpose, allowing inventors to disclose a technology that includes multiple patentable elements.  By incorporating the full description of the technology in a single document but separating the covered claims into logically connected groups within different individual patents, the world can better understand the full scope of the technology without having to claim multiple independent pieces of the technology in a single patent claim set.

There is an enormous difference between an inventor who has developed 50 different technological breakthroughs and an inventor who has developed just a few different technological breakthroughs but obtained 50 patents through aggressive continuation filings.  It is possible (though wasteful) to obtain more than 100 patents based on a single patent filing.  It is also possible (though likely a poor strategy) to obtain only a single patent per patent filing.  Unfortunately, the Harvard study does not identify how many patent families each inventor has invented.

Finally, my analysis of the data does not distinguish between somebody who is named only as one of a large team of inventors and an inventor who has developed the invention on his own.  Often, participating as a member of a large team makes it easier to make a small contribution to an enormous number of patents, thereby boosting the raw number of issued patents without requiring the 100% contribution that a solo inventor must make.

Conclusions:

First, I note that since there are only around 2,000 people with over 100 patents out of a global population of 7 billion, only one person in 3.5 million has as many patents as I do.  I know what I do is unusual, but when I do presentations about innovation for kids, I find that more than 10% of the kids could easily create as prolifically as I do.  So as nice as it is for my ego to say that my invention skills are 1 in 3.5 million, this is less a reflection of my creative genius as it is of the failings of our educational system and a fundamental error in how human adults have come to view creativity.

On a more basic level, obtaining patents is expensive and time consuming.  It is safe to assume that almost everybody with more than 100 patents earns their living, primarily, as an innovator.  Some people with more than 100 patents, such as Steve Jobs, can earn a living by innovation without reference to patent revenue, but make no mistake:  Almost all of the 2,000 inventors with more than 100 patents make their living through innovation.

For every innovator who is knowledgeable about patents and capable of filing for them, there are plenty who are not participants in the patent system.  This, and the rapid rise in patent applications and grants, lead me to believe that there are likely 10,000 people who could easily earn their living strictly by innovating.

As people who have seen me speak know, anybody can be a prolific innovator, but those 10,000 people I identify are those who can do it now, without having to rethink how they approach innovation and creativity.  10,000 people out of a global population of more than 7 billion -- one out of every 700,000 people -- is a testament to how poorly we do at helping children to nurture the innovation that comes to them so naturally.  Some time between childhood, when we see no limitations, and adulthood, when we see only limitations, we are failing.  It does not need to stay this way.  And I'm making it my life's work to see to it that it doesn't.


Friday, November 22, 2013

The Eureka Feeling

There is no Eureka Moment.  The lore of the prolific inventor is festooned with tales of inventors running down the hall yelling "eureka" -- and maybe some do.  It is also true -- contrary to a lot of the literature -- that prolific inventors often feel that the solution to a problem comes to them in nearly complete form, in a moment (for nearly all of my inventions, the core breakthrough was simply there, in full form, in a flash).  The lore of the Eureka Moment, however, is false and far worse, it is enormously destructive to the idea that we are all born creative, and innovation is in each of us just waiting to be unleashed.

The reason there is no Eureka Moment is that innovation is the result of a lot of thought.  Time Magazine's recent article recognizes that, but incorrectly conflates thought with an enormous amount of work, stating that "While that kind of comet strike makes for nice tale-telling [about the Eureka Moment] ... invention is just as often the result of mere doggedness, even cussedness, grinding away at a problem until it finally yields."  

Time Magazine is confusing the experimental work of reducing an invention to practice with the less understood work of developing the basic inventive concept.  Time's example is revealing:  "Jonas Salk invented the first successful polio vaccine, and you can follow exactly how he did it, step by step, experiment by experiment and year by year, in the 573 file boxes—spanning 316 linear ft. (96 m) and containing tens of thousands of documents—that make up his collection of personal papers at the University of California at San Diego. That ain’t inspiration. That’s sweat."  To be clear:  If Jonas Salk had been in an accident prior to the completion of the polio vaccine, his invention would have nonetheless been completed because the basic concepts underlying it were capable of being carried out by anybody with basic skill in the field.  By contrast, if Salk had never been born, it is unclear when the invention would have been made, because that tiny silver of innovation -- the basic concept of a vaccine against a virus -- was an innovation outside the regular skill set of those trained in the field of disease control.

Inventing a solution is not something that takes a lot of conscious thought.  Testing, proving, and reducing the solution to practice, however, can take decades.

Innovation does not -- indeed cannot -- take a lot of conscious thought because our conscious brains are really bad at crunching huge amounts of data on demand.  As an example, have a friend name twenty objects, and then try to recite them back.  Most people can recite only seven or so.  Try to do a complex math problem without using paper or a computer, and you'll discover more limits of our processing power.

The key to innovation is not the conscious brain at all -- it is our ability to process extraordinarily complex problems in our subconscious, our ability to match patterns, and our ability to feel emotions.

To illustrate the role of the subconscious, sit in a beautiful grassy field and try to imagine how long it would take you to count all of the pieces of grass.  Human visual acuity is quite good, so we should be able to see well enough to count the amount of grass in one area of the field and then count the number of similar areas in the field, thereby arriving at a roughly accurate grass count. That task would take hours, however.  Now imagine that a small bird lands in a distant corner of the field.  You weren't concentrating on looking for birds at all -- you were counting grass.  Nonetheless, something in your brain brain immediately grabs your attention and says "something is moving over there".  You immediately identify it as a bird and can go back to counting grass.

Out of that enormous visual field, your subconscious easily spotted movement in a tiny corner.  Because movement indicates a potential risk or benefit, it sent a signal to your conscious brain, which immediately imaged the bird.  Because we are so good at matching patterns, it took only a tiny bit of conscious thought to put together the subconscious movement data and matching data and determine that there was no threat.

Innovation is analogous to movement spotted in the corner of your vision.  We each identify problems and solutions all of the time.  Problems are rarely seen side by side with their solutions, however, so the crucial step in innovation is to identify potential problems and potential solutions all of the time, and file them away in the subconscious so that when we spot a problem that matches a solution we identified earlier (or a solution that matches an earlier problem), our subconscious matches them up.  We don't have to worry about how they will be matched up, as we evolved brains that are excellent at pattern matching (I'd imagine humans would be extinct if we hadn't been able to easily match what we sense with known foods and threats).

Most of us live busy, distracted lives.  We have lost touch with our feelings.  This is perhaps the biggest problem for innovation, because our subconscious needs a way to signal us that it has matched a problem and a solution.  In my research for my book, I have conducted many interviews with innovators, and the moment that they get their critical breakthrough is associated with a variety of feelings.  I have heard it described as a warm tingle in the heart, as similar to the fight-or-flight response, as a feeling of euphoria, as a feeling that the innovation is a bit displaced from her body, as goosebumps, as hair standing up on the arm, and in many other ways.  In each case, however, the feeling seems consistent across inventions for a given person.  My personal signal is that I abruptly lose my train of thought.

Learn to listen for your signal, because what we have incorrectly identified as a single "Eureka Moment" is actually the subconscious reporting back on tasks it has been working on.  It sends us a Eureka Feeling.  If we train ourselves to stop and think when we get the Eureka Feeling, innovation becomes easy -- something our subconscious just takes care of for us.

Critically, Time Magazine does the world a disservice by stating that "[i]f inventiveness is not a universally shared skill -- and like it or not, it isn't...."  I strongly disagree.  I have worked with many children over the years, and have yet to come across a child who is not more creative than even the most prolific adult inventor.  Inventiveness is a universally shared capability, but too often it becomes buried under years of learned, inaccurate, and stifling rules.  As the great poet Robert Plant once said, "there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on."  As adults we are all well down the path of rules, limitations and impossibilities -- but the wide open creative horizons of childhood are a quick walk down the road.

Everybody's journey to creativity is a bit different, but there are five easy tips you might consider in light of the emotional and subconscious aspects of innovation:

1. Do not simply accept things that annoy you.  Instead of saying "that sucks", telling yourself "this is a problem I will solve."  This does not mean that you should allow the problem to eat you up on the inside, but it does mean that your attitude needs to be sufficiently empowered to believe that no problem is beyond your reach.  I sometimes call this "embracing your inner Larry David".
2. Observe the world around you and gather information; seek out information about things you are interested in.
3. Pay attention to the connections you notice between things.
4. When you feel you have a breakthrough, pay attention to how it feels.  Learn to listen for that feeling.
5. Adopt an inner narrative of creative solutions:  "I will solve this", "I can fix this", "this is only annoying until I invent something better", etc.

Remember that creativity is in you, and it is easy to set free.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ignore The Rules

Children are naturally creative.  Not just a little creative, but remarkable, earth-shattering little engines of innovation.  So what happens on the way to adulthood?

Rules happen.

By the time we emerge from high school, we know tons of  things we cannot do.  We have been taught limits.  Things just get worse in college, and by graduate school we're lucky if we can find a tiny bit of our creativity still operational.

Rules are just a snapshot of our assumptions at a given point in time.  They critical error we make as innovators is to forget that rules came from assumptions -- and that assumptions can be flawed.

A simple example of a rule based on a flawed assumption is the tomato.  One of the earliest tomato cultivators in England came to believe that the tomato was poisonous.  This assumption was (as we know now) quite wrong.  However, people simply learned the rule "tomatoes will kill you".  It wasn't until the underlying assumption was challenged that the rule was repealed.

An easy visual demonstration makes the point as well:  Imagine that you are in California enjoying a video conference coaching session with me.  I put my hand straight out, and I'm holding a rock.  I ask you "please point in the direction that this rock will fall when I let it go."  You are probably imagining pointing at the ground.  Now I say "oh, did I mention that I'm in Moscow at the moment?"  You are pointing straight down, but I am on the other side of the planet -- which means that your finger is pointing in the direction of the sky in Moscow.  The "rule" that things fall down relies on the underlying assumption that our orientation relative to the earth's gravity well is the same.

A more complex example is the failure of Newton's "laws" in light of relativity and quantum mechanics.  Each of Newton's three "laws" were built on flawed assumptions.  As a result, Newton's "laws" are really Newton's "accurate under most circumstances" formulas.

The take-away here is that rules are an incredibly useful way to teach somebody how we think something works, but an incredibly harmful way to impede progress. Humans have been wrong.  A lot.  About a lot of things.  Once we enshrine flawed assumptions in the veneer of "law", we make it far harder to admit we were wrong.  It is easy to challenge assumptions, but we are trained never to challenge laws or rules.

When you hear somebody use "rules" worlds, like "law", "rule", "must", "always", etc, do a quick translation, adding the phrase "or so we assume" to the end of each sentence.  Innovation and rules are a poor combination.

The Fifth Kind of Speaker

At Awesomeness Fest, Lisa Nichols was kind and generous enough to spend a full day with many of us.  Among the many substantial breakthroughs she shared with us was her hierarchy of speaker types.  She identified four types:

1. Informational (sharing information)
2. Motivational (gets audience excited from outside in)
3. Inspirational (gets audience excited from inside out)
4. Transformational (they leave the audience transformed)

The brief description above is enough for our purposes, and I don't want to give away Lisa's detailed explanations (and there is simply no way to explain them with nearly the flair or that Lisa has).

Almost everything Lisa said was remarkably well considered and complete, but her description of the types of speakers fell short: There is a fifth category.

The fifth type of speaker is the Exponential Speaker.  An Exponential Speaker is able to incorporate what he learns from the audience into something that transforms the speaker.  The speaker thus grows in ability and influence exponentially, as the feedback loop intensifies -- giving to the audience, getting from the audience, giving more back to the audience, getting more back from the audience, etc.  The Exponential Speaker often leaves a talk with powerful new ideas, and is able to build on those new ideas in a way that is empowering to her and to her next audience (amazing Exponential Speakers, and Lisa is one, are able to build on audience breakthroughs on the fly, improving on their ideas and presentation during a single talk).

Exponential speaking is easy when presenting to children.  Children have few compunctions about participating in a talk, and don't realize that they aren't "supposed" to suggest new ideas to a speaker.  My favorite experience with exponential speaking happened during a talk I gave to a group of children about creativity.  I had just finished telling them that "adults always try to teach you how to do things, but don't let them teach you that coming up with your own, creative solutions is a bad thing".  I then moved into the "now let's invent stuff" part -- seriously my favorite part of presenting.  A little boy raised his hand timidly, but he had a look in his eyes.  I asked him what he was thinking about inventing, and he started in:  "I want to invent a flying TV set."  Ok.  What do I do with this one?  I just finished telling them not to let adults crush their dreams, but I also need to keep him from being teased by the other kids.  Well... I decided to hear him out.  "That sounds fun, but why do you want a flying TV?"  He put my doubts rest:  "You know homeless people?  Well, they probably get really bored, and they can't really afford a TV, and we don't want the TV to get broken or stolen, but if the TV can fly above them, they can have something to watch."  Oh, I got it.  He was too inexperienced to know the energy cost issues on a high wall-mounted TV vs a TV hanging from a helicopter or some similar "flying" solution, but none of that mattered.  He had invented a solution to a problem, and a really caring, giving solution at that (ignoring patentability issues -- remember, not all great inventions are patentable).

I incorporated his story and his inspiration into my talks.  Now I had a terrific, personal example of how even a professional inventor can let his adult bias interfere with the creativity of a child.  By telling this story to other kids (and adults), they were inspired to think about creativity in a new way, coming up with new ideas that in turn inspired me.  It is this exponential cycle that differentiates a world-changing speaker from somebody with some great ideas.

Exponential speakers are likely to also be transformational speakers, but this is not a requirement. Like the Informational Speaker, the Exponential Speaker can exist in combination with other types.  No matter what kind of speaking you do, if you aren't learning from the audience, you are missing your single greatest opportunity to make each presentation better than the last.

Exponential growth is an odd thing, in that it appears from day to day as if there is little change, but over even a moderate period the change is amazing.  If you start out with one unit of "awesome" and you are able to double the amount of awesome in your presentation every twelve months, the difference week to week is barely perceptible.  However, following that pattern, it takes just ten years for that one unit to become more than one thousand units.  Obviously, personal growth is not linear, and some years will be better than others, but the concept is sound:  If you are able to improve yourself by listening to your audience, the amount of improvement need not be enormous so long as you keep doing it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Trolls, Patent Angst, and the Inevitable Invention Problem

I have given a lot of thought to patent reform, and most of the angst about patents derives from a simple fact:  Some patents generate industries and others just make minor tweaks, but all of them are treated equally under the law.  Not all inventions are created equal, and jamming them all into a binary patent system (i.e. “valid” or “invalid”) means that the incentives we give to invent a cold fusion reactor are unfairly given to people making nearly negligible, incremental improvements to existing technology. 
The precise shape of the curve is unknown (I think the red line may be more accurate).

The terms “broad” and “narrow” have special meaning in patent law, so to avoid confusion I’ve come to identify patents as “broadband” or “narrowband”.  Basically, some patents are “broadband” patents, covering a technology that is entirely new.  For example, a broadband patent that spawned an entire industry started as simply sending more current through a wire than the wire can handle, causing the wire to release light.  Other examples are triangulation of a signal (eventually LORAN and then GPS), use of radio towers to handle the hand-off of a signal from one tower to another (eventually cell phones), or regenerative braking.  Each of those inventions gave rise to a set of important, but less broadband inventions, such as using different kinds of wire to make light, varying the current, enclosing the wire, filling the enclosure with different gases, coloring the enclosure, etc. 
Eventually, inventions start to refine ever-smaller areas of the field.  While we might start out with the amazing idea of handing off radio calls between fixed towers, and integrate other awesome and important ideas such as frequency hopping, we eventually end up with the narrowest of narrowband patents, ones that cover things like using a smart phone to buy something within an app, or having a list displayed on a phone “bounce” when a user scrolls to the bottom of the list (and mixing apples and oranges, we end up with design patents like protection for design with a black shiny screen with a beveled edge).  Nobody would argue that the “bouncing list” invention was anywhere near as important as the invention of the use of multiple towers to communicate with a moving device, or that in-app purchases are on the same level as GPS triangulation, but the patent system treats all utility patents equally.  The patent term, rights and remedies afforded the tiniest incremental improvement patent are identical to those afforded the patent that spawned the industry.
Intellectual property law is one of the few (perhaps only) areas where the law is nearly entirely binary.  The process starts the minute the invention leaves the inventor’s hands and lands in the patent office.  From there, four simple questions determine patentability:  (i) Is the invention patent-eligible subject matter? (ii) Is the invention useful?  (iii) Is the invention novel?  (iv) Is the invention not obvious (the clumsy "not obvious" phraseology is commonly used in patent practice)?  An invention that is barely novel, one that is only barely not obvious, one that is barely useful and squeaks past the subject matter eligibility test, is afforded the same protection as the greatest of all inventions. 
I believe the equal treatment of narrowband inventions (combined with horrible enforcement choices, such as going after end users) is the main reason many people view non-practicing entities as “patent trolls” and why there is a broad belief in some groups that something is broken with the patent system.(1)  If I invented cold fusion, nobody would begrudge me a 20 year patent.  I could sue every infringer and all but the most hardened enemies of patents would feel that this is the way the patent system is supposed to work.  Indeed, I could assign the patent to a non-practicing entity so that I could spend my time on my next invention instead of litigating my previous invention, and while people might think I’m stupid for sharing the profits from my invention, they wouldn’t think it meant that the system was broken. 
The patent system works as intended with regard to broadband inventions – but breaks down as the inventions it protects become narrower.   The fundamental human rejection of unfair enrichment at the expense of others bumps up against the binary nature of the patent system when the amount of protection given to an invention is unhinged from the importance of the invention.
We can differentiate a broadband patent from a narrowband patent by asking whether the patented claims would have inevitably been invented during the patent term.  Obviously, the invention itself cannot be used as the basis for identifying the inevitable invention date, as that would frustrate the intent of the rule.  Rather, progress in related (or unrelated) fields would be used as the benchmark.
For example, the field of smart phones and apps was moving so quickly that whether the Lodsys patent was legitimately issued or not, it is being enforced at a time when nearly every app developer would have independently invented the features protected in the patent claims.  Put another way, the more an invention carves out an entirely new field, or an entirely new area within an existing field, the longer it would have been before somebody else would have inevitably invented the same thing. 
Most people would agree that the patent system should encourage the development of important inventions that carve out new fields.   Where we start to see radically divergent opinions is when we talk about inventions that shaved a few years, or sometimes a few months, off of the development of an incremental improvement in a field.
In short, some inventions are so fundamental that they build on little more than the creativity of the inventor.  Those inventions spawn industries.  Other inventions are so trivial that they do little more than provide superficial polish to existing products.  Rather than pretend that all inventions are equal, a far better system would hinge on an “Inevitable Invention Rule”.  Basically, the patent system would recognize that some inventions are more important than others, and would treat them that way.  In a theoretical world, a patent would simply expire on the date that its claims would have inevitably been invented by a third party even had the original inventor never existed.  In the real world, though, the actual inevitable invention date is far from clear-cut.  There is also the need to encourage the development of incremental innovations through the grant of some kind of patent term (imagine the case of numerous drug companies racing to develop the same drug). 
While the implementation and details are of no small import, legislators and courts are well equipped to treat different things differently.  One approach may be to put the onus on the patentee to file a document with the patent office identifying the inevitable invention date within two years of the passing of the inevitable invention date.  The patent would automatically expire some period (four years?) after the declared inevitable invention date.  There would need to be some kind of expedited system where a party could challenge the patent administratively or in court and seek a declaration as to the inevitable invention date.  To encourage the inventor to admit the inevitable invention date and save everybody the trouble and cost of proving it, a penalty should apply if the inventor refuses to admit the passage of the inevitable invention date.  Perhaps an administrative or court declaration of inevitable invention date that is significantly earlier than the one the inventor declared (if the inventor declared one at all) should have the effect of immediately terminating all rights in the patent as of the court- or administrative-identified date, possibly including the right to damages for past infringement.
Now imagine how the Lodsys patent enforcement effort happens if the inevitable invention date system were in place.  It is pretty much a no-brainer that in-app purchases would have inevitably been invented by around 2009.  So Lodsys would likely have declared that date and collected a small amount of royalties for four more years, but been without even the possibility of an injunction (I know, Ebay, but still).  If Lodsys got greedy and refused to declare the inevitable invention date, the defense would have been that it failed to declare the inevitable invention date, and when the defense prevailed, Lodsys would have received nothing. 
The beauty of the inevitable invention date rule is that it tracks our common sense understanding about what the patent system should be doing.  It leaves inventors of incremental narrowband inventions with the ability to get paid for the invention but without the leverage to earn more than the invention really is worth.  At the same time, it leaves inventors of broadband inventions with the full patent term they deserve (this works particularly well in the biotech field, since the first drug in a class of drugs would almost always have no inevitable invention date, while the development of subsequent drugs in that class would have an inevitable invention date a reasonable time in the future). 

1. This question has gathered increasing importance as courts and legislators struggle to deal with the consequences of a system that misses real problem:  Some inventions are simply inevitable.  Because the statutory tools do not exist to deal with the problem on this level, however, subject matter eligibility has become a (poor) proxy.  Many software innovations fall into the inevitable invention category, but because of the failure to appreciate the true underlying problem, there has been a push to make software ineligible for patent protection.

Innovation's Escape Velocity

Our brains work in a variety of ways, and things that are hard to understand using one paradigm (for example, analytic writing) can be easily illustrated using another (for example, analogies or diagrams). 

It is really tough to use words to explain to people how to move away from their comfort zone and invent at the edges of their expertise.  It is easy to work in a field we know a lot about, and with each step away from our comfortable core, the pull back to the center grows stronger.  As we wander away from things we know will work, as we move away from our core competence, the risk of a magnificent failure increases..  Since few people have truly internalized the truth that every success is built on a foundation of failures, few people are willing to risk magnificent failure in order to achieve magnificent success.

At Awesomeness Fest, Terry Tillman did a presentation where he used a simple diagram describing how to get from what we know to what we desire.  This triggered a connection for me to the questions I've been working on regarding our reluctance to move outside of our zone of comfort or competence.  It also strongly connected with a concept I've been developing about "high velocity innovation".  I quickly wrote "So is there a psychological 'escape velocity'?; How does this relate to high velocity innovation?"  I then drew a graph (excuse the informality of the drawing):


Looking at the drawing, imagine that "core" is analogous to planet earth, a source of enormous gravity that not only nourishes and protects us, but also holds us back.  The green zone is the area above the earth where we are too low to enter orbit.  If we use our energy to reach a height within the green zone, we may get somewhat above the earth, but are destined to fall back to it.  The red zone is a zone of stable orbit (we could complicate it by adding the further distinction between low earth with periodic boosts and geosynchronous).  Within the red zone, we're able to distance ourselves from the earth (or our core area of comfort/competence), but we are still controlled by it -- we still haven't escaped it's gravity well.  Beyond the red zone, we have reached escape velocity.  We are able to move well beyond our core competency and sense/explore/experience new core areas.  Note that hitting escape velocity does not mean that we cannot return to earth -- we can.  It does mean that we are able to discover things that are impossible within earth's gravity well.  Critically, once we escape the gravity well, it takes no additional energy to stay outside of it -- we need to find our way, determine how to keep breathing and stay nourished, but the biggest energy required, by orders of magnitude, is in the mere act of escaping our core comfort zone.

How does this relate to innovation?  Directly.  Platitudes like "think outside the box" leave us, at best, in a stable orbit around "the box".  Half-efforts at innovation and fear of leaving our comfort zone have us expending energy but never escaping the green "fall back" zone.  It is only by adopting a "think different" attitude and braving the unknown that we can escape the confines of our core comfort zone.

Sometimes an analogy teaches us a lot, but we need to be careful not to import into our thinking the limitations inherent in the thing we drew analogy to.  In this case, the gravity well illustration is terrific, but we can do one thing with our creativity that scientists cannot yet do with gravity:  We can reduce the pull of the core.  Scientists do not know how to reduce the required escape velocity from earth by reducing the earth's gravity, and it is on this point that we must leave the technical strictures of this analogy behind.

We can examine our core beliefs and fears; we can reduce their pull by understanding that they are holding us back.  In short, innovation can happen by increasing our velocity away from our core ideas OR by decreasing the pull those ideas have on us.  Of course, in the real world innovation will always include at least a little bit of each.

Let's illustrate this concept with Newton's "Laws".  These laws were considered inviolate until scientists began to understand relativistic and quantum effects.  It turns out that the laws are not laws at all, but rather good descriptions of physical phenomenon outside of relativistic speeds and quantum effects.  However, generations of scientists learned these as laws.  Some of the laws might seem inconsistent with scientific observations, but scientists tried to find ways to square these observations with the laws -- resulting in a "fall back" to the core beliefs.  Later, scientists looked for explanations that were in addition to the laws, seeking in effect a stable orbit around the core beliefs.  Finally, some scientists reduced the importance of these core beliefs and increased their efforts to research the universe beyond the core beliefs -- those scientists reached escape velocity and in doing so, reduced for all scientists the gravity or pull of the Newtonian core beliefs.  Note that the same scientists created a couple of new cores, each with their own pull.

There is danger is staying too close to the comfort zone -- the risk that the comfort zone will prevent real innovation.  The good news is that it is never too late to reduce the core's pull or to increase your velocity of innovation.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Ant in the Basketball

During my dad's last days, when it became clear he was soon going to die, I could no longer acceptably answer my curiosity about what happens after our bodies die with an analytically derived "it is outside the realm of science, therefore unknowable".  Until that moment, my answer to that question was scientific:  We cannot know what happens, but a logical approach tells us that whatever happens to my dad will one day happen to me, so we will both one day be in the same state or place again.

I do my best thinking visually, drawing lines, pictures, graphs.  I often understand things only when I've found a picture or scene that provides a good analogy -- but what is a good analogy to line between life and death?  We are stuck in the universe of the living, unable to see outside of it.

I was treating this whole question with too much deference and respect.  I decided it was perfectly fine to go with silly, fanciful imagery if that helped me understand the nature of life.  It came to me very quickly:  An ant inside of a basketball.  Not just any ant, but an ant with the superpower of incredible intelligence.  The ant, I thought, would be tasked with figuring out the nature of the universe.  However smart the ant might be, he would describe the bounds of the universe as ending at the walls of the  basketball.  Beyond those walls, he would quickly realize, lies the unmeasurable and therefore unknowable.  

I contended myself with this answer:  "Just as the ant cannot know what lies beyond the bounds of the basketball, we cannot know what lies beyond bounds of the universe of the living."  I became convinced that it was simply OK not to know.  The answer was that it was not capable of being answered, and I accepted, therefore, that anything might lie outside of the boundaries of what we can measure.

That answer was acceptable until a few days ago.  While the story is best told in its own post, I realized that I've spent my life building intellectual genius without focusing on seeking any kind of parity in the growth of my emotional intelligence (thank you, #awesomenessfest, for that revelation).

I added a very simple change to my very simple analogy of the ant in the basketball:  Imagine that the ant is not limited by what can be analytically proven, but it also in touch with emotions and open to sensations that cannot be explained with science.  What does our emotionally attuned ant now think of the universe?

Sometimes the faint echoes of voices and sounds outside of the basketball make their way through the walls of the basketball, muffled, distorted, and beyond reconstruction with even the ant's finest scientific instruments.  Sometimes light hits the outside of the basketball and a few errant photons make their way through the wall -- not enough to measure with any scientific reliability, of course. But our ant is open to the possibility that information exists that can be observed subconsciously -- perhaps information that is so distorted and weakened by the time it makes it inside that it can only be observed by the way it makes the ant feel.

The ant is now capable of understanding a tiny bit of the universe beyond the walls of the basketball.  Where science and analysis came up short, emotional intelligence became emotional observation and the ant picked up clues, hints, maybe just the promise of what lies beyond.  Even if the information was capable of being measured with instruments, if the ant were predisposed to seek scientific answers only, the ant might seek to explain the errant photons by describing (erroneously) nuclear decay within the basketball as the source of the photons.  Because our ant has stayed open to the possibility that he does not know all that can be known, the ant will not accept the nuclear decay explanation without first considering whether other explanations exists.  Leakage of data from the outside of the basketball to the inside is not impossible to the ant as an article of faith, so the ant has a chance to understand a tiny bit of the nature of the universe beyond the walls of the basketball.

So it is with what lies beyond the boundaries of life.  There may one day be a point of singularity, where our scientific instruments and techniques are capable of measuring these tiny, errant bits of information, but we need not wait for science to catch up with what our brains are already capable of doing.  I feel something beyond the boundary.  I don't know what it is, but I am paying attention to what it feels like and I am open to the idea that there is something there.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Imposter Superpower

Success and insecurity go hand in hand.  The most successful people in the world know that they're not the foremost experts in the thing that made them successful.  When you are great at what you do, deep inside you know you're not "the best" -- and you join the rest of the world's foremost CEOs, authors, thinkers and high achievers in a secret shameful belief:  You are an imposter, have leapfrogged far more qualified people by tricking the world into believing you earned or deserve your success.

The imposter syndrome is an illusion, an artifact of perhaps the most important and widespread erroneous assumption humans have.

We assume that expertise is good.  We believe that the more we know about something, the better we are able to do it.  We consider experience, knowledge and mastery the holy grail of success.

However we phrase it, the assumption that expertise is the key to reaching the top of our fields is simply wrong.

As a species, our timing sucks.  We are born with unbounded creativity, unaware even that horizons exist, much less that we should try to reach them.  Unfortunately, we are also born without any of the tools we need to turn creativity into progress.  As we gather the expertise and education necessary to implement our dreams, we internalize generations of flawed assumptions, harmful rules, and unnecessary limitations.  By the time we have the tools we need to act on our creativity, our creativity is sitting, crushed, in the corner of our lives.

The price of expertise is creativity -- but there is a sweet spot.  Breakthroughs -- world changing, life changing, massive innovations -- require that we know enough to know what is possible, but we not internalize what is thought by "experts" to be impossible.

A little knowledge is not a dangerous thing.  It is an empowering thing.

The world's most prolific inventors normally made their most important breakthroughs outside of their field of study (if they even had a field of study).  They learn enough to dream of possible solutions, but not such much that those dreams are ignored because they conflict with what we "know" to be impossible.

I have more than 100 issued patents, and I'm proud to say that I am far from the most educated and knowledge person in any of the fields of my inventions.  I am an imposter.  In fact, I am a super imposter.  I'm super-imposter-man, and I do it on purpose, because embracing innovation means embracing breakthroughs that the non-imposters "know" to be impossible.

I'm not talking about faking it completely -- but innovators never fake it.  We innovate because we love limitless horizons.  We learn because we need to know enough to innovate.  We stop learning when people start to teach us what we can't do.

The experts who think they are staying in their intellectual comfort zone are really floating in a creative dead zone.  Comfort means a lack of risk, a complacency driven by knowledge of the limits.  Nobody has ever won a race by staying in their comfort zone, and you are no different.

Let's stop calling it the "imposter syndrome" and start calling it what it really is: The power to innovate in somebody else's field.  The Imposter Superpower.