Monday, July 6, 2015

Innovating from the inside can be hard

Companies function as mostly self-sufficient entities in terms of products and services:  They come up with the idea, they develop the idea, then they implement the idea... and implement the idea more... and implement the idea more.  For a few smart companies (Apple, Facebook, and Google for example), new ideas have been generated in-house through well constructed development efforts, and purchased from the outside by acquiring companies that came up with new ideas.  However, most companies are more like Blockbuster Video and Radio Shack -- they come up with a great concept and run with it -- and primarily it -- until they go under.

If Google and Apple were to trade creative teams for a year, we would see an explosion of creativity in both companies.  The reason for this was well illustrated for me by my then-six year old daughter.  We visited my grandmother's apartment -- a place I'd been to many times before.  My daughter asked if it was ok if she took some pictures with my camera, I said "sure", and off she went.  When I later looked at the pictures, it took me a while to realize that they were all taken inside of that apartment.  She had taken a close-up of a faceted clear doorknob, interesting moulding on the ceiling, the back side of a statue, and other unexpected images.

I immediately understood something critical:  Even a dedicated inventor, one who embraces creativity, can become insensate to his environment.  I had been at that apartment so many times -- and I had been in similar places so many times -- that it never occurred to me to look at the ceiling, the back of statues, the doorknobs when taking photos.  Those things became part of the background noise.  This is very similar to a phenomenon called "sensory adaptation" whereby a stimulus fades out over time as our brains begin to ignore it.  So airplane engine sound, or an annoying smell, might become imperceptible to us simply because our brains decide it is part of the background and can be ignored.

This is why innovating from the inside is hard.  No matter how creative a person is, they will eventually get used to the environment at any given company.  They come to ignore the signals that an outsider would immediately see.  Sure, innovation is possible in such an environment -- Google is proof of that -- but without a constant flow of fresh innovators, even Google's creative output will diminish over time.

If innovating from the inside is hard, the corollary is also true:  Innovating from the outside is easy.  An outsider takes in the totality of an environment.  The outsider has yet to become insensate to the possibilities that a company's assets, employees, history, customers and other factors present.

It would be disruptive if a company were to rotate innovators through various, distant and different locations.  It would be very disruptive if companies were to trade innovators for a year.  It would be enormously disruptive if a company were to bring in professional innovators.  Disruption has become a code word, but in this case it applies quite literally:  We want to disrupt whatever sensory adaptation has taken place.  We want to disrupt whatever groupthink has overtaken a company.  We want to create new products and services that are capable of remaking our world.  For that kind of massive innovation, the natural comfort and inattention that come with working long term in the same place, with the same people, is practically a formula for failure.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Don't change too many things at once

When debugging a computer program, it is common wisdom to make a change and test it before making another change.  That way, we can see if the first change fixed the problem before making more changes.

The same thing should apply to Congressional and judicial changes to the patent system.  In a few short years, we've had several major patent cases and one major legislative reform (Bilski, the America Invents ActMyriad, and Alice).

Patents are a slow business:

A patent can take years to issue (my brother might hold the record, with a patent that he filed for on October 14, 1999 that did not issue until 13 years later, on October 16, 2012).

A patent appeal within the administrative Patent Trial and Appeal Board can take five years or more (I haven't had one of mine decided in less than three years).

Patent litigation can take years to go from initial discussions to jury verdict.

Appeals to the Federal Circuit (where most judicial patent questions are decided) can take years.

The various re-examination procedures (some created in the America Invents Act) can also take years.

So as we near the one year anniversary of the Alice Corp. case, Congress is currently considering several new pieces of legislation, each of which makes big changes in how patents work (the TROL Act and the PATENT Act).

The risk of making so many changes so rapidly to a system where the results of the changes take years to percolate is that Congress is attempting to fix problems that it (or the courts) may have already fixed.  It is only after five years that we are starting to see the impact of the America Invents Act play out, and it isn't pretty.  According to this report, "the price of an average US patent has dropped about 66% since the institution of the AIA IPR procedure."  The report goes on to note that there are indicators that prices continue to drop, and the predicted ultimate impact of the AIA IPR provisions will be a 77% value drop.

That same article notes that there was little impact from the Alice decision until the past 4-5 months, when decisions from lower courts interpreting Alice were unexpectedly hostile to a range of patents.

If that article is even remotely correct in observing that the America Invents Act cost the economy an amount equal to about 7% of the US GDP, it would be wise and responsible to take a breath and let the changes that have already been implemented play out before changing more things.

What if we have already gone too far, and inventors are starting to abandon research and development efforts in broad areas of invention?

When it comes to the patent system, I'd change an old expression:  Haste wreaks waste.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Problems and solutions do not necessarily arrive in that order

Prolific innovators often find a solution before they encounter the problem.  The iconoclastic inventor, sitting alone at a workbench furiously solving problems is a fun image, but falls short as a template for successful innovation.  A far more solid path to invention is innovation-based situational awareness — keeping an eye open for problems that should be solved and for good ideas that can solve problems.  Innovation is a profoundly non-linear adventure — so much so that we need not even identify the problem we are trying to solve before we gather the components we will need to solve it.

Advertisers have exploited an analogous model since the inception of advertising.  Car companies, for example, know that while few people are currently shopping for a car, many people will buy a car in the next several years.  Similarly, a coffee company may advertise on late night television, knowing that while few viewers are going to interrupt a night of insomnia to run out to the supermarket and buy caffeinated drinks, many of those viewers will shop for coffee in the near future.  Advertisers are in the business of planting a solution in our heads before we are even aware of the problem.  By the time we run out of coffee or go shopping for a car, our heads are awash with brand awareness and product information.  

Invention is best done the same way:  When you encounter something that strikes you as cool, amazing, interesting, valuable for a reason you cannot identify, or otherwise bearing a “wow” factor, take the time to commit that information to memory.  Inventors need tools to solve problems.  Waiting until the problem is identified before finding tools is akin to a carpenter showing up at a job site without tools.  Sure, the carpenter can go out and purchase tools, one at a time, as needed, but if a carpenter is good at her job, she has already gathered a collection of tools that work for most jobs.  So it is with innovation.

Inventions are built by combining a variety of ideas, often from different subject areas, to create a new thing that improves life for people.  Generally, innovators know the areas that they are most interested in — and therefore most likely to invent in.  Prolific innovators never miss an opportunity to stock their imaginations with great ideas, whether or not they know why they find those ideas attractive.  Each of those ideas becomes a tool they can use to solve problems.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The brain is a really complicated device, disinhibition is a really powerful skill

I haven't posted on this blog for a long time.  I've been dealing with some medical issues (I've written extensively about them here).  One thing I learned is that my brain function is heavily influenced by a medical condition I have called "CPT2 deficiency".  A likely side effect of CPT2 is that sometimes my glucose level drops.  The brain accounts for about 20% of our total energy use.  Glucose is virtually the sole fuel for the human brain.  CPT2 patients are unable to properly metabolize long chain fatty acids (i.e. nearly all of the fat in the human diet), so we rely solely on carbohydrates for energy (until we run out, then we start digesting our own muscles).  This means that while most people can conserve glucose for brain function by switching to/supplementing with fatty acid metabolism, I can't do that efficiently.

The bottom line is that sometimes my brain runs low on fuel.  I've written about some of the effects on my other blog.  When it happens, I have trouble making decisions; I have trouble thinking linearly; I have trouble staying on topic.  In short, I become disinhibited.  I see connections between things that I might otherwise have missed.  I have difficulty accepting "normal" solutions.  This is not so great for getting my bills paid on time, but it is a pretty good environment for innovation.  Also of interest along these lines is that my  brother, who is also a prolific inventor, shares my CPT2 genetics.

In looking at my own experience, I learned that innovation is facilitated by certain physiological brain states.  I'm lucky in that I float between good linear thinking (when my CPT2 symptoms are absent) and a more disinhibited, non-linear, creative mode (when I have some level of CPT2 issues).

I recently came to understand this phenomenon by sharing experiences with other CPT2 patients via a Google Group.  Because this is new information for me, I have not yet figured out the implications.

I do know that I can keep this from happening very often by regularly supplementing my diet with MCT Oil and carb-rich foods.  The question is whether it will impact my creativity.  I think that the answer is "not as much as you might think".  Over my life, I've learned what it feels like to be in a good linear thinking state, in a disinhibited state, and pretty much in every place in between.  While being forced into a disinhibited state frequently as a child (via CPT2) was helpful in forming a natural understanding of how disinhibited states feel and work, a genetic anomaly is not a prerequisite for getting into a creative space.

Once you start looking for it, you frequently find people who experience disinhibited, creative states, yet who waste those opportunities because they do not think such a state is a good one for getting things accomplished.  The good news is that tough, linear data processing seems to use an entirely different part one's mental energy than creative thinking does.  Being "zonked" after a tough day at work can be an excuse to sit on a sofa and watch television -- but it can also be a sign that your brain is primed for non-linear, creative thinking.  It is not a coincidence that people who are successful in non-creative fields have creative hobbies like photography, music, writing or art.

The take-away is that you should not assume that some brain states are naturally bad.  Instead, each brain state is an opportunity to explore the possibilities.  I spent all of my life thinking that when I was having trouble working, it meant that I couldn't work.  How wrong I was.  When I have trouble doing the linear stuff is when I do my best at creative work.  When I have trouble creating things is often when I can do the linear work of implementing my creations.  So the next time your kids leave you exhausted, you can thank them for priming your creativity.