Do Patents Help or Hinder Innovation?

May 31, 2008

I just received a newsletter that had 10 wacky patents.  Here’s my favorite:

Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force: With this invention, the mother-to-be is strapped down to a table that is then is spun to allow centrifugal force to take its course and aid in childbirth. This invention by a husband and wife team was patented in 1965, but surprisingly hasn’t caught on in maternity wards around the country.

This raises an interesting question.  Do patents help or hinder innovation?

The intent of patents was to protect those who make large investments in innovation.  For example, a pharmaceutical company that spends billions of dollars on drug development and testing needs protection.  Clearly these patents help innovation.  No one would invest that much money if someone could come in and replicate their idea.

But what about patents that protect ideas; concepts where no real investment has been made, other than the expenditure of a few brain cells. Do these patents help or hinder innovation? 

I have a patent pending for my “Innovation Personality Poker.”  My investment to date has been thousands, not millions of dollars.  The main cost has been the design and manufacturing of the cards (and legal fees).  But the patent is a process patent; it is the methodology I am protecting.  Therefore, the investment I am protecting is my time.  Is this really a proper use of patents? 

What about patents where no investment has been made. 

I have an idea that I may patent.  It could save the planet through reduced landfills and reduced reliance on petroleum.  My investment in this has been limited to thinking.  If I pursue the patent, it might stop others from developing a similar invention.  Wouldn’t this stifle innovation?  If this idea is so great, shouldn’t we stimulate its development?

What are your thoughts?  Do patents help or hinder innovation?

P.S.  I will probably not patent my idea, but instead will find a manufacturer to partner with.

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Speaking in Copenhagen this Week

May 18, 2008

I am in Copenhagen this week doing work with a client.  Therefore, Alexander Kjerulf, I, and some others decided to put on a public seminar on personal innovation. I will be doing my “Innovation Personality Poker.”  The event is this Wednesday, 21 May, from 1:00PM – 4:30PM.

For more details, go to the event page (in Danish) on Alex’s website

I am told that we have nearly 100 people registered and room for only about 10 more. I hope to see you there.

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Harvard Leadership and the Presidency Debrief

May 15, 2008

The other day I attended an event at Harvard about “Leadership and the Next President.”  There were some big names in the audience and on stage.  Today I am going to blog about one of the panel discussions which focused specifically on leadership skills necessary to be President.  Not surprisingly, these are the same skills that make a good organizational leader…and enabler of innovation.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author and Harvard Professor, felt three attributes were necessary for the President:

  1. Accountability – Avoid “spin” and oversimplification.  She felt that the President needs to lay the facts on the table as they are without sugar coating.  And that s/he must take full responsibility for any results, rather than blaming others.
  2. Collaboration – Don’t just turn to your superstars.  This is about inclusiveness.  She said that “bifurcated thinking is the enemy of change.”  Recognize that not everyone will support you.  In fact, she felt in most situations, 1/3 will be for, 1/3 will be against, and 1/3 will be on the fence.  It’s that last third that makes the most difference.
  3. Initiative – They key is to not feel helpless.  Instead, empower at a grass roots level.  She felt that innovation was the answer, and that there are already solutions out there to most of our problems.  We just need to find them.

Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” felt that team building was most important.  Instead of committees, he felt that teams are needed.  His four tips were:

  1. Humanity/Vulnerability – Admit when you don’t know or when you made a mistake.  Ask for help.  This builds trust.
  2. Avoid Fear of Conflict – You need trust to gain productive conflict.  Avoid yes men.
  3. Help Team Members be Accountable – Yes, you want people to be accountable for results.  But often, accountability for behaviors is more important.
  4. Check Your Ego at the Door – He suggested that an obsession for results is quite often driven by ego.

Max Bazerman, author and Harvard Professor, talked about the relationship between sacrifice and gains.  He felt that in general, the President should strive for small sacrifices for large gains.  He then asked the following question (paraphrased), “Would you like a 90% chance of getting a heart transplant if needed, in exchange for donating yours when you die?”  He said that most people strongly say yes.  But in the US, only 45% of people are organ donors.  He said in other countries the percentage is as high as 90%.  The reason?  In most countries you have to opt-OUT of being an organ donor.  He suggested that if we create defaults that create the best outcome (e.g., organ donor as default) – but still give everyone a large number of options (e.g., the ability to easily opt-out), we might get better results with little effort.

There was much more said, and maybe I’ll blog about it in the future.  Admittedly, much of what was said were generic sound bites.  The issues facing the next President are much more complicated than any of those suggested above.  Then again, the challenges facing any leader – in business or politics – are always more difficult in reality than in theory.

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The Winning Logo

May 8, 2008

For those of you who were following he previous blog entries and are curious, here is the winning logo design.  We are hoping to launch the new website next week.

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An Open Innovation Dilemma Update

May 2, 2008

On Wednesday I posted an open innovation dilemma.  In summary, as I created my short-list of logos developed using an open innovation approach, certain designers decided to “build on” (plagiarize?) the concepts I liked.  Although this resulted in an improved design, it also presented an ethical dilemma.  Only one designer can be awarded the prize.

This spurred an interesting email exchange between me and a friend/business colleague, Mary Sandro.  (be sure to read the previous post first)

Mary:  What would make it really fair is if the submitters could only see their work and none of the other submissions. 

Me: Well, that would stifle innovation.  Building on the ideas of others is the source of great innovation. 

Mary: I would argue they should be getting their inspiration to create something new, innovate, not an inspiration to copy and tweak.  How creative is the second guy?  Could you really hire him in a stand-alone relationship? 

Me: That raises an interesting point.  I am not hiring someone on how creative they are.  I am hiring them because of the results they can deliver.  If they are not creative in developing the initial concept but can tweak something to perfection, then that is valuable to me.  I am interested in the final product.

Mary: As a creativity and innovation expert who increases profits for businesses, what would you advise your clients to do?  Which guy should they go with?

Me:  Ah, that is a good question!  If this were truly a one-time deal and I never wanted to use open innovation again for anything, then maybe I would take the final design that I liked most.  This would maximize the returns from that one transaction.  However, if I ever hope to do open innovation again, that would be a bad move.  Good businesses are built on relationships, not transactions.  Maximizing the return on one “transaction” may have a detrimental impact on long-term relationships.  Therefore, I would take the design of the first person, but still give something to the second person for their tweaks.  To do this, I would also set up the competition with those rules clearly right up front.  Big fee for original concept, but money given for improvements.  Everyone wins.  This encourages building on the designs of others.

Mary: Good answer!  I’d buy that.  Pun intended.

Footnote:  I hired the guy who did the original concept.  In the end, most people preferred that design, so the ethical issue was moot.  But it makes for interesting discussion.  In a compensation driven innovation environment, how to you ethically reward innovation?

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