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June 21, 2009

Innovation Limited

In post-war Japan, W. Edwards Deming taught the natives quality control methods, with which the Japanese dazzled the industrialized world. Deming said, "expect what you inspect." That's why companies don't innovate: the same patterns of communication and problem-solving in the same narrow niches leading down the same old roads, seldom blazing new trails. And the not-invented-here syndrome often runs strong. But not always.

Eli Lilly started an in-house research tool for its scientists that managed to escape to the out-house: InnoCentive.com, something of a spin-off, which posts cash rewards for picking creative brains. The rewards have ranged from $5,000 to $1 million. The site acts as a billboard for patenting, pitching for solutions that corporations are crying for. Which makes the rewards a pittance to their real value, because a patent on them would be worth so much more.

BMW AG is trying to pick brains with its own Virtual Innovation Agency. "The Virtual Innovation Agency is the platform to offer your innovation to the world of the BMW Group." The site, while having a front section in English, instantly dissolves into German-only. Foreigners need not apply.

The Wall Street Journal covered the corporate innovation beat: In Search of Innovation - "When companies try to come up with new ideas, they too often look only where they always look. That won't get them anywhere."

To be truly innovative, companies sometimes have to change their frames of reference, extend their search space.

Interest has surged in market research that uses detailed, firsthand observation to learn more about consumers' needs or wants. Deep diving is one of many terms used to describe the approach, which resembles an anthropological study in the way researchers immerse themselves in the lives of the target consumers.

Some companies design probe-and-learn strategies that study opportunities in segments of markets the company isn't active or strong in. This strategy goes further than deep diving by actively experimenting with new ideas in a new context.

By engaging more of its own workers in the search for innovation, a company can broaden its vision.

Innovation can bubble up inside a company as well--when the organization follows practices that favor it.

Clear policies that reserve blocks of time for scientists or engineers to explore their own ideas have worked well at some companies. At 3M Co., based in St. Paul, Minn., scientists can spend 15% of their time on projects they dream up themselves, and the company has set procedures to take bright ideas forward, including grants and venture funding. Google Inc. takes a similar approach, allowing researchers to devote 20% of their schedules to play time, pursuing their own ideas and projects. The company credits this policy with fostering many of its important product innovations, including Gmail, its popular Web-based email service.

Many companies set up so-called communities of practice, which are typically internal Web sites where employees are encouraged to share knowledge and skills important to the company.

If your brainstorms belong to a corporation, you can only give at the office, and receive your paycheck in return. On the other hand, if you're thinking outside the box, and a corporation doesn't own your thought-products, and you're wondering who can tie a ribbon on your bright idea to get an enforceable patent, contact Platinum Patents.

Posted by Patent Hawk at June 21, 2009 10:47 PM | Patents In Business


Interesting, Hawk. But I don't follow the attempted segue from Deming's teachings to the failure to innovate. Deming certainly did not advocate staying stuck in ruts or NIMBY. He did teach that you can not reasonably manage that which you do not measure. What's the connection? Thanks.

Posted by: bo at June 23, 2009 2:11 PM