Invention Harvesting: Best Practices for Turning Aspiration into Action

By Carlo Cotrone
September 20, 2016

Connecting ideasTechnology companies large and small employ creative individuals to develop new inventions. Many utilize formal processes to document and protect, via the patent system, inventions that are conceived during technology and product development projects and align closely with core products and services. Patents secured through such processes may provide substantial shareholder value. However, even highly innovative enterprises may struggle at times to tap the full creative potential of their innovators.

Invention harvesting—sometimes also referred to as invention mining, brainstorming, and ideation, among other terms—is a proactive process that involves: (a) prompting innovators to conceive of new inventions or reveal inventions already conceived but not yet appreciated or articulated; and (b) documenting such inventions so they may be protected via the patenting process. Invention harvesting can be leveraged in the context of active development projects to ensure that valuable project-related intellectual property (IP) is duly protected. Significantly, invention harvesting also can be leveraged outside the project context to encourage innovators to invent disruptive technologies to occupy a future, envisioned landscape, and to protect such technologies through the patenting process before others do so.

Many companies are aware of the potential benefits of invention harvesting and aspire to begin or expand its use. However, unless they take concrete steps to support and nurture invention harvesting programs, their aspirations may bear limited fruit.

Approaches to Invention Harvesting

Invention harvesting can be approached in various ways, some formal, others less so. For example, in the context of a product development project, team members may meet with IP counsel to discuss project inventions so that patent applications can be timely filed. Or, scientists on a research project may brainstorm inventions over lunch or coffee and then submit invention disclosures pursuant to corporate processes. Another approach involves orchestrating facilitator-led sessions within a technology or product area or across a group of areas. In such an approach, session objectives may include addressing deficiencies in existing technology, innovating in response to industry needs or wants, inventing groundbreaking technologies, and building patent portfolios that block competitors.

Invention harvesting can be rolled out across an entire company, or efforts may be undertaken within respective divisions. Sessions involving innovators from a cross-section of technology or product areas and functions, such as engineering, product management, and sales, may yield unexpected, highly innovative results.

Impediments to Invention Harvesting

The manner in which companies prioritize the deployment of innovator and IP resources, and the nature of invention harvesting itself, may conspire to impede the successful implementation of invention harvesting programs. Leaders who fail to appreciate and proactively counteract such impediments may face an uphill battle no matter how much they desire to pursue invention harvesting.

First, some companies focus innovators’ time and creative energies on technology and product development projects as the absolute top priority. Rigorous project-related processes direct innovators to develop new technologies and products consistent with defined project objectives such as schedule, cost, functionality, and quality. While often a recognized component of the development process, innovators’ participation in IP asset development strategy may suffer in the face of intense project demands. Even when innovators can strongly support IP strategy, the primary target for IP protection is typically project inventions, without the luxury of time to think more broadly and boldly. Against this backdrop of priorities, it can be challenging for innovators to support invention harvesting efforts, whether within or outside projects.

Second, some corporate IP departments and their outside counsel consume substantial amounts of bandwidth attending to the protection of IP tied to active projects, as well as the prosecution and maintenance of existing patent assets. Though well-intentioned and generally adequate, such an approach may miss opportunities to utilize invention harvesting to achieve a more impactful IP strategy.

Third, even when innovators and IP strategists can commit time and energy to invention harvesting, they may encounter challenges in planning and execution. Indeed, invention harvesting—especially that which seeks visionary innovations—is not susceptible to a “one size fits all” model. No universal paradigm will be effective in every situation. Scoping of an invention harvesting exercise is crucial to maximizing the likelihood of success. Attention should be paid to at least the following ten considerations:

  1. the objectives of the session;
  2. the state of the art in the relevant industry or industry segment;
  3. the level of competition and degree of IP sophistication in the industry;
  4. who should attend and who should facilitate;
  5. session format, duration, and location;
  6. personalities of participants and how they likely will interact with each other and the facilitator;
  7. the culture of the team and team members’ past experiences with invention harvesting;
  8. available budget;
  9. coordination of schedules; and
  10. competing project commitments.

Leaders who underestimate the complexities may soon realize that an experimental, trial-and-error approach to invention harvesting can waste significant time and discourage innovators from coordinating, leading, or participating in future sessions.

Last, whether invention harvesting is successful in a given situation often depends heavily on who is leading the session. An effective facilitator possesses a special blend of both hard and soft skills, such as relevant technical and industry knowledge; an ability to engage, question, and build trust and rapport with participants; an ability to think dynamically and critically from technical and business perspectives; and an ability to guide participants individually and promote synergy among participants to drive innovation. Leadership presence and persona are important as well. In a given situation, some individuals may be better suited to facilitate invention harvesting than others. Yet, oftentimes no training or mentoring is provided to groom facilitators for maximum effectiveness.

Best Practices

To overcome the above impediments, company personnel charged with innovation management should consider the following best practices, keeping in mind that invention harvesting programs and individual sessions should be tailored appropriately to each company and to each situation. Even within the same company, markedly different approaches may be warranted depending on context (e.g., within different engineering teams, P&Ls, divisions, etc.).

  1. Set Priorities and Invest in Supporting Infrastructure

In order for a program to take root and flourish, top leaders should set priorities for invention harvesting and flow them down throughout the organization. However, the mere setting of priorities is unlikely to counteract impediments such as those described above. Instead, leaders should intentionally build a viable supporting infrastructure that allocates resources to plan and facilitate sessions, frees up innovators to participate despite project demands, and builds a culture of sustained efforts. Time and money need to be expressly earmarked for invention harvesting, and job roles need to be redefined or created to make room for meaningful action.

When feasible, companies may choose to employ personnel dedicated to coordinating invention harvesting programs. In one exemplary model, a company may employ one or more “champions” whose mission is to liaise with divisions to help plan and execute invention harvesting sessions. A champion may be dispatched to divisions on an ad hoc basis to assist with invention harvesting in strategic technology or product areas. The champion role may be assumed by an IP lawyer, a patent agent, an engineer, a product manager, or another qualified and trained professional. Short of employing a full-time champion, invention harvesting leadership duties may be made a subset of an individual’s job responsibilities.

The champion model for invention harvesting can reduce the burden on innovators, increase process efficiency, and achieve more significant outcomes because much of the necessary planning, coordination, and guidance is shouldered by the champion, who has special expertise. Innovators need to merely “show up” to support the process—for example, to provide necessary contextual input for scoping of the sessions and to attend the sessions to innovate—rather than to spearhead an initiative that departs from critical day-to-day development project duties. A champion from outside the business can provide new perspectives that may spark fresh thinking by innovators. In some cases, a champion may act as the sole facilitator of a session. In other cases, he or she may co-lead with, or provide backup support to, a facilitator who works within the applicable business and whose knowledge of the industry and rapport with innovators make that person well-situated to take an active leadership role.

When budgets are tight, or technology activity is limited, businesses may elect to invest in training and equipping existing personnel to undertake invention harvesting efforts when needed, instead of employing individuals dedicated to invention harvesting.

  1. Build a Robust Training Platform

As noted above, planning and execution of an invention harvesting session can be challenging, especially for newcomers. Whether or not it employs dedicated personnel, an organization should build a robust training platform that equips and empowers personnel to proactively undertake invention harvesting. With such a platform, invention harvesting can become scalable throughout the business. For instance, if suitable training is provided, invention harvesting at the project level may be led by project team members.

One possible training model involves providing intensive training to a group of leaders who have a special interest in invention harvesting and are thought to possess the hard and soft skills noted above or the potential to cultivate such skills. Once trained, these individuals can help drive invention harvesting at the project level and outside of projects, both as session facilitators and trainers of other colleagues.

Training can be provided in various formats, such as in-person, telephonic, live webcast, or on-demand. Content may include: (a) scoping and structuring a session; (b) sample invention harvesting formats and selecting an appropriate format; (c) conducting preliminary prior art searches to gather context for sessions; (d) preparing participants in advance of a session; (e) facilitating a session; and (f) attending to follow-ups from a session. Materials can be provided for use with actual sessions, such as templates for handouts or introductory guides for participants to read prior to sessions. Other training options include observing live or recorded sessions and conferring with experienced facilitators to elicit perspectives and insights.

Technology may be leveraged to simplify or enhance invention harvesting related processes. For example, a custom portal or mobile app may be built that guides facilitators through the process of planning sessions and allows the centralized capture of information during sessions, such as photos of whiteboards or easel pads describing brainstormed ideas. Further, corporate collaboration portals or similar software may allow the sharing of invention harvesting best practices, initiatives, and successes across the organization or within specific teams.

  1. Integrate Invention Harvesting into Company Rhythms

So that it becomes an actionable part of a company’s DNA, leaders should seek to integrate invention harvesting into key rhythms. During scoping of a prospective technology or product development project, a project manager can allocate project hours and funds to invention harvesting activities anticipated during the project. Additionally, leaders can schedule invention harvesting sessions in conjunction with a business’s periodic technology roadmap planning meetings or other visioning rhythms. Moreover, the product management, engineering, or IP legal teams can sponsor an annual invention harvesting forum or invention challenge (e.g., “hackathons,” “codefest,” “hack day,” etc.). In organizations in which innovators are responsible for reporting time against projects, a charge code can be assigned to invention harvesting activities so that innovators receive credit for participation on par with fulfilling other priorities.

  1. Engage Innovators Creatively

The real magic of invention harvesting programs happens during execution, when innovators gather and ideas begin to flow organically. “Fun” may be the most essential ingredient of any invention harvesting session. Holding sessions at offsite locations, providing ample food and refreshments, offering prizes for participation, and arranging teambuilding outings can help build camaraderie and enthusiasm among participants. Excessive structure and process may inhibit innovation.

Crowdsourcing models can be employed across teams and enterprises for invention harvesting purposes. For example, invention challenges or contests can be organized to spur the disclosure of new inventions to address customer needs. Invention harvesting sessions can be conducted virtually through web-based platforms, where multiple participants collaborate online. Subsequent in-person sessions can be scheduled to further develop high-value submissions.

Irrespective of the invention harvesting formats employed by a company, its leaders should recognize participants who make significant innovative contributions, such as through awards, announcements, and dinners. Recognition can motivate employees to participate actively in invention harvesting initiatives.

  1. Start Strategically; Track and Tout Successes

For companies building an infrastructure from the ground up, invention harvesting programs may be launched on a limited basis and ramped up as appropriate. For instance, initial initiatives could be directed to a short list of technology or product areas of strategic long-term importance. A gradual buildup may allow processes to be tweaked iteratively based on learnings gleaned from early invention harvesting efforts.

Invention harvesting outcomes should be tracked, and the successes touted, to promote future invention harvesting activities. Outcomes to track may include sessions conducted (total and by technology or product area), resulting invention disclosures, filed patent applications, issued patents, inventions incorporated into products and services, and revenue attributable to inventions and patents, such as monetization revenue. Tracking can demonstrate the level of engagement in invention harvesting being achieved throughout the enterprise, and quantifiable impacts of the resulting IP. Success stories highlighting the building of patent portfolios and offensive and defensive uses of IP can be shared to both validate continuing investment in such programs and further encourage participation by innovators.

Conclusion

Invention harvesting is a powerful tool to drive innovation, but its promises are likely to be unfulfilled unless a company takes concrete steps to support and nurture its implementation. Though resources may be required, rich rewards may be in store when talented innovators reach their full creative potential through invention harvesting sessions implemented effectively as part of an overall IP strategy.

 

This article reflects my current personal views and should not be necessarily attributed to my current or former employers, or their respective clients or customers.

 

The Author

Carlo Cotrone

Carlo Cotrone is Senior Intellectual Property Counsel at GE Oil & Gas in Houston. As lead IP counsel for the Surface, Drilling, Offshore, and Subsea Production Systems business units, he develops and manages the execution of offensive and defensive IP strategies; provides IP and general corporate advice; and negotiates strategic agreements with customers, suppliers, and licensees. Previously, Carlo practiced law at several firms on the East Coast and in the Midwest, most recently as a partner.

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