“‘Move fast and break things’ is a trendy innovation quote that may have its place, but I haven’t found it yet…. In my experience, the best inventions come from identifying problems and solving them. Period.”
What’s the secret to Intellectual Property Management? After managing hundreds of inventions, I’m going to tell you the essential trait of an excellent IP Manager, and give my four best tips for managing what is often a company’s most valuable asset. The answers might surprise you.
IPWatchdog readers know the importance of capturing IP, whether it is patents, trademarks, copyrights, or trade secrets. This article isn’t detailing technical tips for filing patents or how to corner a strategic area of the market; the difference between a good and a great IP Manager is leadership. Capturing IP is one of many responsibilities of the IP Manager that falls in the middle of functional silos within technology companies, resulting in cross-functional barriers that must be navigated to achieve any measure of success.
While the goal is to create a strong IP portfolio, the business is people. When in the middle of functional silos, the IP Manager often relies on influence, not authority, to overcome cross-functional barriers. This requires true leadership.
It requires embracing the organization for what it is and working within it to accomplish the very important role of developing a competitive advantage through intangible assets. There will be budget limitations. How then can IP be developed that maintains a competitive position against current and emerging competitors? There will be engineers that are not motivated to disclose their inventions. With no authority, how can the IP Manager encourage these engineers to go the extra mile? And there may be policies that restrict engineers from reading competitors’ patents. So how can engineers maintain a cutting-edge knowledge for advancing the state-of-the-art? These are just three examples of the endless obstacles that I have encountered as an IP Manager. Perhaps even more important are the strategic challenges.
Following are four strategic leadership concepts I believe promote a strong IP Management function:
- Process follows people – Processes are very important for efficiently harvesting inventions, for making consistent patent filing decisions in alignment with the company’s corporate strategy, and for rewarding inventors for their creativity and effort. However, we must never forget that inventors can be put-off by processes that appear rigid, haughty, or lack transparency. Steven Covey, in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says, “Think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.” In my efforts to achieve results, I have found that simply taking time to explain why an inventor’s disclosure did not “make the cut” helped to make a better inventor. Often, a one-on-one with the inventor resulted in an improved disclosure and more open communication. At the very least, the inventor gained a better understanding of what may be needed for the next invention.
- Inventing is a team sport – Having managed several hundred inventions, I have learned that very few inventions were invented by only one person. When invention disclosures were submitted with only one inventor, I learned to question its value. In the few times that I pushed back, the sole inventor invited additional team members into his thought process which resulted in a much more valuable invention. Cultivating a spirit of comradery, rewarding teamwork, and cross-functional contributions are key.
- Keep it real – “Move fast and break things” is a trendy innovation quote that may have its place, but I haven’t found it yet. How about “the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible?” This is inspirational but very impractical. In my experience, the best inventions come from identifying problems and solving them. Period. Yes, creativity is needed. Yes, testing theories is part of the scientific process. And yes, stressing the limits of a design may lead to surprising discoveries. But an emphasis on “blue sky” thinking and catchy innovation quotes does not move the needle. In my 20+ years of experience, I have never witnessed an invention that is valuable to any company which is not limited by physics and other practical considerations.
- What gets measured gets managed – I have found this to be a true statement, unfortunately. The problem is that intellectual property, being an intangible asset, may be very difficult to measure. For example, a company’s patent may effectively block a competitor from competing with a similar product. But how will the company know that? In another example, a company’s patent may be infringed by a competitor, but the company chooses not to assert the patent. How is the value of such a patent captured? In my experience, metrics are normally developed based on what can be objectively measured, such as the number of patents per employee, or the number of patents per R&D budget. These metrics are nearly worthless and can lead to terrible decisions. What should be measured, then? Here are a few examples. For each invention, what is the:
- alignment to the company’s long-term strategy?
- level of technology-advance relative to the prior art?
- likelihood of modifying the competitors’ behavior to stop product development, pursue low-quality design-arounds, or seek a license?
- claim quality after patent prosecution is complete?
Each of these metrics takes careful consideration, requires subjective judgments, and may require years before an assessment can be done (such as with claim quality in Example D). Challenges aside, these are the types of metrics that will drive good decisions, encourage meaningful inventions, and ultimately help protect a company’s most strategic assets.
The role of IP Manager is a challenging one, but necessary to any organization that competes on the basis of technology innovation. It requires true leadership, the ability to balance competing priorities, and the ability to think strategically. A manager must never forget the delicate balance between effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.
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