Sunday, December 15, 2013

Invention and Innovation

I recently returned from Shanghai. I was greeted by the following when I boarded the plan from LAX to SH, though.
There was little hyperbole in that headline, I'm afraid. Since my first trip to the Shanghai to work with our team members at the Cao He Jing site in 2001, and then Shanghai Mart in the early 2000's, and finally the Zizhu campus, the pollution and traffic have increased.

But what has also increased is the team's experience and capabilities. The energy of the Intel team always recharges me, and this trip was no exception.

These trips include working sessions, open forums, talks, and other instances of collaboration. One talk I always offer to the site is patent training, for an engineer's perspective. I want to make sure that the audience doesn't believe that I can provide legal advice, but what I can do is to provide guidance on the process within the company.

Since the process by engineers capture and idea and propose it for inclusion in a potential patent filing varies per company, what I'll discuss below entails more of a higher level view of how I think about the process, and innovation in general.

For me I see a serial relationship between Invention and Innovation, as follows:

INVENTION
Company feeds $’s into Engineer + Engineer’s insight in response to a Problem Statement
Results == Patents
INNOVATION
Patents + Engineering + Marketing leads to product development
Company sells products
Results == earnings of $$$$’s (or RMB, YEN, Euro...)

-- Repeat this loop of INVENTION -> INNOVATION




So this frames the action of Invention versus the broader goals of the company, such as creating products which delight and fulfill end customer needs.  The process begins with invention, using a small 'i'. Therein an engineer is faced with a problem presently, or potentially in the future, faced by the market. The engineer devises a solution, and if it is 'novel' or distinct from other practice, it may be a candidate for formally pursuing a patent, or Invention with the capital 'I.' Of course most of our engineering problem solving is invention, but it is important to note the creation of patents because of the present nature of cross-licensing, company investment preservation in its Research and Development (R&D) spend, etc. These means the evolution of the small 'i' to the big 'I,' namely transforming invention into Invention and the associated patent applications for the latter.

With invention in hand, whether small 'i' or 'I', the long path of Innovation, or working with a team within, across, and possibly beyond the company, to deliver product. If the engineering concept was truly born of a problem statement enjoyed by the market and the team can execute on the associated reduction of the design to a shipping product, and the timing of the market is right, and....including many other factors such as the phase of the moon, resultant revenue should be borne of the activity. And as each company reinvests some revenue into R&D from whence invention is incubated, the virtuous cycle continues.

And note the emphasis on 'problem statement.' For me a good problem statement that is relevant to the business can be the source of unbounded invention, and hopefully, resultant innovation.

So invention is the idea pump that can inform product design, but Innovation is the mapping of invention into the creation of products that you ship to customers and for which you get paid.

This is how I think of invention in the context of business-driven-innovation ("BDI," oh not another acronym.....). It is perhaps a bit narrow minded and parochial, but just as I cannot see myself studying theoretical physics or maths, I feel most comfortable operating in a space where the business imperatives are manifest. Sort of like how after the Cultural Revolution in China I heard that all maths were "Maoist Mathematics", such as to support manufacturing and civil engineer, not pure maths. Maybe that explains why the Alma mater of many of my Shanghai colleagues, Shanhai Jiao Tong University, literally translates to "Traffic School" (or at least that's what they've told me)? To my mother's chagrin this is also the reason that my CV doesn't include the PhD moniker, too.

The cycle between Invention and Innovation at a large company is often tempered by the role of "Exit Champions," as well defined in the Harvard Business Review article http://hbr.org/2003/02/why-bad-projects-are-so-hard-to-kill/. It continually proves a delicate balancing act to ensure that Invention and Innovation are congruent with the business exigencies, especially given the finite resources for R&D budet allocation. But with our ever-changing market and internet-time pressure, I always feel the need to co-equally role model the 'entrance champion,' or party who delivers Invention+Innovation, as much as providing the guard rails of the 'exit champion.'

Given my love of business-driven-innovation, maybe I'll miss the next Kuhn-style paradigm shift and scientific revolution http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions, but this is where I feel I fit into the flow on this dynamic.  Enough said for Sunday blogging. And thanks for reading if you made it this far.
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