Group Genius: Today It’s the Accepted Wisdom

In 2007, my business book Group Genius  was one of the first books about collaboration and innovation. Since 2007, a lot more books have been published on that topic, each one affirming the points in my book. That’s because Group Genius  was grounded in scientific research, and that research has stood the test of time.

The March 13 article “In Search of the Perfect Team” in the Wall Street Journal* makes the same recommendations that I did in 2007:

  • “Each member of the team is engaged” (WSJ)–everyone talks and listens about the same. This is in Group Genius, pp. 50-51
  • “There are a diversity of ideas, and everyone is willing to consider new ideas” (WSJ)–In Group Genius, pp. 70-72, also pp. 14-15
  • “Everyone is setting goals for a project” (WSJ)–each person explores something slightly different, but goes in the same direction. This tension is one of the main themes of Group Genius, but it’s most explicit on pp. 44-46.

The WSJ  article connects these themes to new technologies, like Slack, and Google’s data-based approach to team productivity in their People Operations Department. These help drive collaboration; I talk about Slack and also Google’s research in the forthcoming second edition of Group Genius  (coming this May!). But this technology doesn’t change the underlying social dynamics of effective collaboration. Stay grounded in the research, and you’ll stand the test of time.

*2017, May 13, “In search of a perfect team.” Stu Wu, Wall Street Journal, p. R6.

Tinkering Toward Innovation

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal,* Alex Foege is critical of “tinkering time”. My ears perked up, because this is a common practice at some of the most innovative companies. It means you give each employee a small percentage of each week to dedicate to their own pet projects. W. L. Gore gives each worker 10 percent of each week; Google gives everyone 20 percent; 3M, where the practice started back in 1948, gives 15 percent. In recent years, Apple started its own program called Blue Sky, and LinkedIn announced its “Incubator” program.

I advocate such programs in my keynotes and workshops, and in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. I recommend tinkering time as a solution to the innovation paradox: The main task of a company is to keep generating revenue from profitable business lines. You need to do this at as low a cost as possible, sell to the largest possible market, and charge the most the market will bear. The paradox is that this sort of focus is pretty much the exact opposite of how innovation happens. So why not devote a portion of the company’s energy to innovation, while continuing to focus the majority of the resources on proven money makers?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the traditional way a company invested in the future was to create a separate organizational unit called “research and development” or R&D. The R&D staff spent 100 percent of their time on innovation; everybody else spent 100 percent of their time taking care of existing business. But the well-documented problem with this model is the “hand-off” problem: taking an innovative new idea from R&D and handing it over to the rest of the organization. All too often, the organization can’t manage the transition and good ideas fail to be implemented. The most famous example is Xerox, which created a legendary R&D group in Palo Alto called the Palo Alto Research Center or PARC. In the 1970s, PARC developed most of the technologies that we associate with personal computing today: windows and mouse user interface, laser printer, networking, pull down menus, etc. (The Apple Macintosh was famously inspired by Xerox’s innovations.) And yet, Xerox failed the “hand off” and never made any money from its innovations.

Many innovation managers now believe that the “tinkering time” philosophy can avoid the hand off problem, by embedding innovation throughout the organization rather than way off in a separate campus.

So why is Alec Foege critical? He argues that it rarely works. (Even as he cites famous examples of new products that emerged from tinkering time, like gmail at Google.) He claims that employees find it “terrifying” and that truly innovative people are completely different from the kind of people companies like to hire. Real tinkerers are “dilettantes, free-form creative types motivated more by their own curiosity than by the bottom line”. He points out that if you are “ordered to tinker” then where’s the passion?

This isn’t what I’ve seen when I visit places like Gore and Google. I see people who are very passionate about their 10 percent project. They don’t seem terrified to me. That’s because failure is welcomed as a step toward later success. And it’s easy to come up with a long list of successful new products and services that emerged from tinkering time…so I’m puzzled that Foege would say “it rarely works.”

Here’s his proposed solution:  tinkerers should profit more from their innovations than the company does; companies should avoid aimlessness and instead demand creativity within clear goals. Well, we already know what will happen if companies do that. If tinkerers profit from their ideas, then people become possessive and selfish and collaboration dies. If companies provide clear goals, then you’ll never get a surprising, disruptive new idea.

I still plan to read Foege’s new book, The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make American Great. I’m just a bit more optimistic that it IS possible to foster tinkering within a company; you don’t have to be a loner in a garage to be innovative.

*Alec Foege, “The trouble with tinkering time.” Wall Street Journal, Jan 19-20, 2013, page C3.

Clickable Phone Numbers: Obvious or Not?

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is suing Google, claiming that Android infringes on iOS (iPhone) patents. One of Apple’s patents is apparently for the feature of clicking on a phone number in a web page, to make the phone automatically dial that number. That patent should be invalidated immediately, for several reasons:

1. The Palm Treo 650 had clickable phone numbers in emails. When you implement the same idea in a web browser, does that really deserve a patent? No. It’s obvious, and patents have to be “nonobvious” according to patent law.

2. If you aren’t convinced that this is an obvious idea, take a look at this online web forum of Palm Treo users from 2005. Everyone is saying “This is so obvious! Why doesn’t Palm implement this?” And apparently, you could download an app that would make phone numbers clickable in most of your Treo apps.

I found the language of Apple’s patent online,* and I can’t believe Apple was granted a patent for such a broad claim that was obvious and was pre-existing in prior art. Read this, and then try to tell me our patent system is not broken:

Claim 1: A computer-based system for detecting structures in data and performing actions on detected structures, comprising: an input device for receiving data; an output device for presenting the data; a memory storing information including program routines including an analyzer server for detecting structures in the data, and for linking actions to the detected structures; a user interface enabling the selection of a detected structure and a linked action; and an action processor for performing the selected action linked to the selected structure; and a processing unit coupled to the input device, the output device, and the memory for controlling the execution of the program routines.

Claim 8: The system recited in claim 1, wherein the user interface highlights detected structures.

As I pointed out earlier this week, Palm Treo did it first. I admit I’m not an expert in this; perhaps Apple purchased Palm’s patent? Is there some legal basis for arguing that Palm’s clickable email phone numbers are somehow different from the above language?

In other news today (Friday August 31, 2012) a Japanese court ruled against Apple in its lawsuit against Samsung. This fight was over a completely different patent than the seven at issue before the California jury: Apple had a patent on a technique for synchronizing music and video data with servers.

I remain convinced that Apple will eventually lose, on the grounds that many of these patents are invalid due either to obviousness, or because the ideas already existed in devices that predated the iPhone.

*http://www.techspot.com/news/46757-htc-loses-to-apple-several-android-phones-banned-in-the-us.html

Apple Wins in Court; Innovation Loses

Last week a U.S. jury sided with Apple in its patent case against Samsung and awarded Apple $1.05 billion. Robin Feldman, an intellectual property law professor at the University of California Hastings Law School, said this just before the verdict:

“The trial is evidence of a patent system that is out of control. No matter what happens in this trial, I think people will need to step back and ask whether we’ve gone too far in the intellectual property system.”*

Readers of this blog know that I have been opposed to the current US patent regime; I argue that it’s too easy to get a patent and too easy to defend a patent. This blocks innovation because patent holders are allowed to prevent others from building on and improving their patents. That’s a problem because innovation is incremental; every new step forward always builds on a long chain of prior innovations. If any one link in the chain is allowed to block all future enhancements, then innovation stops.

I’ve had iPhones for about three years and I love them. But my first iPhone replaced my Palm Treo 650, and I loved my Treo, too. My Treo did just about everything the iPhone did, so I never really thought the iPhone was particularly innovative. If you never had a Treo, check out this list of iPhone/Treo features:

  • Check your email anytime? Palm Treo had that.
  • Surf the Internet with a touch-screen browser? Palm Treo had that.
  • Touch the screen to follow a link to another web page? Palm Treo had that.
  • An app store, where you could buy and download cool apps like games and productivity software? Palm Treo had that.
  • A music player for your MP3 files? Palm Treo had that.
  • Bluetooth wireless connectivity? Palm Treo had that.
  • Sync your contacts and calendar with your computer? Palm Treo had that.

See what I mean? Really, the only truly new thing in my first iPhone was the WiFi ability and the GPS feature. And the iPhone wasn’t the first phone to have WiFi, and it wasn’t the first portable GPS device either. I agree with this Google spokesperson, responding to the jury verdict:

“The mobile industry is moving fast and all players, including newcomers, are building upon ideas that have been around for decades.”*

Samsung wanted to show jurors evidence that the iPhone was inspired by older products, including those by Sony, but U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh refused to allow the evidence. (For a technical reason: Samsung failed to disclose these examples of prior art during the fact discovery period.* I wonder if the verdict might have been different if the jury had seen this evidence?)

So what were the six patents Samsung was judged to have infringed? It actually was fairly difficult to find this information on the Internet; most media outlets decided this was “too much information” for the typical American. (I found the interactive graphic with the following information on the Wall Street Journal web site here and a detailed summary of the six patents here.)

  1. Utility patent ‘163. Enlarging documents by double tapping the screen.
  2. Utility patent ‘381. When you scroll to the top or bottom of a web page, the display “bounces back”
  3. Utility patent ‘915. Screen can distinguish between single-touch and multi-touch gestures. You can pinch to zoom in, and do one-fingered scrolling.
  4. Design patent ‘087. The ornamental design of the back of the iPhone.
  5. Design patent ‘305. Rounded square icons on the home screen interface.
  6. Design patent ‘677. Ornamental design of the front of the iPhone, with edge-to-edge glass and a front speaker.

The jury threw out the seventh Apple patent: Apple had a patent for the iPad shape, a rectangular shape with rounded corners, and the jury decided that no company could patent a geometric shape. (A victory for common sense.)

Take a look at the detailed, side-by-side comparisons of the iPhone and the Samsung products judged to infringe, on all six patents, here. Yes, I have to agree, those Samsung phones look a lot like those iPhones. But come on, they look the same because they’re both black rectangles with rounded edges!

After I spent some time “under the hood” of the details, I’m left with a couple of reactions. First: Apple spent a lot of money to apply for all of those patents over the years. I think it’s scary when any company really thinks they should have the right to patent a rectangle with rounded corners. Or the right to patent the ability to scroll a screen using your finger. Remember my old Palm Treo? Yes, I scrolled it with a stylus. So changing it from a stylus to a finger gets you a patent?

Second: It’s scary that a jury voted against Samsung. I don’t blame the jury, they were simply following the court’s instructions and the law as it currently stands. The problem is with the law. So now every company is going to be filing patents for triangles, parallelograms, three finger touches, scrolling with two fingers moves slower than scrolling with one, you name it. Come to think of it, I’ll bet most of those ideas already are patented. No doubt some company already has a patent for a trapezoidal phone shape. Coming soon to a court near you, and you heard it here first!

What ever happened to the “nonobviousness” doctrine? Under patent law, an idea is supposed to be nonobvious before a patent can be valid.

Apple’s official statement says that “stealing isn’t right.” That is embarrassingly simplistic. I prefer Samsung’s official statement:

Today’s verdict should not be viewed as a win for Apple, but as a loss for the American consumer. It will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices. It is unfortunate that patent law can be manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners, or technology that is being improved every day by Samsung and other companies.

There will be one or two more rounds in this fight: Samsung will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and then possibly to the Supreme Court. Stay tuned.

1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/26/apple-jury-patent-trial-samsung_n_1831855.html?utm_hp_ref=technology

2. Jessica E. Vascellaro and Don Clark, “Apple victory shifts power balance.” WSJ, August 27, 2012, pp. B1, B4.

3. http://designpatentattorney.com/blog/ “Samsung main life-line would be to unearth and introduce close prior art designs.  However, here, due to an apparent failure to abide by discovery deadlines, the court is preventing Samsung from relying upon many of its best prior art references at the trial.  Thus, this case serves as a stark reminder of the drastic consequences that can arise when a party fails to meet discovery deadlines.”

Google’s Study of Effective Managers

Starting in 2008, Google’s statisticians began “Project Oxygen”.* The plan was to statistically analyze years of performance reviews to identify which behaviors were associated with the best performing managers. The methodology also allowed them to rank-order the behaviors. Here they are, from top to bottom:

  1. Be a good coach. Provide specific, constructive feedback.
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage.
  3. Express interest in team member success and personal well being.
  4. Be productive and results-oriented.
  5. Be a good communicator and listener.
  6. Help your employees with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  8. Have key technical skills and use them to help your team.

Of course, this was done only with Google managers and there is no evidence that the findings transfer to other organizations. And yet, none of this is surprising. You’d learn pretty much the same things in any MBA program’s course on leadership. Still, it’s interesting that even in a super-creative, high-technology company, the same principles of leadership seem to hold true.

*Adam Bryant, “The quest to build a better boss”, New York Times, March 13 2011, pp. BU1, BU7.

Innovation at Google

Google has a famous strategy for innovation: Give each engineer one day every week to work on blue-sky, big potential ideas of their own choosing, and only require them to work on their “official” assigned project four days each week.  When I describe this to executives, I often get this question: “Why wouldn’t the engineer leave and start up his own company with that great idea? How does Google make sure they benefit from this investment in their staff?”

One way they might do it is by making their engineers sign some sort of agreement stating that “any ideas developed while employed at Google are Google property” etc. etc.   So far, I’ve seen no evidence that Google has done this.  (If they do, it’s never appeared in print.)  And in fact, Google does have a problem with employees leaving the company and taking their ideas with them; this was the focus of a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Google searches for ways to keep big ideas at home”*.  Three start-ups that emerged from Google include Ooyala, Aardvark, and FriendFeed.

Google has never had a formal process for senior executives to review the blue-sky ideas that engineers work on one day a week.  So a lot of those ideas fail to move forward, sometimes because they require resources that only senior management can allocate.  So now, as the WSJ article reports, Google has initiated “innovation reviews” where each executive presents the most promising ideas from within their own division.  CEO Eric Schmidt is there to listen, and so are the founders Page and Brin.

The problem is in getting a promising idea from the early stage, to the next stage where it’s developed enough to see how a prototype might work.  And typically, that doesn’t happen without some management focus and some allocation of resources.  So there’s a new consensus at Google that too few of their one-day-a-week ideas are turning into blockbusters.

Another way Google is addressing the problem is to give a few engineers, with extremely promising ideas, even more than one day a week–in some cases, giving them full-time to work on their idea.  The new collaboration tool, Google Wave, resulted when two brothers in Australia were told to go all-out on their idea, a new communication system to replace email.  Top leaders also assigned the two brothers dozens of employees.

Now that’s something you wouldn’t get if you left the company with your idea–unless you got some very deep-pocketed venture capitalists to fund you.  That’s a good argument to stay at Google; as CEO Eric Schmidt puts it, to be “part of a start-up within Google.”  But it can’t happen without adding some structure, criteria, and resource allocation mechanisms to their innovation process.

*Jessica E. Vascellaro, WSJ, June 18, 2009, p. B1, B5: “Google searches for ways to keep big ideas at home”.

Extending the creative lifespan

In each creative field, whether art, science, or invention, the creator’s productivity goes through a characteristic trajectory: it builds up, reaches a peak age of creative productivity, and then tends to drop off over the rest of the lifespan.  The curve looks different in different fields; for example, in math and physics, productivity shoots up early in life, for a peak age of creativity around 30.  Physicists joke that “if you haven’t done your Nobel-prize work by the time you’re thirty, it’s not going to happen.”  But in other fields the peak age is substantially older; in the arts and the humanities, it’s usually in the fifties.  And good news for those of us who are past the peak age: the drop-off can be very slight (and tends to be slighter as the peak age gets higher).  Exceptional creators continue to generate surprising, important ideas far into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.

When it comes to business invention, companies want to increase the number of years of maximum creativity.  A recent study by Kellogg professor Benjamin Jones* found that the age of peak invention has increased over the last 100 years, as technology becomes more complex and it takes more years to master the larger body of knowledge.  Prior to 1935, the peak was age 36.5; after 1965, the peak age was 40.  The onset of the peak productive years moved up, as well; and so did the age where innovation dropped off.  Before 1935, the drop off was 51; after 1965, it was at 55.

If a company can increase the number of peak creative years, that translates directly into top-line growth.  There are two ways: reduce the length of time it takes to become maximally creative early in a career, or extend the number of years at the older end of the career.  A Wall Street Journal article** reports that Texas Instruments is trying the first: assigning a mentor to each new college grad for intensive training that can get them up to speed in three years instead of five.  Sun Microsystems does the same.  And the possibility is that the pairing could actually increase the productivity of the older workers, as well.

Most innovative companies haven’t thought very hard about how to extend the creative lifespan at the older end.  Continuing education (credits for school tuition) and professional development is necessary, but not sufficient.  Eventually, every Steve Jobs (Apple) and Sergey Brin (Google), and everyone that started their companies with them, will get older.  If we don’t want to be replaced by younger, more creative upstarts, all of us need to stay creative as long as possible.  Organizations need to come up with ways to help us further that goal.  And because many societies are aging (including the U.S. and just about every OECD country), it’s critical for the wealth of nations that we figure this out.  Any ideas?

*“Age and Great Invention” Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming

**WSJ, Monday August 18, 2008, p. B5

Inventing the Future of Management

How can we maximize human potential to make the world a better place? How can we make work more fulfilling–whether in a business, a school, or a government agency?

For the past two days, I’ve been attending a high-powered conference here in Half Moon Bay, California, hosted by Gary Hamel (Wall Street Journal’s “top business guru” and author of The Future of Management). Our goal: to use the latest management research to re-design organizations to release the full potential of their employees, and to generate maximum innovation, adaptability, and engagement. Our starting point is the observation that management today–whether businesses, government agencies, or educational systems–is deeply flawed (think of Dilbert’s cartoons and you’ll know what we’re trying to fix).

C. K. Prahalad, Peter Senge, Gary Hamel (standing), Eric AbrahamsonMost of the 40 or so in attendance were thought leaders, authors of best-selling business books and/or professors (The photo shows, from left to right, C. K. Prahalad of University of Michigan, Peter Senge from MIT, Gary Hamel (standing), and Eric Abrahamson of Columbia).

But the high point, for me, were the presentations by a few CEOs, representing innovative styles of management: Gore, Google, Whole Foods, and IDEO, all companies I describe at length in my book GROUP GENIUS.

Tim Brown, IDEO

Representing Gore was CEO Terri Kelly; Whole Foods, CEO John Mackey; and IDEO, CEO Tim Brown (in the photo). If you’ve read my book GROUP GENIUS you know that all of these companies represent a new sort of management technology, one that is designed to tap into the power of collaboration.

A high point of the event was when Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, answered questions from the audience about Google’s unique organizational culture (sitting at the right of Gary Hamel in the photo). I haven’t written as much about Google, simply because that company has been so widely reported in the media already; but, like Gore, IDEO, and Whole Foods, Google is a company that maximizes the collaborative potential of its employees.

Gary Hamel and Eric Schmidt

“Inventing the Future of Management” was designed to be a beginning, so we didn’t come up with concrete advice so much as challenges, obstacles, and important issues. But I was delighted to see that the consensus emerging from this group is directly aligned with my message in GROUP GENIUS: that innovation can’t be forced in a command-and-control organizational design. Innovation always emerges from the bottom up, in teams that form spontaneously and interact improvisationally. In the future, we need organizations that enhance the power of collaboration, managers that facilitate the unpredictable creative work of everyone.

Attendees: Eric Abrahamson, Chris Argyris, Julian Birkinshaw, Tim Brown, Lowell Bryan, Bhaskar Chakravorti, Yves Does, Alex Ehrlich, Gary Hamel, Linda Hill, Jeffrey Hollander, Steve Jurvetson, Kevin Kelly, Terri Kelly, Ed Lawler, Andrew McAfee, John Mackey, Tom Malone, Marissa Mayer, Lenny Mendonca, Henry Mintzberg, Vineet Nayar, Jeff Pfeffer, C.K. Prahalad, J. Leighton Read, Keith Sawyer, Peter Senge, Rajendra Sisodia, Tom Stewart, Jim Surowiecki, Hal Varian, Steve Weber, David Wolfe, Shoshana Zuboff.