The Economist Shouts: “Set Innovation Free!”

The cover story of this influential British magazine is “Set Innovation Free!”* The subtitle says what they really mean:

Time to fix the patent system.

In this blog, I’ve argued that the current patent regime retards overall innovation. It’s not aligned with empirical studies of creativity research. Patents are awarded to a single entity, as if that entity is completely responsible for the advance in knowledge. But research shows that all innovations are collaborative and distributed.

Defenders of patents will say: First, the potential reward of a patent provides an incentive to innovate. Why invest all the money in researching a new cancer drug if you don’t get the exclusive rights to market it? Second, in exchange for being granted a patent, you’re required to make your innovation public. This is supposed to help everyone else move forward faster with their own innovations.

The Economist  lead editorial argues that this is completely wrong. It cites evidence that, across industries and countries, stronger patent systems don’t lead to greater innovation. It points out that in most cases, patents never really become public, because patent lawyers have become very effective at writing complicated text that makes it impossible to tell what the real innovation is. Patents are expensive; it takes about $100,000 to go through the process of getting one. And yet, by some measures less than ten percent of these patents are ever used; the rest never make any money. So why spend the money to get patents? It’s subtle, but basically, it’s related to a finding from innovation research: that almost all new products involve tens, hundreds, of new ideas. New products are never  based on a single patent. So for lots of companies, filing a bunch of patents is a defensive strategy–it creates a “patent thicket” that prevents competitors from putting together all of the ideas they need to develop their own successful product. The current state of the technology sector is that all of the big players have their own patent thickets. So before anything new can be sold to the consumer, their lawyers have to get together and negotiate about their mutual patent thickets. (Yes, that’s the word that patent lawyers use–patent thicket. The fact that there’s such a word at all shows how big the problem is!)

The patent system rewards huge companies with deep pockets and lots of expensive lawyers. It blocks startups and entrepreneurs. Maybe there are exceptions? For example, pharmaceutical patents that emerge from university research labs, with a startup that’s funded by the university’s research office? But aren’t universities also big institutions with lots of lawyers? Patents do nothing for the little guy.

Patents are granted for too long. No technology company needs 20 years of protection for their idea. How many of you still own computers from 20 years ago?

Patents are granted for “new” “ideas” that are much too obvious: does Apple really have a patent on “rectangular tablets with rounded corners”? (Apparently, they do.) And yet, U.S. patent law says that to get a patent, your idea has to be non-obvious. I’ve written about problems with the non-obviousness doctrine here, and it’s a big topic of discussion among IP lawyers and scholars.

The Economist  cover story could be straight out of my book Group Genius:

Sharing brings huge benefits to society. Sharing leads to extra innovation. Ideas overlap. Inventions depend on earlier creative advances. There would be no jazz without the blues. Innovation today is less about entirely novel breakthroughs, and more about the clever combination and extension of existing ideas.

The chorus of creativity researchers shouts “Amen!”

*August 8-14, 2015 issue

Marc Andreessen on Group Genius

Marc Andreesen, the Silicon Valley investor, has just published a free e-book containing his blog posts from 2007 to 2009. This excerpt from the book was just published in the Wall Street Journal–titled “retaining great people”. It’s really advice about how to build an innovative organization:

Don’t create a new group or organization within your company whose job is “innovation”. This takes various forms, but it happens reasonably often, and it’s hugely damaging. It sends the terrible message to the rest of the organization that you think they’re the B team. Instead, focus on boosting the innovation culture of the entire company.*

How do you get the whole company to innovate? I give the answer in my 2007 book, Group Genius:

Many companies say that they believe in empowering their employees through participation. But too often, participation is little more than a strategy to increase employee job satisfaction or to get their buy-in for senior management decisions. Real participatory companies are collaborative, improvisational, emerging from the bottom up. It’s a radical rethinking of the organization, and most companies aren’t willing to go there just yet. But as innovation becomes ever more important, there won’t be any other choice. (p. 155)

The reason you have to spread innovation throughout the organization is because innovation today isn’t linear. That’s why you can’t separate out the “idea stage” from the “execution stage”:

The skunk works model places all its hopes on one big flash of inspiration that must come from a select group of special people. In fact, successful innovative companies keep these small sparks coming from individuals throughout the organization, each spark inspiring the next one. (p. 159)

In Group Genius, I tell you the ten features of the most innovative organizations, grounded in this emergent, up bottom approach to innovation. That’s why Andreesen is right; not (only) because the skunk works approach damages morale, but because it never actually generates innovation.

*Andreeasen, The Pmarca Blog Archives.

Shortcut: How Analogies Drive Innovation

For several decades, psychologists have been studying creative mental processes, and we have a really good understanding of what goes on in the mind when people are being creative. I summarize this research in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity, by grouping all of the research into eight “stages” or “habits of mind” that are involved in being creative. And in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I describe over 100 techniques to train your brain in these eight stages.

One of the most important cognitive processes is analogy–a comparison of two things that seem very different on the surface, but that have an underlying conceptual or structural similarity. A really fun new book, Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, tells some fascinating stories of history’s most important innovative analogies. The author, John Pollack, identifies four rules for innovating through analogy:

  • Question conventional analogies. Sometimes the most obvious analogy is a dead end. Trying to invent an airplane by copying how birds flap their wings never worked.
  • Explore multiple analogies. Usually, there are lots of different potential analogical comparisons. Don’t stop with the first one. (This seems closely related to the first rule…)
  • Look to diverse sources. The most radical innovations often come from what psychologists call “distant analogies”, where the analogy comes from a radically different industry or discipline. This is why so many great breakthroughs come from interdisciplinary teams.
  • Simplify. The best analogies make complicated things easier to use.

Pollack’s book restates much of what we already know about innovation, but it’s well written, and his stories add to our growing database of historical examples that show how innovation works.

ZIG ZAG Published in Chinese!

Great news! My 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, was just published in a Chinese language edition, by Cheers Publishing in Beijing. Just minutes ago, I received my author copy in the mail. It’s so exciting to see that my ideas are available to readers in China!

ZIG ZAG Chinese cover 2014Check out the home page of Cheers Publishing: you’ll see that they’ve translated many wonderful science-based books, including:

* Proust was a neuroscientist (Lehrer)

* Where good ideas come from (Johnson)

* The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (Haidt)

* Shop class as soulcraft (Crawford)

* Design-driven innovation (Verganti)

Many thanks to the team at Cheers Publishing, for their professionalism and their rapid speed in translating and publishing my book!

Debra Kaye’s New Book, Red Thread Thinking

I really enjoyed Debra Kaye’s new book about entrepreneurship and innovation, Red Thread Thinking.  Kaye is what I would call a marketing expert, but nowadays the trendier more correct term for marketing is “brand strategy”. She’s an expert on consumer product trends, and she’s consulted for Apple, Colgate, McDonalds, American Express, you name it–she is a tapped in thought leader.

I was intrigued to find a marketing expert (sorry, branding expert) writing a book about innovation, but after reading Kaye’s book it makes perfect sense. For Kaye, successful branding and marketing depends on identifying the hidden links between observations, experiences, facts, and feelings–and when we do that, we uncover fresh and surprising new insights. She’s right: the psychological research likewise shows that the most original and surprising ideas come from making hidden and distant connections. The first epigraph in her book is Steve Jobs saying “Creativity is connecting things” (I quote the same epigraph in my new book, Zig Zag!)

Kaye’s book tells you how to identify and understand these hidden “cultural codes and shifts in consumer perception” with the goal of “catapulting fresh products to iconic status.” Every Chief Marketing Officer wants that! So how do we do it? Kaye identifies five “red threads”

1. Become better at observing and interpreting what’s around us

2. Take a fresh look at the past

3. Know what makes your market tick

4. Learn how to create a new “language” to make your product stand out, and yet also be universally understood

5. Persevere, review, and refine your ideas but without compromising integrity or core beliefs

I liked this book, because I am a psychologist studying creativity, and this brings a completely different perspective to the same phenomenon: How to engage in behaviors and habits that lead to consistent and deliberate creativity.

China’s Innovation Riddle

For years, China has been known for cheap labor and cheap manufacturing costs–that’s why the United States has outsourced so many jobs there. But China’s leaders are trying to change this and to become a more innovative economy. One of their core strategies is to increase the number of college graduates, as Keith Bradsher writes in today’s New York Times:

The aim is to change the current system, in which a tiny, highly educated elite oversees vast armies of semi-trained factory workers and rural laborers. China wants to move up the development curve by fostering a much more broadly educated public.

China is investing $250 billion each year in its universities. In the last ten years, the number of colleges in China has doubled, to 2,409. That’s 1,200 new universities in ten years, which is 120 new universities every year! And Keith Bradsher reports that these are not just phantom campuses–all of the classroom seats are filled. (Their biggest problem is finding qualified instructors.) By 2020, China’s goal is to have 195 million graduates each year (compared to the 120 million predicted in the U.S. that year).

But simply having more graduates won’t automatically result in more innovation:

Much depends on whether China’s authoritarian political system can create an educational system that encourages the world-class creativity and innovation that modern economies require….

The overarching question for China’s colleges is whether they can cultivate innovation on a wide scale–vying with America’s best and brightest in multi-media hardware and software applications, or outdesigning and outengineering Germans in making muscular cars and automated factory equipment.

Bradsher calls this “the innovation riddle” and compares China’s current situation to Japan just after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, Japan focused on university education much like China is doing now. In many ways, it was a huge success; Japan has a large middle class and one of the world’s largest economies. “But partly because of a culture where fitting in is often more prized than standing out, Japan hit an economic plateau.” Economists predict that China’s cost advantage in labor and cheap capital will disappear within 10 to 15 years. The riddle is: How can China transform itself into an innovation economy in just ten years?

Changing Places

When workers change departments for a short time–for example, shadowing another employee in a totally different part of the organization–it enhances the innovation potential of the entire organization. That’s because it results in more “weak links” throughout the organization’s social network. And from research, we know that creativity is more likely to result when information flows through these weak links–because it brings together diverse types of knowledge into surprising new combinations.

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal* describes many companies that are successfully using this strategy:

To help workers sharpen their skills, stay motivated and identify new roles they might aim for in the future. Moreover, they help address a challenge that many companies are facing: how to better foster collaboration across different specialties and regions.

An Intel, employees can find temporary assignments by searching an internal database. This program just launched last March, and already 1,300 positions have been filled. Other companies finding success with this approach include Virgin America and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

My book Group Genius explains why this works: Because it helps resolve the challenge of “knowledge management.” How do you get information moving through the organization effectively, particularly across organizational boundaries? In addition to this “shadowing” technique, other knowledge management techniques help accomplish the same goal:

  • “Idea labs” that bring cross-disciplinary teams together for one or two weeks
  • Job descriptions that are broad, allowing each employee to cross multiple areas
  • More frequent reassignment of staff

Research shows that all of these methods help to diffuse tacit knowledge–the kind of knowledge that’s hard to capture in computerized knowledge management systems, or in formal documents. And research shows that it’s this tacit knowledge that, more often than not, results in innovation.

*Lauren Weber and Leslie Kwoh, “Co-workers change places.” Wall Street Journal, Tuesday February 21, 2012, p. B8.