Mar 30, 2010

Join me in some subversive activities?

There is endless conversation in the lean community about how "leadership" doesn't get it, or "accounting" doesn't get it, and so on...

It's true, but what are we doing about it? I got to thinking about the time I'm spending on so-called social media and thinking about how to use it to sell, and why we're not trying harder to sell lean itself. We do a lot of blogging and grouping and tweeting, but mostly preach to the choir.

How do we take the culture of social media, and use it to infiltrate groups unlike ours and spread some subversive ideas? I've written about "selling" on LinkedIn, and how learning is more important than getting clicks or pitching our services. I'd assert that pushing the lean message won't help, and could hurt.

In most LinkedIn groups, there's no barrier to entry. I've joined the CIO group, the IMA, and a couple of supply chain groups and general business groups. I can't spend all my time on that many groups, but I can check in from time to time and see if there are any discussions that could use a lean word or two. More important than mixing in the conversation, if I can hold back, is to read the comments and learn about the points of view represented. I can check the profile of someone with a set of beliefs that sound like they get it or don't and build a picture of job types and company types that are moving in the lean direction.

Sometimes when I add a comment with a lean slant (I often omit our buzzwords), other visitors add their lean-type experience. Or I can observe something like siloed thinking and ask about organizational boundaries.

Asking a sincere question can be better than commenting, but it's very easy to write a question that sounds canned, which implies some ulterior motive or other. There are a lot of people who join multiple groups, asking questions and getting in the conversation. They often ask the same question in different groups. Personally, it seems to me like they are engaging in self-promotion, not intelligent and respectful conversation.

Be careful. Imagine you're in the room with the other people you can see as active in the group and think how you'd ask them about what they think or do. By respectfully listening and learning, you also develop your understanding of where the "pain" is for people in their situations. When you encounter people in similar organizational niches, your ability to explain lean concepts in their terms will be better.

There are a lot of groups out there, many industries, many functional viewpoints. Mostly, they allow outsiders in. What's keeping us from walking in and meeting new people?

Picture credit: Alex Katz, The Cocktail Party, 1965

Mar 1, 2010

Innovations in innovation

I was talking to Doc Hall yesterday about innovation, partly about how to frame an article about the subject for Target and partly digressing about the state of manufacturing and business. Doc thinks the way we do business is rooted in the past and about to crumble as the cracks in the foundation grow wider.

Innovation, for example, is hampered by patent processes and the extensive litigation often rising around them. Another barrier to innovators, he says, is that they may be brilliant at science and technology, but they don’t know how to create a business model that can succeed in the marketplace. You need both. Then licensing innovations by companies who can take an idea to market is made less attractive by inventors who offer only nonexclusive licenses to their product or technology.

Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, along with some partners, founded a new company, Intellectual Ventures, betting on a new model of deploying innovation. He describes this in an article, “Funding Eureka,” in Harvard Business Review (you can download it from the IV home page). He foresees making a market in invention, liberating it from “charity funding” from the government and even from corporations that are more interested in development than research. He’s assembled (if I didn’t get this wrong in my quick scan of stuff) $5 billion to buy a portfolio of patents that has already generated $1 billion in licensing revenue. His plan gives me nightmares of selling shares in targeted portfolios that average out risk, then some financial innovator making a market in derivatives, the question of who rates risk, and a debacle like the mortgage-backed securities and their derivatives we’re still recovering from.

Another company that’s been working for the past several years to make a market in innovation is, led by Ben DuPont. (Yes, he’s one of those DuPonts, with business development expertise gained from work he did there. Could a trait for commercializing R&D be in the family genome?) is an online registry of technologies available for license, combined with “Tech Needs” from companies looking to buy innovation instead of making it or looking for a solution to a technology problem. One of the company’s innovations is a standardized “Tech Pak” that makes it easy to get the gist of what’s on offer by an inventor, what stage of development it’s at, and what research data comes with the license. DuPont and other colleagues are also starting to invest in promising innovations to bring them to market by adding their business acumen to research brilliance.

NASA Tech Briefs is a publication with a long history of trying to offer innovation produced by our tax dollars to private enterprise. It now has struck a deal with so that its database runs in the framework behind the Tech Briefs web search interface. You also get the NASA technologies through

You can also troll the filings in the U.S. Patent Office if you’re of a mind to. It’s all online and there are, no doubt, intelligent bots constantly spidering the website for the benefit of anyone who wants to buy or sell innovation.

These are just a few models of market innovation in innovation. Much is driven by big companies, whose financial wizards are looking at intellectual property as a collection of assets that can be “monetized.” Corporate research often turns up a promising project that just doesn’t fit their core business. Until recently, those patents, data, and even business plans have sat fallow in the vault, with no ROI, but protected from competitors wishing to bring the same idea to market. They’re asking why, and answering, why not earn some money from them?

There are also the little guys, inventing a product they believe in, but not having the resources or knowledge to take it to market. TV is full of reality shows that put inventors into competition with one another for the chance to pitch their ideas to people with money. Some companies are starting to follow the online communities that are emerging among inventors, but it really remains small potatoes and a field for all sorts of “services” to offer would-be moguls.

I have a few questions. Where’s the opportunity for lean companies freeing up capacity or lean experts who are now free agents to mine these innovation resources? If they don’t have the resources for R&D, can’t they just buy it in the new innovation market? Can they base an entrepreneurial start-up on someone else’s innovation? Would they even want to? I’d hypothesize that they ought to have an advantage over non-lean entrepreneurs, even if they invest in nonexclusive licenses.

These models all seem to fit into the emerging philosophy of Open Innovation growing out of the open-source software movement. How will it take shape? How is the money going to flow?

Food for thought. 
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm