September 1, 2021
I recently attended the Independent Inventor’s Conference at the United States Patent Office located in Alexandria, just outside Washington, D.C. This two-day conference hosted annually by the USPTO provides mini-lectures on a wide variety of topics including, design patents, trademark applications, claims drafting and even provides opportunities to meet one-on-one with patent experts. For $60 a day, this is one of the best deals in town if you have ever thought about steering an idea through the patent or trademark process.
One of the highlights of the conference was a speech by Arthur Fry, a National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee, mostly known for his claim to fame as the co-inventor of the Post-it note. Everyone has probably heard about the development of the Post-it and 3M's policy of allotting 15% of working hours for independent idea development, so it's probably not worth going into here. If you're interested, however, there's a nice 3M site that has a good overview that you can view here. There's also a 30th anniversary site you can view here.
What I found most interesting about his talk was his account of the process of turning an idea into a product that is not only out in the market, but fundamentally reshapes how things are done. Contrary to what one might think, working for a big company with a lot of resources (read money) doesn't really change things. It still took Art almost five years from idea to national distribution. With that, here is my top ten version of how he approached his work as an inventor.
His first point was that everything we do is based on patterns and that the challenge is to truly understand the underlying assumptions behind those patterns and question whether they are all still valid.
The flipside to understanding patterns and even having a good solution to changing them is that they are very, very difficult to change. He pointed to Machiavelli’s quote to emphasize. “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system”.
There is sometimes a bit of confusion around the terms creativity, invention and innovation. Here was how he put it together. Creativity is where you get to think about and develop new patterns. This part is free. Invention happens when an idea is “reduced to practice”, which basically means made. This part is where you invest. The last part is innovation and is where people adopt the change and make it a part of their life. This is the return.
All things being equal, part of what makes a good punchline is that it’s unexpected while at the same time completely relevant. Great solutions are often ones that people somehow could never get to, but yet immediately recognize.
Products and services need businesses around them to survive. When all the parts work together, success is possible. When some, or sometimes just one, part is off the whole system won’t work.
Having good ideas is one thing, but being able to effectively communicate them with others is something else and they are both important for things to happen.
Sometimes it’s impossible to get someone to understand a new concept with just words. For the post-it note, Art made hundred of samples and gave them to people on the 3M campus, so they could figure out how to best use them. When people started coming back for more, per his policy, he new was onto something.
Art’s policy as he got further into it was that if someone wanted some post-it notes they had to go to his office and ask him what and also tell him what they were going to be used for. Then they only got one pad. By tracking all of the information, he was able to get a better understanding of the potential which he could pass on to other departments that didn't understand the product. This applied later on as well when 3M did their first rollout in four test cities: Tampa, Tulsa, Richmond and Denver.
One of the interesting points was about resisting the temptation to go big early. As Art explained it, it was about a five-year process before the product was available nationally. Through the initial stages it was always about doing it small, getting feedback and building momentum. At one point he expanded his garage to accommodate demand to keep things moving, but he focused on building on small successes rather than trying to hit one big one.
It was interesting to hear the distinction he made between operations and research and development. He said that operations’ role was to keep things safe and keep them moving. In a sense to “make it better”. On the other had, he felt that R&D’s role was to “make it different”. It was in doing things that other people couldn’t where real value would be found.
As we here more about the need for companies to be innovative, it's encouraging to hear that the problem is not simply one of more funding. But more of finding a good path and then diligently sticking to it.