Inventing in the Age of COVID-19
For technologists who cultivate innovation and mentor innovators, perhaps the most fundamental question is:
How does invention happen?
Jim Pickell, an angel investor, recently recommended a Ted talk by Steven Johnson entitled “Where Good Ideas Come From.” The entire talk is worth watching and covers several interesting topics, but in this age of Covid-19, one theme resonated: many breakthrough ideas are cobbled together by combining and contorting other ideas. Ideally, this process happens in spaces that allow and encourage ideas to collide in unpredictable ways.
Johnson went on to quote a study by Kevin Dunbar showing that insights tended not to come from people working alone, but rather when innovators congregate around a conference table, sharing their data, insights, and failures. According to Johnson, innovation often sprouts when people with different backgrounds and different interests bounce ideas off each other.
A Harvard Business Review article found the same phenomenon, concluding that contributors from different yet analogous industries can collaborate to create breakthrough innovation. They present the examples of in-line skaters innovating around carpenter masks, and when “3M developed a breakthrough concept for preventing infections associated with surgery after getting input from a theatrical-makeup specialist who was knowledgeable about preventing facial skin infections.” Clearly diversity of thought resulted in clever solutions.
Here is another example: what do you get when you combine a material scientist, a photochemist, a physicist, an excimer laser, and leftover Thanksgiving turkey?
The answer, as told in this article, is LASIK eye surgery.
Those researchers did not intend to improve the vision of millions worldwide, but that is exactly what happened when clever people started monkeying around with available technology … and leftover turkey.
These observations align with my own experiences as a patent mentor. The best ideas frequently start when people meet in the cafeteria, or by chance in a hallway, and swap ideas. In fact, they’re frequently not even fully-formed ideas, but rather “thought fragments” just waiting to be combined into an innovation. One person might explain what they are doing or thinking about doing soon, and others contribute to iteratively improve the idea. Often, groups end up scribbling furiously on a whiteboard, each participant sharing diverse thoughts and perspectives informed by their own unique backgrounds.
However, in the age of Covid-19 and social distancing, people seldom meet in the cafeteria or in the hallway, and most whiteboards lay dormant. We need a new approach.
Except, a virtual approach to collaboration isn’t really all that new. Most of my inventing at IBM was done by dispersed teams, which isn’t surprising since the “I” in “IBM” is “International”, and my teams frequently crossed locations. My experience wasn’t unique. Every US patent lists the city and state for each inventor, and if you poke around the IBM patent portfolio, you’ll frequently find inventors spread out across a country or even internationally.
So, we know the situation isn’t hopeless, but it does require planning. We must replace both elements listed above: the chance discussion and effective collaboration.
Instead of relying on chance discussions, innovators must meet intentionally, which isn’t an ideal situation. Most hallway encounters end quickly with pleasantries, not with exclamations of “eureka!”; lunch discussion topics are often weekend plans and hobbies, not work insights. When scheduling chance encounters (obviously a contradiction), we must accept that many will be brief, fruitless, and perhaps somewhat awkward. Consider that the price of inventing during a pandemic. But don’t give up after a failure or two.
Another aspect of the chance encounter is its randomness: you seldom know who will cross your path, which increases the likelihood that diverse ideas collide. When scheduling your chance encounters (still a contradiction), randomness is eliminated, so we recommend that you vary participants frequently, and try to assemble teams with a variety of viewpoints. Familiarity among the innovation group’s members can lead to efficiency, but at the cost of breakthroughs that sometimes follow when unusual perspectives are smashed together.
Once you have your team assembled, and assuming the encounter isn’t a dud, to emulate a face-to-face whiteboard encounter, you might benefit from several types of collaboration tools.
Video conferencing solutions provide your basic communication infrastructure. There are many solid options; Zoom is perhaps the most popular, but Microsoft Teams, Cisco’s WebEx, Google Meet, and other offerings provide viable alternatives. These tools all provide video, audio, and screen-sharing. To make the meeting more personal, we recommend that all attendees enable video, and as with all effective brainstorming sessions, ensure that everyone has an opportunity to talk and to contribute.
A virtual whiteboard allows group members to collaboratively develop content. Again, there are many viable solutions, including some integrated into the video conference tools, and the choice is typically a personal preference.
Kanban boards can be used to supplement a whiteboard, allowing teams to track ideas. Kanban boards were originally designed for project management, but the board metaphor can be an effective way to record ideas when brainstorming. With Kanban boards, users place virtual sticky notes on the board, and progress those notes through various stages, mimicking the idea-development process.
Co-editing tools allow your team to develop your most promising ideas. One person might “have the pen” to draft the initial ideas, and others can refine in real-time. Common solutions include Google Docs, Microsoft Teams, which integrates with Microsoft Word, or Boxnotes to support co-editing.
Virtual office solutions provide a digital, simulated office space outfitted with collaboration and communication tools to replicate a physical office space. For example, Sococo allows you to gather colleagues for an impromptu meeting, or knock on a virtual door to ask a quick question, along with providing audio and video conferencing. Many alternatives exist, including Walkabout Workplace, Wurkr, and Knock.
By scheduling invention sessions and leveraging the tools discussed above, you can largely replicate a face-to-face invention session. Perhaps it is not ideal, but it can work, as it has for many dispersed companies.
And a lockdown isn’t all bad for invention: eliminating your commute leaves more time to innovate. It is a small compensation, but you can use the extra time to think, to discuss, and to innovate, all of which are beneficial, especially in this challenging environment.
 This discussion occurs around 6:30 into the video.
 Pajamas are approved attire for innovation.
 We won’t discuss brainstorming best practices here. If you search “how to run a brainstorming session,” you’ll find numerous useful resources.
VP - IP Development at Lumenci
David Kaminsky, former Chief Innovation and Patent Architect at IBM, runs IP Development division at Lumenci. He has some great ideas on how startups and organizations can benefit from mentorship to build strong IP/Patent programs from Day 1.