Between Mindsharing and Mindfulness: Musings on the wisdom of the crowd

Many people extol the arrival of a new era of mindsharing where social networks enable us to consult with the wisdom of the crowd. Experiments such as the famous cow weighing experiments demonstrate that a crowd can sometimes arrive at conclusions better than any individual contributor. Referring to , one of the books who started discussing this topic we find that most crowds don’t really bother reading the basic requirements for effective wisdom generation as laid out in this book; In some cases, groups are remarkably intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. The three conditions for a group to be intelligent are diversity, independence, and decentralization. The best decisions are a product of disagreement and contest. Too much communication can make the group as a whole less intelligent. So it seems that by their very nature, social networks are not a good medium for mindsharing. Networks for mindsharing should actually separate the questions from the answers. People who are answering should not see other answers, and most probably should not see who is asking the question, but if this is the case, why would people participate ? This answer should probably be answered by startups trying to build networks for mindsharing. My interest is the relation of the motivation problem to open innovation. In many cases open innovation is a contest based, non information sharing platform, so it meets the basic requirements. However, as anyone who has dabbled in open innovation quickly finds out, the return on invested time is abysmally low. In fact many times you compete with hundreds of teams for an illusive target. The chances of winning are low, even if you are an expert at the particular field. The solution adopted in some platforms is publicity for winners. However this solution does not scale well, as there is always only one first place. People fare better by writing articles and publishing their work. Digging deeper into most platforms actually reveals an interesting fact; very few people actually participate in these platforms. After all platforms which aim to tap the knowledge of humanity, only attract a few thousand experts of which most don’t actually participate in the different competitions. So while crowds can be wise, its an open game to find ways to motivate the individuals to make this happen.

Patent Strategy

To chart a route leading from a great idea to a strong patent (portfolio) one needs a ‘Patent Strategy’.   Charting routes is a tricky business, especially when we consider that patents should relate to things which would come to pass  in the next 20 years.   A way I found useful for organizing the patent strategy for myself or for my clients is a patent strategy chart of which an example is shown below


The chart has two axis, one axis describes the different elements of the device, and the second axis describes the function.  The first aspect of the chart is that it helps drill down into the details of the invention.  The second aspect is that it helps to map out areas for which the current invention may not be protected, or alternatively areas where currently there is no inventive step and which may warrant a dedicated ideation session.  The concept is best explained with an example and we can take a car as a field in which we want to invent.   Breaking down the car into its elements can yield the following components (body, drive train, engine, power source (hydrogen, gas, battery), sensors, control, etc.).  When writing the components, we can break down into broader or tighter categories, depending on the anticipated scope. While it seems that function is many times a greater source of innovation, sometimes components can also be used in a creative way.  Examples in the car can include, heads up display, screens, radar, or even a swivel chair.  Adding a component by itself is not inventive, however integrating it into the car, and addressing its functionality might be inventive.  Examples of functions can include, getting from A to B, fuel efficiency, fun, playing media, comfort, sleeping, safety, etc.  Of course cars are examples of systems which are protected by thousands of patents, so the chart should focus on the areas of invention.  The invention can be broad, like flying cars, to narrow like a new method for wiping water off the windshield.  If we take the latter example, and our invention is composed of a transparent, windshield wiper .  The principle of operation is ultrasonic transducers combined with a special glass formation process.  An example of a chart can be




After we have a chart, we can place the idea or ideas we have on the chart, for example



In this example, we have three ideas, with some overlap between the ideas.  We have also highlighted white space areas where we currently do not have any ideas and where we are not protected by the current idea pool.  The chart is also useful in mapping out the current state of art, and identifying white space areas in the invention field.  Obviously a solid patent strategy portrayed in this manner provides a lucid picture of areas of  ‘freedom to operate’ while at the same time highlighting areas which should be the focus of ideation sessions or invention creation.

As always in strategy, as in other aspects of life, the devil is in the details.  Adopting the patent strategy chart is a good start to building strategic patent portfolios,  but they are no alternative to sound patent counselling from experienced patent attorneys.


Inventions and the metaphysics of obviousness

In US patent law, one of the key requirements to grant a patent is that the patented idea is non obvious.   The legal meaning and implications of non obviousness have attracted considerable discussion and research.  Obviousness puts a threshold for invention and differentiates normal problem solving skills from the qualities required of an invention.

This raises an important question regarding the use of structured thinking tools such as TRIZ to create patents.  If we take the extreme case and imagine a patent machine.  A machine which takes as input the current state of art and comes up with new ideas based on a set of manipulations and predefined criteria.    The question is whether the output of this machine is patent-able, or are the obtained patents obvious because anyone skilled in the art following the same instructions would have found them ?

It would seem that the invention requires something beyond the predefined instruction set, an expected stroke of genius, to convince the USPTO, the idea is worthy of a patent.  This also highlights one of the differences between problem solving and inventing; which is framing.

When you solve problems, the goal is to find a solution.  This solution can be tested and verified and the problem resolved.  However not every solution is patentable or an invention.  Putting aside issues of novelty, and focusing on the obviousness, the question is one of context.  TRIZ for example offers structure for solving problems, but not of wording or defining the problem.  Hence in the case of TRIZ, the obvious part may be the solution, but framing the problem is non obvious and yet since it leads to a solution, it is at the heart of the invention.  In cases where the creative process creates many options to choose from, the question is whether the choice is obvious or not.

The situation is somewhat analogous to photography.  After all, a photograph is a representation of the world. Something that everyone sees.  However,the photograph frames reality.  It focuses on some elements while relegating others to the background or outside the frame.  By doing so, we can now see things we had not seen previously. The frame has created a new context.  Similarly in inventing, the act of framing, putting boundaries, changing view point, focus, or even colors brings to light things that were not obvious.

On a practical note, to invent we need to go beyond problem solving.  A problem is a good starting point, as is a solution. But we then need to go beyond that, looking at it from different angles, uses, aspects.  In framing the problem or solution in several ways we have a unique view, which sometimes leads to inventions.

For example we can start with a problem of the phone of the future.  Some envision that Glasses would be the way we communicate.  They provide vision, hearing, situation awareness.  But they seem to lack user input methods.  So this is a good place to think about.  What kind of input do we need to provide and how do the glasses use this input.  we can imagine 3D image capture and the use of hands and gestures.  This by itself is obvious.  Yet what kind of gestures make sense and which do not.  Can or should we overlay the commands on the hands or surface, and how can we provide tactile feedback.  All these questions can find solutions.  Some obvious and some not.  But even a simple question like gesture recognition can be challenging in the context of eye glasses as they contend with challenging angles, weight and dimension limitations and user modalities.  We need to focus on one aspect and drill it down to enablement.  But at this stage its clear, that no route is obvious.  Hence the outcomes might be patentable.




Brainstorm Companion

A useful link summarizing the TRIZ process

But TRIZ is a language. There are no hidden shortcuts to creativity and invention. Edison said “most people miss opportunity because it comes dressed in rags and looks like work”. While Edison is probably the wrong person to quote in regards to TRIZ, the bottom line still rings true. To master a language one must use it, there are no short cuts.

Tools in Use

To paraphrase an old adage, we learn the past to invent the future.
It’s 2000 and you are charged with inventing a new cell phone using TRIZ.The contradiction you are trying to solve is how to have a small smart phone device with a large screen and keyboard.
After defining a contradiction. You try solving it using manipulations. For example you can try multiplying something. Maybe a two screen device ? Well Nintendo did do that for portable gaming in the DS device, but two screens seems to enlarge rather than reduce the size of the phone. Another manipulation is reduction, to take away something. Reduction is usually a good start to breaking conceptions. You can take away the screen, keyboard, processor, etc. You should devote time to each option. How would a phone function without a screen ? Maybe project the information some where ?
How would it function without a keyboard ? Voice activation ?
Without a processor ? Laptop extension ?
Another manipulation is combining functions. Can we combine the functions of the screen and keyboard ? A touch screen ?
It is certainly easier to invent in retrospect, and yet this elucidates the principles at work. The fact we have a direction does not mean we are all done. For example, employing the touch screen opens up multiple problems ( contradictions) to be solved. For example, the touch screens of the time were slow, needed a stylus or had limited resolution. So to make the touch screen function like a keyboard, a new modality was used, capacitive instead of resistive.
The alternative approach, which is often used in creative thinking techniques, is to do without the contradiction part. “Form before function”. This approach would advocate to breakdown the phone into elements, apply manipulations, and then see if we can technically enable them and if they provide a useful function. When inventing in retrospect both techniques will of course yield similar results. After all the future we know is a powerful bias. Inventing in retrospect is relatively easy, so now fast forward and we are back to 2012. Now you can start imagining the phone of the future

Tools and reflections

Lao Tse eloquently addresses the role of tools,

Thus tools come from what exists,
But use from what does not

In TRIZ Genrich Altshuller ascribes the skill of an inventor to two elements, the amount of tools (manipulations) with which he is proficient, and his ability to access his tools. Similar to a handyman, whose capabilities are determined not only by his proficiency in using his tools but also with the order in his toolbox.
Altshuller viewed physics as an important subject for building up a toolbox. One of the reasons is that much of our world is constrained by physics, so understanding the interplay between gravity, friction, momentum energy etc. goes along way in coming up with inventions. A second reason is that physics reaches us not only the tools ( various axioms and rules ) but also how to apply them to problems.
For this reason many people view physics as an important part of the curriculum as it teaches people to think. However physics along with other scientific studies are challenged to hold the interest of students. Morever the ‘classic’ way of teaching science is being challenged as being too theoretical.
This highlights the inherent paradox in teaching people to be creative. We need to teach the use of tools and rules while developing a proficiency in using the tools outside their original scope. This is somewhat akin to the zen saying “I can show you the way, but the not the one you need to walk by”.

Starting to invent


Innovation is considered one of the most important and often critical resources in modern society. It is widely researched, the refined principles are then taught and sometimes practiced, but most importantly its impact is felt every day. Because at the heart of it, innovation is about doing things differently,and every day we do something new, we participate in the innovation process around us.

Why do it ?

But innovation is also a wasteful process. Pushing the boundaries, and breaking habits requires energy, and more importantly not all new things succeed. So from an economic standpoint innovation is justified if either

  • it provides a better process
  • or it opens up new possibilities and resources

thus creating a return on the investment in innovation.

Its important to remember, innovation is not an abstract process. it is the cumulative process of many individual inventive activities. These activities range in scope from the science and technology, to design and art. Their common denominator is that they constitute something new. Creating something that previously did not exist. Interestingly, creativity is defined as the origination of something new which has value. We will touch on the value aspect later, since it is a critical enabling element in the inventive and hence innovative process.

So now we have many words, creativity,innovation, inventions, borders, resources, and we want to answer a simple question. How do we invent.

How to Invent

The answer has been given over thousands of years by demonstration, and refined into a theory by a Russian scientist called Genrich Altshuller. He named the theory TRIZ, which is the Russian acronym for the “theory of inventive problem solving”.

Today TRIZ and its variants are widely used in many fields of activity. Many books have been published on it, and many experts teach and refine it. I will describe certain aspects of TRIZ in future posts, but in this post I wanted to highlight one critical, and universal aspect of TRIZ, and that is the role of tools.

TRIZ is composed of two elements

  • Identifying a contradiction
  • Using one or more principles of invention to resolve the contradiction

It turns out the hard part is the first. It is hard, because it is not structured, and we should get back to it later. The second part, is what most people remember about the TRIZ, the toolbox of principles by which most inventions are created. Surprisingly, or not, the toolbox and tools in it are a central theme in any human activity. They are obvious in the worlds of engineering and science, but they also govern the world of art, music, cooking, and even human behavior.

Creativity is about pushing boundaries

It is simplest to exemplify this with the notion of a language. To create language related elements, be they books, stories, poems, or slogans, we must first achieve some command of the language and its rules. We need both words, and their relations. Once we have an understanding of the connections and words, we can experiment, or create, new ways of combining them. We can create sentences to our liking, and yet they need to meet some criteria of sensibility to impart information or feeling on another person. This comes back to the value criteria in the definition of creativity. Focusing on just sentences, we can in principle imagine all the sentences in the world written up. Of course, in a random approach, most of what is written has no value. So the essence of creativity, is to focus only on sentences of value. A simple way to go about that is to start from past sentences of value and make small variations in them. This seems a timid approach, and yet done consistently, and diligently, it produces volumes of prose.

Inventing follows a similar path. We start from the corpus of existing technology, and make small changes. The changes follow the rules that TRIZ documented. In this process we create something new. Sentences are designed to impart information or feeling. Inventions create value in other forms as described previously. So the the invention resulting from a small change can now be assessed for value.

To sum up

I’d like to sum up this short introduction by returning to the first TRIZ principle which is “identifying the contradiction”. Its interesting, but also fundamental that the sentence analogy carries over. A sentence can be formed in two ways. It can start as an idea, which is then cast as a sentence following established rules. Alternatively, the sentence can arise from something else, and after formation, it suddenly embodies an idea. More often, than not, its is a combination. Ideas are not fully formed before articulation. An invention is similar. The ideal picture of a contradiction requiring a solution, is not always available. It exists in places where problems are well defined as the fields of engineering. In blue ocean problems, the expanse is huge and the choice of contradictions can be random or even misleading. More often, we define contradictions, we know how to solve, and we permute existing inventions, because it is something that expands our imagination and thought.

So that is where I stand at loss of words; What is the contradiction, which stands at the basis of the art of invention. Altshuler described one solution to inventing, can we invent others ?

and more importantly,should we ?