Measuring innovation, one patent at a time (or all of them at once)

Measuring innovation is tough. To begin with, innovation is rooted in creativity—and measuring creativity isn’t straightforward, to say the very least. Besides, innovation is about transforming creativity into value—and measuring value isn’t easy, either, even if you measure it in dollars (or any other currency).

But you’re still expected to measure it. As someone great (whether it’s Deming or Drucker) has said, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Currently, the most common proxy for innovation is patents. This is the measure of innovation that I used myself to compile a list of specific socioeconomic factors that favor or obstruct innovation.  More precisely, it’s a combination of the number of filed patents (innovation “quantity,” so to speak) and the index of their citation, which is supposed to reflect patent quality (on the assumption that the more a particular patent is cited, the more influential it is).

It’s easy to criticize patents as a measure of innovation. The patent quantity is obviously the least defensible of the two as the number of frivolous and simply “cloned” patents keeps rising. Unfortunately, as the pattern of patent citation changes over time, comparing the quality of patents issued at different times becomes almost useless, too.

Is there anything better than the patent number and citation index? Prof. Dimitris Papanikolaou of the Kellogg School of Management thinks so. Prof. Papanikolaou and his colleagues have decided to analyze the patent text. They reasoned that if a patent was truly groundbreaking, then it’s text would be unique, i.e., dramatically different from any previous patent. However, as subsequent inventors would start building on this patent, many follow-up patents would have similar text. The researchers, therefore, assigned higher quality scores to patents with text that did not resemble earlier patents but did resemble subsequent ones.

By analyzing the texts of more than nine million patents filed with the U.S. Patent Office since 1836, the researchers showed that their measure of patent quality very closely correlated with the patent citation index. Moreover, their measurement performed even better than the citation index in predicting breakthrough inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the telegraph, television, plastics, and genetic-engineering technologies.

It’s interesting that the new measure of innovation is still patent-based. I wonder if a measurement based on something else can be created.

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The Crucial Role of Marketing in Innovation

There is a common misconception that innovation and marketing are two separate concepts when it comes to business. However, if you analyze it, you will see how successful game-changing technologies have used marketing to promote their product and create customer trust. Innovation is the initial idea—it’s the backbone of your entire business culture. Marketing, on the other hand, helps your business take off. Great examples include Google’s AdSense and Nike’s Nike+. Both pushed the boundaries of their industry and both were able to sell to a wide consumer base.

In today’s world, however, the Harvard Business Review has pointed out that the role of marketing has taken a backseat. Many companies only use marketing to acquire and retain customers, when it can be used for so much more. For one, it should be used to define priorities based on strategies. Marketing can also be used to creatively communicate the benefits and features of an innovative idea.

Most business leaders also fail to see the essential aspects of marketing, which include identifying the right customers and target market, developing the entire go-to-market, and understanding consumer’s fundamental needs and drivers. All of which are crucial to the success of innovations and breakthroughs.

Take the Google Glass, for example, Google launched it as a beta product in 2012, thinking the innovative new tech would sell itself. However, when it did come to market, Media Post notes that the team behind it neglected to understand Google Glass’s target customer, nor were they able to define why people would need it in the first place. The market outright rejected it when it was launched. The team behind it focused more on the idealistic vision of the product and they took for granted the market research necessary to figure out two of the most essential questions that need to be answered: who is the Google Glass for and what customer needs is it trying to fulfill?

Apart from making sure you are in tune with what your customers need and want, marketing must be used to build brand trust. Ayima warns that if a brand doesn’t generate instant trust with the customer then “your bubble is probably going to burst soon.” They pointed out how health and safety issues over the restaurant brand Chipotle resulted in a big hit on their sales. Marketing experts are right in saying you can spend lots of money on marketing tactics, but without customer trust, it will be almost impossible for the product to survive. Even if you are Google.

To do this, it’s important to learn what your customers need and what difference your product will make to their lives. You also need to be true to your claims—overpromising is a common mistake. notes that video marketing is one of the best ways to showcase your innovations. Its intimacy makes it uniquely suited to building trust, as it’s an effective way to reach out to your audience and tell your brand’s story. What experts call “cornerstone” videos can help you introduce your brand’s identity, voice, mission, and goals. Brand trust also impacts how your customers receive your innovations—when people don’t have any idea about your product or service, brand trust built through effective marketing can help pave the way for loyalty in the future. You also need to trust your own customers. On Innovation Observer, we talked about how important it is to make sure your product and marketing strategies are customer-centered. Listening to your consumers, and trusting them, benefits your business more than you think.

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We’ll get back to you. Or not.

During my time at InnoCentive, there was a job I and my colleagues hated the most: collecting clients’ feedback to contributions by the members of the InnoCentive crowd.

The clients would post a problem to the InnoCentive website, and a crowd of so-called Solvers would submit solutions to the problem. According to the rules (embodied in the company’s slogan, “You pay for success, not the effort”), clients would pay only for the best contributions, the ones that really solved the problem, but reject the rest of them without pay. The only obligation they had was to provide a (brief) explanation of why each of the unsuccessful solutions was rejected.

And here where the problem began. When the clients didn’t get a solution they were looking for they apparently felt so disappointed that they didn’t want to spend any additional time and resources to prolong the “agony.” But even if they got a solution they hoped for they usually believed that by paying a prize to the winner—and a fee to InnoCentive–they had fulfilled all their major obligations. And what about the contract? Hey, are you going to sue us for a violation of a tiny clause in the contract after we’ve paid you money?

As a result, we at InnoCentive were often left with dozens of proposals, some of them quite good, without knowing what to say to the people who submitted them. I won’t go into detail on how I and my colleagues dealt with the issue. My point here is that we always knew that communicating the results to the members of the crowd was a thing of paramount importance, something that could not be ignored or forgotten.

That’s why I was so amused (however, not surprised) to read about a study by Henning Piezunka and Linus Dahlander, “Idea Rejected, Tie Formed: Organizations’ Feedback on Crowdsourced Ideas.” Piezunka and Dahlander analyzed crowdsourcing campaigns run by 70,159 organizations and found that 88% of them didn’t bother replying to submitters whose ideas were not selected. The study further showed that, not surprisingly, first-time submitters who got no response were less likely to take part in the following campaigns run by the same organizations.

I wouldn’t rush to call the innovation managers in the above organizations lazy or rude. The problem is not with them but with a model of crowdsourcing that they’re using, the one I call the bottom-up model (a.k.a. “idea generation”). I wrote about this model and its shortcomings many times, most recently here.

The major fault of this approach is that the contributors are asked to generate “ideas” whose parameters, including success criteria, are poorly defined. As a result, the bottom-up crowdsourcing campaigns end up with hundreds of half-baked proposals—and then the campaign managers have a hard time to go through all the submissions and find those that make at least some sense. No wonder the managers have no time, nor desire, to provide feedback to the 99% of the proposals they don’t want to even re-read.

There is a plausible alternative to the bottom-up approach: the top-down model, which focuses on problems. These problems are identified and formulated by the managers who then ask contributors to find solutions to these problems according to the success criteria defined up-front. This approach results in a dramatically fewer number of submissions, but their quality is remarkably higher. For example, InnoCentive, a platform that utilizes the top-down model, boasts up to 85% success rate of their projects.

And then, yes, there remain proposals (most of them in fact) that were rejected. And someone must communicate the outcome to their authors. It may sound paradoxical but even when you work with a crowd, you must communicate with its members. Always literally and often person-to-person.

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A board game

FBHDTJ Still-life selection of board games (Monopoly, Chess, Cluedo, Scrabble) with playing cards and gambling chips

Blaming the CEOs for all real and imaginable transgressions is a common thing these days. I’m not an exception myself: on more than one occasion, I argued that all major problems of the corporate innovation process stem from the lackluster performance of the folks who are ultimately in charge of it: the CEOs.

A recent study, however, suggests that the blame should at least be partly shared by the people very close to the culprits: the board members. The study shows that innovation does not rank very high on the list of top priorities for most corporate boards. It ranks number five, to be precise—well after concerns over attracting and retaining top talent, the regulatory environment, and competitive threats.

To give the boards members some credit, though, they’re quite honest about their own performance: only 42% of the respondents rated their boards’ processes for supporting innovation as above average or excellent (70% gave such a high ranking to their ability “to staying current on company”).

The authors of the study believe that one of the reasons for the boards’ poor performance on innovation is the board recruitment policies practiced by most companies. When asked which three areas of expertise the directors prioritized when filling open board seats, just 13% highlighted relevant technical expertise (which is supposed to be absolutely required for the innovation process). Instead, the boards typically looked for experience in their firms’ industry (51%), strategy (34%), or finance (30%).

There is one aspect of the study, however, that makes me somewhat uncomfortable: the use of the broad term “innovation” when applied to complex set of corporate activities the boards are supervising. What does “innovation” mean in this specific context? Is it the specific percentage of the company’s revenue set aside for R&D? Is it the precise ratio of the R&D funds allocated between incremental, “adjacent,” and radical innovation projects (a.k.a. the 3-Horizon Model of Innovation)? Is it a decision to create a position of Chief Innovation Officer (as opposed to running a less hierarchical model of corporate innovation)?

Those are real issues related to the corporate innovation process. Those are real questions that the directors must tackle on a regular basis. Lumping them indiscriminately under a convenient and easily recognizable umbrella term makes interpreting the survey results easy. Will this increase the boards’ attention to the innovation process? I doubt that.

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Freedom to innovate

In one of my recent posts, I listed specific socioeconomic factors that favor or obstruct corporate innovation. Some of them, such as termination or compensation policies and the way organizations treat their employees, are in full control of the organizations themselves; others, such as labor protection or bankruptcy laws, are specific to a country the organization operates in.

It turns out that other social policies, including those that, at first glance, shouldn’t have any immediate impact on innovation, do affect its rate. In an article, “High on Creativity: The Impact of Social Liberalization Policies on Innovation,” published in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of Strategic Management, Keyvan Vakili and Laurina Zang analyzed the effects of two social liberalization policies, the legalization of same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships and the legalization of medical marijuana, and one anti-liberalization policy, the passing of abortion restrictions, on the number of U.S. patents filed between 1994 and 2006. During this period, six states and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships, 11 states legalized medical marijuana, and 34 states passed restrictions on abortion.

Vakili and Zang show that the legalization of same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships increased state-level patenting by 6%, and the legalization of medical marijuana increased patenting by 7%. In contrast, the passing of an additional abortion restriction reduced patenting by about 1% (which roughly translates to about 21 fewer patents per year at the state level).

The authors explain their results by arguing that liberalization policies increase the rate of the innovation output through promoting more openness to diversity of input and opinions. They also speculate that social liberalization policies increase entrepreneurial entry through promoting more diverse social interactions.

To me, the above findings serve as an empirical proof of what I always knew. After all, the two arguably most innovative U.S. states, California and Massachusetts, have traditionally been the leaders of social liberalization: California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriages in 2004.

Vakili’s and Zang’s findings add to the results of a previous study showing that U.S. state-level employment nondiscrimination acts (ENDAs)—laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity—spur innovation. More specifically, the study found that U.S. public companies headquartered in states that have passed ENDAs experienced an 8% increase in the number of patents (and an 11% increase in their quality) relative to companies headquartered in states that have not.

There is no reason to argue, of course, that the LGBT folks or people smoking weed are intrinsically more innovative. My point is that innovation implies certain level of freedom, be it freedom from fear of failure or freedom from being discriminated for whatever reason. From this point of view, it’s not an accident that all the available lists of “the world’s most innovative countries” (such as, for example, the Global Innovation Index) are dominated by countries with liberal social policies, as judged by their strong labor protection and antidiscrimination laws.

The bottom line is simple: to innovate, one needs freedom. This applies to individuals, organizations, and whole countries.

The image was provided by Tatiana Ivanov

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Broken bone, anyone? “Crowdsourcing in reverse” on accidental injuries extends deadline!

This is a guest post written by Dr. Benjamin Missbach (, Project Manager at the Open Innovation in Science Center (Vienna, Austria) and a driving force behind the “Tell Us!” project.

People suffer accidents, right? In fact, many people around the world have many accidents, and, thankfully, there have been people developing and innovating in the field of ‘traumatology’ in recent decades. Not least, Austria has a great tradition of revolutionising the diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of accident patients (e.g., most famously on the part of Austrian physician and surgeon Dr. Lorenz Böhler).

Now, the Ludwig Boltzmann Gesellschaft (LBG) Center is taking another shot at revolutionising the field and systematically opening up the discipline by involving expert and patient crowds to contribute research questions that will bring innovation to the scientific discourse. We know there is quite a lot of value in the crowds’ knowledge — this goes beyond analysing data. Think of one of the hardest tasks scientists have in their day-to-day work: formulating research questions! Can anyone without explicit scientific background formulate innovative research questions?

Tell us!” is tackling exactly this challenge and calling for questions that experts and patients might have when dealing with accidental injuries: “What questions on accidental injuries does research need to address?” This crowdsourcing-in-reverse approach is at the core of the Austrian research organisation and was brought to life by the LBG Open Innovation in Science Center established in 2017. The overall goal is to spark new research in interdisciplinary research groups that will then tackle the most innovative research questions. From May 8th to August 31st, 2018, experts and patients around the world have an opportunity to contribute their questions on accidental injuries, with submissions already coming in from Pakistan, Australia, and the United States. To create still more buzz around ‘Tell us!’, support this project, spread the word or submit a research question. Broken bone, anyone?!

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A sober truth about drunk people

Harvard Business Review is a serious periodical not known for publishing frivolous content. Yet the tone of one of its features, “Professor X, defend your research,” in the latest (May-June 2018) issue, was far from academic.

Defending his research was Professor Andrew Jarosz of Mississippi State University, and the title of the HBR piece read “Drunk People Are Better at Creative Problem Solving.” Prof. Jarosz told how he treated a group of men ages 21 to 30 to vodka/cranberry juice in three drinks over a 30-minute period until their blood alcohol level reached near legal intoxication point of 0.075. He then gave them a series of word association problems to solve. The result? Tipsy subjects solved 13% to 20% more problems—and did it faster–than sober subjects in the control group.

Prof. Jarosz hypothesizes that people under the influence are more susceptible to the so-called mind wandering, which results in losing some focus but gaining the ability to see a “bigger picture.” This effect can be harmful in many situations requiring concentration but might be helpful in others where the ability to connect “dots” is more relevant.

Prof. Jarosz’ research is yet another, still very rare, piece of evidence showing the unexpected benefits of alcohol consumption. Back in 2006, Bethany Peters and Edward Stringham found that drinking earned 10-14% more than abstainers. Peters and Stringham hypothesized that the factor leading to higher earnings by drinking people was their increased social capital. Indeed, there was a difference between the so-called social and non-social drinkers: males who frequented bars at least once per month earned an additional 7% on top of the 10% drinkers’ premium.

Jokes aside, Prof. Jarosz’ research may turn out to be an important milestone in the study of human creativity. Ethyl alcohol, as opposed to many narcotics or drugs, is a simple chemical molecule, whose behavior in the body is reasonably well studied. Using this model, researchers may well start identifying specific neurochemical reactions in the brain which stimulate creativity, regardless of whether the creative individuals prefer Scotch or Perrier.

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