Creative business leaders look beyond their own industry to solve problems

“Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, artists, zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”
(Steve Jobs on the team that worked on the first Macintosh)

In the mid-1990s, senior management at 3M became concerned by incremental innovation. Too much of its revenue was coming from changes in existing product lines. Breakthroughs were drying up. To flip the situation, 3M management set a bold objective – to obtain 30% revenue from products that did not exist four years ago.

To hit this lofty goal, senior leadership realised that it had to change its approach to discovering breakthrough ideas. It decided to look beyond its own industry to find tried-and-tested solutions in other sectors and adapt them to its business needs. The rationale was that other industries have faced more extreme forms of the same problem and found solutions. Accordingly, team members began acquainting themselves with a new systematic process, called ‘lead user research’, to find breakthrough ideas outside their domains. This process is fundamentally different from conventional techniques for information scouting.

Prevalent approachLead user research
Analyse sales data, customer complaints and requests, field survey data to collect informationCollect information about a solution and a need from markets that faces a similar, but more extreme version of the problem
Rely on its own creative powers to generate new ideasRely on savvy lead users’ knowledge to find solutions
Collect information about a solution and a need from markets that faces a similar, but more extreme version of the problemDevelopment team assumes that someone (a savvy user outside the company) has already developed the solution. They need to track savvy users and adapt their solution as per the business need


Was the technique fruitful?

One of the teams found that R&D being carried out on new ways to develop high-resolution images, which could help to detect an early stage tumour. Using the lead user method, the team identified several radiologists, whose solution was ahead of other products in the market. The team asked the radiologists for a further lead; they in turn pointed the team towards pointed them to pattern recognition specialists and specialists working on images that show fine details in semiconductor chips. The pattern recognition specialists were military reconnaissance experts, whose insight proved to be valuable to the team as they had worked a great deal on computerised pattern recognition. It was vital to know whether a shape in an image is a stone lying under a tree or the tip of a ballistic missile.

Thus, the military recce experts helped the team at 3M to refine its goal. It went from finding methods to generate high-resolution images to finding a way to recognise medical patterns such as tumours in images – a superior goal to the one that the team had started with.

Patent analytics as alternative strategy to find solutions from analogous industries

There was a time when IP teams were the only ones using patent analytics tools, which they applied to benchmark their own patent portfolio against competitors’ and find insights into whether key features of a product were patent protected.

Today, patents are not used for devising and executing defensive/offensive strategies only. R&D departments in organisations are using patents relevant to their field and the know-how of domain experts to construct a knowledge base. For example, Kitamura in “Deployment of an Ontological Framework of Functional Design Knowledge” (Advanced Engineering Informatics, Vol 18, Issue 2, pp 115-127) explains the use of a patent map as a means of understanding a specific domain.

Further, seasoned patent analytics professionals enjoy the distinct advantage when it comes to finding solutions from analogous industries for multiple reasons. In general, they will work on technologies in multiple domains during their career. This exposes them to problems and, subsequently, their solutions across different industries. Thus, their experience comes in handy when finding an analogous industry in which a problem has already existed and been solved.

Besides this, patent analytic professionals utilise data visualisation techniques to find analogous industries. Spatial patent mapping is one such technique. Patent documents from other industries that are solving the same or similar problems are moved closer together and the less similar are placed further away.

Consider a researcher working on cosmetics packaging. They can use patent analytics to find alternative industries from which they can adopt solutions. For example, search queries and spatial maps show that patents that were filed for packaging in the cosmetics industry are closely related to those filed in the food industry.

Other common popular techniques of patent analytics such as citation analysis, patent filing trends, inventor analysis and problem-solution analysis can help to find an analogous industry and a solution that could be adapted to solve a problem in another industry.

The problems that the tobacco industry and their R&D teams are dealing with provide a good example. Studying patent filing trends, it becomes apparent that in one leading tobacco companies, more than 20% of its filings revolved around power management. On the other hand, only 4% of its patent filing was for aerosols – the chief component of the cigarette.

This meant that the company had been trying to implement power management solutions in its e-cigarettes. Looking at the situation, it was clear that the problem of power management had existed in several other domains as well. The smartphone and smart wearable industry have faced this problem in a more extreme form in the past.

These industries have also solved this problem in their own domains. Thus, a tobacco company that wants to enhance its products’ power management capabilities can utilise solutions that have already been tested and implemented in other industries. Instead of investing millions in in-house research, it could have directly utilised these solutions through a licensing deal or a partnership.

This is an Insight article, written by a selected partner as part of IAM's co-published content. Read more on Insight

Unlock unlimited access to all IAM content