Innovation and collaboration

This morning BBC’s Breakfast show rounded off a week of articles about small enterprises in Britain. For the closing interview they chose the darling and poster child of British engineering and innovation Sir James Dyson. Dyson, who sounds a little like Mr Cholmondly-Warner and wouldn’t sound out of place as a 1930s BBC presenter himself, is of course the designer behind the famous Dyson vacuum cleaner, among various other household items.

What should have brought an end to the week with a stirring call to action for Britain’s front room innovators actually proved to be something of a downer. There were two points in particular that, in my opinion, Mr Dyson is wrong about and I would like to highlight those here.

Business Ownership

Firstly, when discussing getting started with an idea Dyson appeared to suggest that you should go it alone. He made the point that you may fall out with your friends or family to the detriment of the idea. While of course this is possible and clearly does happen I do not believe this is sage advice.

Businesses develop out of ideas. But ideas are not static concepts locked into a single point in time and space. Ideas evolve through collaboration, they are influenced by those people, objects and other ideas that surround them. A successful idea is one that develops to meet ever changing needs.

Great ideas, most of the time, come through collaboration. It’s difficult to impossible to pinpoint the exact time an idea came into being. Eureka moments, for example, represent a time when the missing piece of a bigger picture is discovered that brings everything together.

So if you’ve been batting an idea around with friends or colleagues, for some time, who really owns that idea? The chances are the idea that was first suggested has transformed considerably through discussion and, possibly, experimentation. In my view it’s unfair for the first person to voice an idea to claim ownership of it, without the input of others it’s likely it would have stayed still and never developed.

What’s more, entrepreneurship is not about one hit wonders, that single idea that you cling to until the end. It’s about creating the right environment and team that can continuously generate great ideas. To me, if that means going into partnership with friends or colleagues then that is a small price to pay. An effective team that generates lots of good ideas has to be better for the economy than a single good idea.

Patents

The second point I disagree with is around patents. When asked about patents, the cost and effectiveness of patents Dyson recommends that as soon as your idea has solidified then get it patented. The whole patent system is broken and out of date. If anything patents stifle innovation. Dyson even admits there are problems with enforcing the system.

In today’s commercial World, national boundaries are becoming meaningless. And yet the patent system is based on the nation state. There are international agreements in place but there is no international regime that can uphold and enforce patent infringements.

But it’s even worse than that, the World changes so fast these days that often the time it takes for a patent to be created, lodged and approved the idea is already out of date. Larger enterprises and patent trolls apply for overly vague ideas that are open to interpretation. Often discouraging smaller businesses from even daring to investigate an idea. Patents sit in the patent office files and often never reach the market. They never benefit from innovation and they certainly don’t help improve the economy.

Finally, for a small business struggling to get going with limited time and cash, taking time out of creating value in order to write a patent is waste. There are cases when the patent system can help, the right time, the right technology and the right industry. Having worried recently about this we thought hard about whether to put the time and money into a patent.

We decided to focus the time on innovation. We spend that time thinking about how we will out-innovate the competition. As I said before an idea is constantly evolving through our collaboration. If someone steals our idea it’s up to us to develop that along the most successful path. If someone else does it better than us, if they create more value for their customers and employees, then they deserve the credit.

It’s about collaboration

To me collaboration and openness leads to innovation. Sure there are gifted people out there that can rely entirely on their own skills and expertise and make the right decisions and create innovative solutions. But these people are rare, for the rest of us success comes through collaboration. If you’re thinking of starting a business and ownership of an idea is clearly yours then go for it. If not, the only way you’re going to make a success is to recognise each contributor for the value they provide.

Unfortunately the BBC do not make this TV programme available on the iplayer. A long commute puts several hours between watching the interview and writing this so I apologise if my memory has led me to misrepresent any of the ideas expressed by Sir James Dyson. I also appreciate that the interview was short which perhaps limited the context to the questions.

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