Invention harvesting

By Donal O’Connell

To invent:

To invent means to produce or contrive something previously unknown by the use of ingenuity or imagination. An inventor is therefore someone who invents, someone who devises some new process, appliance, machine, or article. When a new product appears, the person who first thought of it, and who first defined what the product should be, is recognised as the inventor. While many people may be involved in building the product and bringing it to market, the innovator is the person who provided the original idea that helped to define and shape the product.

Inventive ideas can take many forms. They can be disruptive, transformative, radical, breakthrough, incremental or step improvement in nature. They can be product, service, process or business model related.

The Stone Age did not end because they ran out of stones.  The inventive process involves ambiguity, controversy and non-linearity and this poses a certain challenge to many companies interested in properly managing this  process.

Like infantry officers who will instruct their drummers to deliberately disrupt cadence while crossing a bridge, in case the resonance of uniformly marching soldiers brings calamity, a lesson can perhaps be drawn for use in the inventive process.  Dissonance can be a contributor and a state of disagreement and disharmony may sometimes be just what is needed to generate and foster inventive ideas.

About invention harvesting:

Invention harvesting is a process designed to keep a group’s creative juices flowing and to involve everyone within that group in the creative process in order to come up with a a good set of possible inventive ideas.

A number of process steps need to be completed in order to guarantee  successful invention harvesting. The following process steps are recommended …

  • Scoping
  • Sorting out the admin issues
  • Customizing the education material
  • Preparing a communication plan
  • Arranging the invention harvesting session
  • Conducting the actual invention harvesting session
  • Evaluating the ideas generated at the invention harvesting session
  • Reporting on the output from the invention harvesting session 

Techniques and tools to help with idea generation:

A large number of techniques or tools exist which may be utilized to help with inventive idea generation at the actual invention harvesting session. A few examples are provided here just for reference …

  • Brainstorming: Use an independent facilitator then follow the four rules – no criticism or debate, quantity over quality, freewheel and mutate & combine.
  • Challenging: This works by simply posing a challenge, and then dissecting that challenge, and identifying possibly solutions. It is also useful to ask what are the challenges today, but what will be the challenges tomorrow.
  • Competitor analysis: This works by firstly providing details on the leading competitors – their products, services and key technologies, their business model and general mode of operation plus their customers, partners and supplies with special focus on their customer intimacy, and secondly then poses the challenge of what is required to surpass these competitors
  • Convergence: Think about the possibilities when two or more known things converge, and what might emerge from such an coming together.
  • The Kipling method (5W1H)) or Six Hats method: Ask simple questions (what, where, when, how, why and who) for great answers. It is extended by going beyond the use of the raw single word questions.

Mind-mapping: This is a technique based on the hierarchical break-down of an issue. It is drawn in a tree shaped format. At the beginning of the session, one identifies the main problem or topic that you want to explore and write it, in a short phrase, in the middle of a blank piece of paper. Branches and sub-branches are added to then build up the mind-map. Different colours can be used to help with navigating the mind-map.

  • Reversal: Look at the problem backwards. Any form of perverse, backwards or other-sighted thinking is allowed.
  • Scamper: Using action verbs as stimuli. SCAMPER is an acronym for useful list of words that can be applied as stimuli to make you think differently about the problem area.
    • Substitute
    • Combine
    • Adapt
    • Modify
    • Put to other uses
    • Eliminate
    • Re-arrange

What can you substitute? What can be used instead? Who else instead? What other ingredients? Other material? Other process? Other power? Other place? Other approach? Other sounds? Other forces?

  • Value Engineering: Deep analysis to understand and innovate in areas of key value. Value analysis (and its design partner, value engineering) is used to increase the value of products or services to all concerned by considering the function of individual items and the benefit of this function and balancing this against the costs incurred in delivering it. The task then becomes to increase the value or decrease the cost.

Format of the invention harvesting session:

The facilitator is responsible for ensuring that the invention harvesting  session is run according to plan and that the idea generation techniques or tools are utilized as they should be. Some techniques or tools are quick to use, others take longer. Some better suit 1:1 sessions while others are really only of value in a group setting. Some are logical in nature while others are more psychological. The facilitator will be more comfortable with some of the techniques and will tend to gravitate towards using those specific ones anyway.

Depending on the size of the group involved, it may be worthwhile to split the group into small diverse teams. One should avoid ‘friends’ being in the same teams as it is best when people are taken outside of their comfort zone.

It is also important to note that the format of the invention harvesting  session should be adjusted to best suit the participants, and to best encourage the creative juices to flow.

Getting a diverse mix of participants into any invention harvesting session is important, and one should try and insist that if there is to be an invention harvesting session held, then there should be involvement from different functions and even different business units. This may be a luxury, but experience has shown that different functions and/or business units have different ways of thinking, and typically have a different take on ideas. For example a design may provide the blue sky vision or ergonomic idea but may be assisted by a more commercially minded person may have a more practical viewpoint and who maybe can expand upon a blue sky or ergonomic idea. A researcher will probably be very technically focused and may not be too concerned about some of the implementation practicalities, whereas a developer working in product development may be more willing to consider such practicalities and maybe can provide a stabilizing effect on others. If there are have too many people from the one function and/or business unit, then there is that risk that they are churning or discussing like minded concepts that they may even have discussed earlier and so there is a lack of stimulus.

Having management buy-in is crucial. Having a manager come along and just say a few words about innovation and creativity at the beginning of the invention harvesting session is very valuable and should be strongly encouraged.

An administrator attending to support the facilitator can be crucial especially if the group is big and the volumes of ideas being generated is large.

List of ideas generated:

It is most important that a record is kept of the ideas generated at the invention harvesting session. A spread-sheet as defined here should be the minimum completed.

Title of idea Description of   idea Category of the   idea Originator of the   idea Next action   agreed

There are various software tools available to get with idea capture if desired. Once the tool has been populated, the ideas then have to be evaluated and rated, and again there are techniques available to help with completing these steps in the invention harvesting process.

Lateral vs vertical thinkers / left vs right sided brain people:

Not everyone is creative in a group setting as they may be reticent to open up in front of others. Not everyone is analytical, careful and precise. Not everyone takes the data around a problem and analyzes it with defined methodologies to find logical solutions.

Left brain: Right brain :
Logical Random
Sequential Intuitive
Rational Holistic
Analytical   (separating a whole into into its parts) Synthesizing   (combining two or ore diverse elements into one new element)
Objective Subjective
Looks at the   parts Looks at the whole
Better with   numbers and text Better with   images

It is therefore important to consider using different techniques or tools which appeal to lateral and vertical thinkers as well as left and right brained individuals . It is also worth considering the fact that not every innovative or creative person will be ‘at home’ in an invention harvesting session and there may be a need for some 1:1 sessions with some individuals to get their creative juices flowing and to gather their inventive ideas.

Do not always expect immediate results

Sometimes, the first invention harvesting session does not yield great results. Often times the goal of the first invention harvesting session is to get the participants out of their comfort zone, yet comfortable with the facilitator, thinking differently about innovation and creativity, and at ease with some of the techniques listed.


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