Archive for January, 2012


Innovation Through Crowdsourcing: Congratulations to “All Your Shreds Are Belong to U.S.”

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Contests can be one of the most interesting innovation tools. With the right challenge and incentives, creative groups from across the world can help invent and innovate rapidly. The creativity of crowds fueled by a content was just demonstrated in the Shredder Challenge contest that was launched October 2011 by the U.S. government’s DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). DARPA wanted to know what could be achieved with computer tools in reassembling shredded documents to recover the originals. Since many different approaches were possible, this was an excellent candidate for crowdsourcing. Rather than hire a huge team for a short while to pursue many different paths, or use a small team pursuing many paths over a long period of time, just throw this one out to the crowds for healthy competition. The objective in this competition was to create a system for reconstructing shredded documents. The system would have to demonstrate success by reassembling the shreds from five documents whose shredded remains were posted on a website. As reported at Gizmag, the “All Your Shreds Are Belong to U.S.” team won the $50,000 prize for this contest by assembling all five documents two days before the Dec. 4 deadline. Given the hours that the winning team put into this competition, $50,000 was a very good deal for DARPA (and the American taxpayers) and not such a good deal for the winning team. If you consider all the thousands of additional hours put in by many other teams working on the competition, DARPA got quite a lot for a small investment.

Companies can and do this kind of thing as well, with varying degrees of success. Capturing the imagination of people with the skills needed for the problem is the key. Prizes help, along with fame and bragging rights. Intellectual property issues can get in the way for some companies. I’ll point to Local Motors as one of the leading examples of for-profit crowdsourcing. Their business model is sophisticated and highly refined, something I’ve written about here previously.

As for the hilarious title of the winning group, you might enjoy reviewing the history of the classic phrase, “All your base are belong to us.”

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Chinese Auto Innovation Rolling Westward

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The impact of innovation in China is often not obvious to the West, even when many gadgets like the iPhone draw upon innovations from China and Taiwan that make many Western products possible. Not many Chinese brands have spread outside the borders of China, leading some observers to question the significance of Chinese innovation in full-fledged products and not just components or manufacturing methods. China is just beginning to learn how to develop brands that will succeed in the West. The apparent dearth of brand-based innovation from China should change in the coming decade. Some of the front-runners might be found in the automotive industry.

The Chinese automobile brand, Chery, is already rolling westward. A friend of mine spotted it on-sale in Kiev, Russia, and sent me these photos (photos courtesy of Martin Daffner). Chery, now one of China’s leading exporters, began exports in 2001 to Syria and now sells its cars in the European nations of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey and Italy (per Wikipedia) and as of 2012 will be marketing also in Australia, Singapore, and South Africa. Chery’s strategy is to expand in developing countries first and then enter more developed countries.

As Chinese brands move to the West, we will increasingly see Chinese companies getting their IP stolen unless they take proactive steps early to protect it. It’s already happening in the realm of trademarks, as Li Yongbo reports in the China Daily article, “More Chinese brands victims of IPR violations.”

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First, Align All the Lawyers

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Many companies seeking innovation overlook their own internal barriers to innovation success. One of the biggest barriers can be their own attorneys. Lawyers are needed for many aspects of innovation, such as drafting the agreements with partners in open innovation and protecting IP with patents, trademarks, and other intellectual assets. The skill of a good lawyer who understands the business and its needs will often make the difference between success and disaster. But frequently non-lawyers fail to recognize how broad the spectrum of lawyer quality is and how non-standardized and diverse the practice of law can be. People with a technical or financial background, who are used to seeking and finding “correct answers” in problems of math, engineering, and accounting, might not recognize how subjective and variable in style and outcome the work of lawyers can be. More specifically, they might not recognize how ridiculous and counterproductive the work of their attorneys is.

In working with various companies seeking to promote innovation, I’ve sometimes watched in horror as a single misguided attorney not only impedes deals but even destroys relationships as he or she seeks short-term gains that destroy the long-term potential in a relationship. The tone of an attorney’s work can exude distrust and harshness at a time when trust and friendship needs to be built. Opportunities can be destroyed by an attorney urging the client to twist the screws to extort unreasonable gains from a potential partner, by pushing for extreme terms, by treating every encounter with the outside world or with inside employees as an adversarial relationship to be won at all costs. I’ve seen good innovators walk away from partnerships or even from their own companies through the antics of poor lawyers.

When it comes to innovation and partnerships, managers must not assume that their legal team know what they are doing (in spite of genuine excellence in the letter of the law), and instead must take steps to educate the attorneys about the relationships they wish to build, the tone they wish to convey, and the long-term goals they seek. Innovation success may require aligning your legal team with the not only the business goals but the principles to be pursued, the relationships to be strengthened and the spirit and character they wish to show.

Don’t take Shakespearean extremes. Rather, first simply align all you lawyers. Then you’ll be a little more likely to overcome innovation fatigue.

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