What is the Invention Process?
How do people invent?

Problem-Solution as an Invention Process

I have spent a great deal of time in the past attending opposition hearings in the European Patent Office (the EPO). One of the concepts that got drilled into my head doing that is what is called the problem-solution approach. It was often used by the senior examiners in those hearings to clarify what the invention was in a patent.

It is simple in concept - you try to clearly define what is the problem that the inventor is trying to solve - and then define what is the inventors solution. That is then the invention. It is a very useful thought process because in some patents the invention is not always clearly obvious.

To me that becomes an answer to the above question - what is the invention process? Good inventors are people who see needs. Yes - it is important to then develop a solution to the need - but I have always felt we are dealing with a variation of the Pareto principle here. 80% of a good invention is clearly recognizing the problem to be solved. Once that is done good engineers can often come up with solutions. But many good engineers never develop novel inventions because they don't spend enough time clearly defining problems.

The other approach to the invention process is of course to think about what you are good at and try to invent something that makes use of your expertise. But that , in my view, is far less effective.

There are some people who are professional inventors - by that I mean they consider themselves inventors and they do it for a living. I am convinced that people who do that spend most of their time (the 80%) simply carefully looking at activities around them and thinking about problems in those activities.

But if you are not a full time inventor you can still use problem-solution as an invention process in whatever your field is.

But What about the Accidental Inventions?

Of course there are always exceptions to problem-solution. But they are hard to plan. Some well known accidental inventions include the story that Goodyear invented the process for vulcanizing rubber by accidentally adding sulfur to melted rubber. And in my old company - DuPont - we always heard the story that Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon when he left a fluorine based gas stored in a freezer and later discovered the it had converted to a very slippery polymer.

These are great stories and probably true ( I have never tried to confirm them) but even these accidents require a very astute and curious inventive mind that can recognize something potentially valuable in a surprise development. And once they see the new result I think their minds quickly begin imagining problems that might be solved by this solution.

The Flash of Genius

I am somewhat of a contrarian here. I simply think the flash of genius is not a legitimate explanation for most inventions. It is true that many times the solution to a problem might occur very quickly to an inventor. I have seen it happen. But it is usually the result of a much longer process of turning a defined problem over and over mentally and imagining many different solutions. Once the mind is in that state it is more receptive to having that flash of genius hit - sometimes in the middle of the night - maybe in the shower. It is in effect a fallout of the problem-solution approach.

If you disagree let me know.

Creativity - Ideas - Inventions - Innovation

There has been a lot of talk about these words over the years. People have widely different views about them and often use the terms interchangeably when in fact they mean different things. I am not going to get into Webster's type definitions but I do have my own slant on these things.

I have always pushed back on the notion that inventive people are just wired differently and just naturally come up with wild ideas out of the blue. Some of the most creative people I have known have always deep down had a disciplined approach to problem solving - even when it looked like they were just blue sky day dreamers. And the really successful ones were the ones who could drive down that chain - to make ideas into inventions and inventions into marketplace innovations.

My other heresy is I believe that those kinds of disciplines can be taught - and learned. But where do you turn?

An approach that intrigues me is one like this one at Creative-Innovator.com. They are teaching a synthesis of creativity, innovation, and design. The site is young and still growing but is putting the right ingredients into place. You might want to check them out.

Which One is Best to the US Patent Office?

So which invention process is considered a real invention by the US patent office and which is not? Neither the US Patent Office or US patent courts really care. The criteria for inventiveness is what we have talked about before - a comparison to prior art. This is defined is 35 USC § 102 and § 103. In fact 35 USC § 103 addresses the question of the manner the invention was made in the following language: "Patentability shall not be negated by the manner in which the invention was made." So a good invention process can be a flash of genius , an accident, or just good analysis and disciplined work at the problem solution approach - they are all just fine..

And one good thing that helps you do all of these things better is (in my opinion) is a disciplined approach to documenting your work - not just for others - but for you. We will talk about that later when discussing keeping an inventors notebook.



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Mike Ervin
Mike Ervin - Cost Effective Small Business Patent Protection.

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