New Concept Networks – A counterintuitive tool for faster innovation

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Innovation stands for various actions we take to create something new and useful.

To prove novelty, we have to explain how the outcomes of all that effort – the invention – relates, and specifically differs, from all that’s already available, so-called prior art.

To prove usefulness, we have to produce evidence that it is being used by our target audience.

To show both novelty and usefulness, we have to define the invention. Its definition, as long as it precisely, accurately, and clearly identifies its properties, will help us identify comparable ideas, artifacts, products, services, and from there let us build an explanation of novelty. The invention’s definition is crucial to generating evidence for (and against) usefulness: to build, deliver, and see if and how it is used, we must define it.

How and when do you make a definition of an invention? A patent specification, an integral part of a patent application, is an example of an exhaustive definition of the invention. However, a patent specification is made after the ideas around the invention are stable, when the inventors are ready to submit a patent application. That moment is only the end of an innovation process, during which inventors came up with new ideas, researched prior art, prototyped (parts of) the invention to try it out with a sample of their target audience, collected feedback, changed their ideas, and performed many such iterations over and over, to build confidence that the invention will in fact become an innovation, once it goes to market.

Here is a simple observation: during innovation, inventors have to describe new ideas in order to communicate about them, and they have to do this well before these ideas are stable enough to justify the effort of producing their exhaustive specifications, or detailed and structured definitions. These descriptions are necessary for coordination – how else can we agree on what to prototype, make, deliver, and get feedback on?

If innovators have to produce descriptions of their new ideas throughout their innovation process, because they have to communicate and coordinate with others about them, and if we eventually want to have an exhaustive definition, or specification of the invention when ideas on it are mature enough, then we should consider the following question.

What if we wanted to have precise, accurate, clear, documented definitions of the invention during the innovation process, from its earliest moments, and not only at its end?

This question motivated my efforts when working with inventors over the past ten years, and eventually led to the tool called New Concept Network. Any New Concept Network is made of

  • new terms used to describe and explain the invention,
  • their definitions,
  • relationships between definitions of new terms, and
  • relationships between definitions of new terms and definitions of “old” terms, that is, those which have not been newly defined or redefined in descriptions and explanations of the invention; “old terms” will carry over their definition from ordinary language, or if they are technical terms of a specific discipline, the technical definition they there have.

Making an New Concept Network during innovation forces everyone involved to be precise, accurate, and clear about new ideas, and about how these new ideas relate to established ones, even if these new ideas may be changed or thrown away soon after they are defined.

With the question above, and New Concept Networks, I wanted to understand if producing precise, accurate and clear definitions throughout innovation impedes innovation, or if it can be done in a way which is helpful.

It is non-controversial to say that we want to innovate faster rather than slower. We want to rapidly go from early new ideas to more mature new ideas, since the faster we go to market, the earlier we will see the invention in all its glory, or see it fail. But the first new ideas are rarely the same as last new ideas an innovation process: an innovation process will rarely stabilize the earliest new ideas; instead, there will be disagreement about the new ideas, learning about what works and what doesn’t, ideas will be confronted with the behavior and expectations of a sample target audience.

Innovation can involve many iterations, during which new ideas will give place to newer ones, that is, the invention itself will be changing. If change is the constant of innovation, then why invest an additional effort into producing precise, accurate, and clear definitions of ideas which we know will change, and can change very quickly?

Why not go through the chaos of innovation with low quality descriptions, and wait for there to be enough confidence to be bothered with precision, accuracy, and clarity of the invention’s definition?

I argue that we should invest effort to produce precise, accurate, and clear definitions of new ideas during innovation, even if we reject them immediately after producing such definitions. In other words, I argue that innovation processes should embrace the paradox of wanting to be precise, accurate, and clear about unstable ideas.

The reason to embrace the paradox turns out to be simple. During innovation, new ideas change through confrontation: innovators confront each other on how to change the invention to improve it, they confront the realities of the environment in which the invention is expected to be used, they confront expectations and existing behaviors of their target audience, and so on. In absence of confrontation, why change the earliest new ideas? Why have them in the first place?

If confrontation is central to progress through new ideas in an innovation process, and if we want faster innovation, then we should generate confrontations more more rapidly. This is where definition comes in: if one is imprecise, vague, ambiguous about one’s new ideas, then it is harder to find what to confront them on. Instead, if one is precise, accurate, and clear, then it is easier for others to identify what they disagree with. In other words, being precise, accurate and clear about new ideas in innovation, is an open invitation for disagreement, one which is easier to accept and act on for others.

Over the past ten years, I have been leading and participating in innovation processes in companies in USA, UK, Denmark, Belgium, and Israel, where we invented new software products and services, and eventually helped build new organizations around them. We dedicated substantial effort to make precise, accurate, and clear definitions of new ideas from the very start of each innovation process, when new ideas were changing daily.

These definitions were related, as each used terms from others. Definitions and their relationships formed what I call ”New Concept Network” in this book; as we will see, this is neither a terminology, nor an ontology, but can be a precursor to either.

We recorded, documented, designed, and improved a New Concept Network in each innovation process. They were available to everyone involved: inventors, investors, lawyers, product designers, product managers, software architects, software engineers, and non-technical staff. It was relevant in all topics, from corporate strategy and finance, marketing and sales, production, business operations, research and development, delivery, maintenance. Benefits went beyond facilitated communication and teamwork, for local and remote team members. The NDN became a core asset for preserving, analyzing, improving, and documenting intellectual property, spanning business documentation, requirements and software specifications, marketing and sales material, as well as serving legal professionals who assisted the assessment and protection of intellectual property.