A (IP) Solution Looking For a Problem
Looked at through the lens of another profession, we can often see truths about the IP professional that we may not otherwise see. Selling is one of those other professions that can shine a light on a very common IP problem.
Anyone who has ever been in sales for any period of time will recognize that one of the hardest sales to make is that of the “solution looking for a problem.” This is an all too common problem facing salespeople that often develops when a company creates an elegant solution for one customer and then attempts to roll that solution out to other customers without due consideration of its universal fit. So as a person who has been in the IP space for nearly twenty years, and who has spent much of that time with a business development/sales responsibility, it is always curious to me how people selling the need for a Chief Intellectual Property Officer, IP strategist, or otherwise titled strategic IP function in their given organization often approach their internal sales problem in this difficult-to-sell way.
While not privy to all the details about their formation, if you look back at the storied IP initiatives (solutions) that many people have sought to emulate, Texas Instruments assertions, Dow IAM, IBM licensing, P&G open innovation, you will likely find that there was a rather specific problem or opportunity that the creators of those programs addressed that became a driving force behind the internal sales effort that created the corresponding and high-profile IP strategy roles. In these instances, there was a recognized problem or opportunity looking for a solution – for example, Texas Instruments about to go under as a business despite its valuable IP portfolio – that demanded a strategic IP function to solve. A solution to a recognized problem or opportunity, even when that solution needs to be created, is a much easier sale to make than to first sell to an enterprise that they have a problem or opportunity and then that they need your solution, even and sometimes especially if your solution has already been defined.
Any person seeking to build a strategic IP function or role needs to step away from the solutions they may have in mind and look for real problems or opportunities first. This can be a challenge. If, for example, you came from an environment where you successfully built a strategic licensing program, then you may have a natural tendency to look at a new situation or new enterprise and ask, to effect, “How can I make a strategic licensing program work here?” That would set you up for the “solution looking for a problem” scenario and a potentially very difficult road to travel. You need to step back, look at the enterprise afresh, and ask what are the recognized problems or opportunities here that an IP strategy program can address? Those solutions and your role at building them, even if they will need to be defined and created, are the solutions business leaders want to hear about.