Strategy is almost a foul word today, the result of too many costly, high-level strategy projects in which considerable effort concludes with a fancy presentation that is neither actionable nor practical. All too often, such projects fail to provide adequate information for companies to make sound strategic decisions, defeating the whole purpose. Weeks or months of staff time and large sums of money get squandered without tangible benefits to show for it.
In my job role, I develop commercialization and intellectual property strategies for technologies developed by PARC researchers. This includes conducting technology assessments, valuations and competitive landscape analyses, along with creating IP licensing programs or new businesses to promote the use of PARC’s technologies.
To be effective, IP strategies must be actionable and decision-driven. They also need to be more holistic. The methodical process starts by identifying the critical business decisions you need to make and the business outcomes you want to achieve over the next couple of years. Should you enter a new market? Invest or divest in a certain product or service? License a technology, or spin out a new business from it? Which approach will produce the most successful commercialization of a certain technology?
Once you have a set of key decisions, the next step will be to define what information you need to make the decisions and what must hold true for you to achieve the desired outcomes. Some of the information and actions will relate directly to intellectual property, and some will involve other parts of the business — for example, a startup project that will need to initiate another funding round in 18 months and is looking for a valuation of $100 million (the outcome). What actions should they take between now and then to achieve this goal (key business decisions)?
Next, it is important to identify main success drivers and/or value drivers. The success drivers are unique for each business and the market it operates in, but they typically fall under one or more of the following categories: talent, technology, market power, brand, and business model. For instance, take two different cloud services companies: Company A is in the very early stages of productization of a new cloud service that is based on a new software architecture that allows for better scalability. A beta version of the product has just been released, and primary users are cloud computing enthusiasts. Company B has also developed a technology that enables a highly scalable cloud computing platform, but compared to company A, they are approaching series C funding and have three large enterprise accounts that generate recurring revenue. Although Company A and B are tech-based companies operating in the same market with similar value propositions, the success and value drivers are likely different. For company A, the talent is probably the key driver at this stage, whereas Company B’s main driver is likely the technology or the business model.
Once you’ve determined these factors for success, it’s essential to conduct a gap analysis to assess the current situation and design the best path forward to reach your goals. Each gap analysis is based on a series of probing questions to identify the state of your company’s competitive position in the market. Questions such as what are our biggest strengths today? What weaknesses or shortcomings make us potentially vulnerable? What does the market really want, and is anyone serving that need? Then from that assessment, where is there a market opening that’s ripe for new opportunities?
Next comes the process of choosing the most effective actions to enhance your strengths and guard against your weaknesses. These actions should be ranked in terms of their likely impacts and their overall feasibility for achieving the desired outcome through successful execution. Remember that detailed planning serves as a roadmap, but if you can’t execute on your plan, you’re certain to veer off course along the way.
Let’s consider the case of Company A, which has determined its key driver for a successful exit involves its talent. In this case, investments should be made towards hiring and retaining the best people to further the business, rather than filing for expensive patent applications.
In the other case of company B, the main driver for success involves its proprietary software and supporting technologies. If the company’s ability to prevent rivals from copying that software is weak, then its investments and actions should be applied to shore up this potentially fatal flaw. For this reason, Company B should intelligently invest in trade secret, patent, and copyright protection.
In the end, an IP strategy has no intrinsic value in itself – it only has value by enabling you to make good decisions and achieve your desired business goals. Yet to realize a positive outcome, IP strategies must be actionable. Without a solid plan of action, all the fancy, hand-waving presentations in the world won’t produce an effective result.
Lisa Rythen Larsson is an interdisciplinary commercialization strategy manager in the Intellectual Capital Management team for PARC, a Xerox company.