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Trina McFarland: Concept Management – Waterslides and Engines

I recently came across Ken Gruhl’s White Paper on concept documentation and something resonated with me – “the firehose of never-ending concepts that come across my desk.” We all talk invention, pitches, trends and all the fun stuff often. We don’t, however, talk that much about the necessary process-related stuff like concept management.

I appreciated Ken’s practical approach to managing his creative flow into TRASH, TEST and FINALIZE documents, and it got me thinking. If an inventor experiences a firehose worth of concepts across their desk, an Inventor Relations professional/department engaging with hundreds of “Kens” is standing at the bottom of a waterslide gushing 3-5k concepts a year. Armed with a teaspoon and tasked to get the relevant spoonfuls to buckets lined up on the edge of our pool. Quickly.

This is the toy industry and those buckets don’t wait! We have to move about quickly, but also carefully. Inventor Relations is one of the most litigious functions of a company. We handle external IP. We transcribe and document every ripple and movement of the water for everyone’s sakes.

You never see or hear the Inventor Relations professional furiously clicking and clacking away to move those spoonfuls to where they need to be, at exactly the right time, via whatever concept management engine we’re using. But we are. And it turns out, engines do matter.

My overly dramatic analogy aside, any professional that deals with a high volume of concepts inevitably faces a hard truth -- managing concepts is time consuming. How you approach managing them and what engine you’re driving with won’t necessarily make or break you, but it can make you exceptionally better. In my case, in Inventor Relations, the right engine can improve performance, responsiveness and better protect both inventors and manufacturers. Because, although rare, misunderstandings happen. When they do, it’s our job to prevent a ripple from turning into a tidal wave. Again, for everyone’s sakes.

If you were curious, the Inventor Relations concept management workflow looks something like this:

1. Qualification

This is when we confirm that a concept meets our criteria. It’s secured with the right paperwork & in the right format. The basics.

2. Vetting

This is when we do a first pass to prepare for client evaluation. Is it feasible, unique, relevant, on brand, or different enough to justify a new brand?

3. Presentation

This is when we dig in with clients, review and discuss opportunities in detail and, again, refine down which concepts are viable for our current needs. We determine what will be held for further evaluation.

4. Evaluation

This is when we get into cost, confirm positioning, and ensure all the internal checkpoints a manufacturer must clear happen before making a financial commitment to a concept.

5. Secured

This is when a concept is secured with an option, development or license agreement.

6. Celebrate

I’m often so focused on driving in new items, and playing cupid, I rarely pause to celebrate the wins. I need to do a better job of this. Thank you to Jill Moore for reminding me of this.

Now, pair that 3-5k waterslide analogy of volume with the above concept management workflow. It’s a lot to move and takes discipline to do it responsibly. We all manage it in different ways. Some Inventor Relations departments and professionals use Excel, Google Drive and Sheets, AirTable, Wrike, Zoho, or have big budget, first-in-class proprietary portals built by idea management companies (yes, that’s a thing). We all have functional engines that drive at different speeds with different features. Some are fancy. Some come with leather. Some -- like my first ‘86 Chevy Celebrity -- have a milk crate holding up the driver’s seat. I loved that car and its sputtering engine. I did. It got me where I needed to go. But, it wasn’t the nicest of rides and when I did get to where I was going, I was usually exhausted from holding on for dear life.

In all seriousness, I knew after onboarding my 7th client that I was up against a unique challenge when it came to my waterslide(s) and engine needs. Managing Inventor Relations for multiple clients across most categories is a unique challenge. The existing engines I’m aware of (and I’ve researched most) aren’t going to cut it. Not up to my standards and needs anyway. So I’m working hard to identify and deliver a unique, best-in-class solution for TinkerTini, my clients and the inventing community. Why? Because my happy place is in front of the waterslide with my spoon, trying to make water ballet out of a flood. And I’m definitely going to need a bigger engine. And more spoons.

To be continued…

So if you know WHAT you do, great. You’re halfway there. To get all the way there, in style, start thinking more about the HOW you do it and what you’re driving. I sure am!

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