September 23, 2021

Corner Office: Andrew M. Thompson: Andrew Thompson of Proteus, on Direct Feedback

Q. Can you talk about how to create an innovative culture?

A. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 22 years in Silicon Valley, so that essentially creates a life that’s defined by doing things that are innovative and different. When you build a company or organization that’s going to take on those kinds of challenges, I think there are two things that are really important. 

One is that you reward innovative and new things in ways that are very obvious and are very visible — it’s the culture of what you talk about, what you celebrate, what you reward, what you make visible.  For example, in this company, which is very heavily driven by intellectual property, if you file a patent or have your name on a patent, we give you a little foam brain.

  But then, more important, right in our front lobby, there are shelves of big glass jars and everyone’s name in the company is on one of them — they’re like an apothecary jar.  And that’s where your brains go.  And so we have this huge wall that’s full of brains.   

There’s no money in it.  We don’t pay people to file patents because we’re an innovative company.  That’s part of your job. But we recognize it and we make it extremely visible.  Everyone who walks in the front door just looks and says “wow.” That’s a very specific and extremely powerful way that we promote and reward innovation.   

But there’s another thing that I think is probably a little less obvious: in the context of being an innovative company, it’s really important that you don’t penalize failure. In an innovative company, and particularly for a start-up company, you have to take risk. So you have to have a very strong bias to action over analytics, and for learning from mistakes and moving forward. 

That’s very much what I call a leadership culture as opposed to a management culture, and it’s very counterintuitive to many people who come from large organizations where failure is absolutely clobbered.   I want to be clear about this:   It’s not that you reward failure.  You don’t penalize it.  What you focus on much more is risk-taking and a bias to action.  So the real sin in a small company is not making a mistake, it’s not moving.  That doesn’t always mean you move in the right direction.  But if you discover you’re moving in the wrong direction, you change direction.  It’s fairly easy to see and to reward people who have those instincts.   

Q. Tell me more about that. 

A. In our company, at the senior team level, we talk about everybody in the company twice a year in a very structured way, where we spend several hours identifying people who we think are our golden seed.  These are people who have very strong leadership instincts, who understand how to move the ball forward. They know how to take risks, and how to either build on work that’s successful, or they are able to say that something doesn’t work, and let’s move on, let’s change that. And those people we try to promote quickly.

Q. How do you reinforce this in the culture of your company more broadly?

A. If we have something we want to celebrate or talk about — let’s say we promote someone or want to recognize someone, for example — we’ll talk about it in a meeting. A big part of building a culture is around stories, right?  So the stories have to be real, and they have to be vivid. If you’ve got someone who’s an effective risk taker, you make that very clear and you tell the story. You want these things to become legends.   

Q. What are some other things you do?   

A. Culture in our company is a really big deal, and we have a values system built around quality, teamwork and leadership.  One of the activities around that cultural framework is the idea that employees can recognize each other — groups or teams can recognize or be recognized by other employees for doing things that specifically demonstrate those values.   

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Microsoft Asks High Court to Hear Patent Case

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Microsoft Company, the world’s largest software maker, asked the Supreme Court on Monday to overturn a $290 million patent infringement judgment, a ruling that could have a profound affect on how corporations protect and profit from their inventions.

An eight-justice court on Monday heard arguments from the Microsoft, which wants the multimillion dollar judgment against it erased because it claims a judge used the wrong standard.

Business groups are closely watching the case. The federal government made more than $64 billion from international licensing and royalties from patents in 2009, with an expected growth rate of 15 percent a year. A ruling for Microsoft could make companies less likely to invest in inventions, but a ruling for i4i, the company which brought the lawsuit against Microsoft, could make it harder for large corporations to fight off such challenges.

“It’s a bad thing not to give protection to an invention that deserves it, and it is just as bad a thing to give protection to an invention that doesn’t deserve it. Both can seriously harm the economy,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said.

Toronto-based i4i sued Microsoft in 2007, saying it owned the technology behind a tool used in Microsoft Word. The technology in question gave Word 2003 and Word 2007 users an improved way to edit XML, which is computer code that tells the program how to interpret and display a document’s contents.

The lower courts said Microsoft willfully infringed on the patent, and ordered the world’s largest software maker to pay i4i $290 million and stop selling versions of Word containing the infringing technology.

Microsoft now sells versions of Word that do not contain the technology in question.

The legal issue debated by the court was over which standard should be used to by a jury to determine a patent’s validity: a “preponderance” of the evidence or a more heightened “clear and convincing” evidence standard.

Microsoft’s lawyer, Thomas G. Hungar, said Congress always intended to use the lower standard, especially when the Patent and Trademark Office has not considered all of the evidence. Microsoft contends that the patent office did not consider that i4i had used its HTML editor in software before receiving a patent.

Inventions are considered not patentable once they are in the public realm, a term called prior art.

”It makes no sense to have a heightened standard of proof when the relevant prior art evidence was never even considered by PTO,” Hungar said.

But i4i’s lawyer, Seth Waxman, said the Supreme Court has never ever agreed with that. ”There is not one opinion, there is not one sentence, there is not one phrase in any of this court’s line of decisions that supports that proposition,” Waxman said.

Chief Justice John Roberts did not take part in the consideration or the decision in this case. He reported owning $100,000 to $250,000 in Microsoft stock in 2009 on his annual disclosure report.

The court will rule later this year.

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