Secrets of Innovation from a Top Inventor

October 18, 2016
By Scott Frank

Patents are a big deal for our company. It took more than 100 patents or patent applications for new technology to make Project AirGig possible – a technology developed by AT&T Labs that could one day deliver low-cost, multi-gigabit wireless internet speeds using power lines.

It’s no surprise the most valuable asset behind our Intellectual Property (IP) program comes from the great minds of our people. Dale Malik, Director – Innovation and Ecosystems, has had a lot to celebrate during his 33 years at AT&T, including his latest achievement. The US Patent and Trademark Office recently granted Dale his 200th patent!

As one of our top inventors, Dale’s behind countless innovations that make our day-to-day lives easier. He’s led the charge to cut down on spam and viruses in your inbox, got rid of that dreaded busy signal when someone else was using dial-up in the house, pioneered voice caller ID, and made it possible to use your smart phone to set your DVR.

Dale and other innovators work with our IP team to identify and safeguard new ideas that become products and solutions one day.

One of Dale’s recent patents could not have foretold the future with any more clarity. When Dale collaborated with John Stankey, CEO, AT&T Entertainment Group and a fellow engineer Jeff Mikan seven years ago, they saw the need to solve the movement of media between devices. With John’s vision and the team’s collaboration, we addressed a key area in mobile entertainment. 

I recently sat down with Dale to discuss his secrets to successful innovation.

When filing patents we aim to solve a problem or meet a new need for people that will matter 5-10 years from now. How do you go about looking into the future to predict what’s next?

You have to imagine yourself in the future and make some assumptions. Do those situations or technologies exist today? What might be available in the future? Then, look at the problems that could be prevalent in that future environment.

If you go back 8 years when smart phones came on the scene, could you have predicted that almost all devices in a home would be wireless and the computing power in your hand or in a thermostat would change the way you live your life? That’s the kind of forward thinking required to visualize new frontiers in innovation.

How do you set up an environment for your team at the Atlanta Foundry that fosters innovation and invention?

The simple answer is we trust people. Trust enables people to take calculated risks. That’s the foundation of our culture at the Foundry. We have some of the best people you could get together to focus on adding value to the company. When you supply them good legal, supply chain and finance people who make the process seamless, it saves time to work on the problems. Then you allow them to put the projects and materials together quickly—but with high accountability—to boot up a project.

What are roadblocks that stifle innovation and how do you overcome them?

The enemies of innovation are both cultural and material. On a cultural level, you have to have trust and a top down belief in your people to bring about innovation without disrupting the day-to-day. Business objectives and commitments shift. It’s easy to stifle what may turn out to be a great improvement because of fear of change or a full agenda.

My method has always been to take a “do no harm” approach to create buy-in, manage risk, and allow other to see the value. Then they won’t see the idea as a threat, but a disciplined way to find out if this will be a positive change.

On a material basis, everyone is constrained by time and resources. Innovation takes both, so within an organization you need to allow for an investment risk here. If you don’t plan for that level of investment, innovation has a low probability of happening.

Can you tell us how your focus filing patents has evolved over your years at AT&T?

At a high level, my focus is still the same. I look at emerging technology opportunities and where can we go next.  However, instead of coming at projects like an architect, more often find myself playing the role of a builder. I look at how we can improve upon existing technologies and products to create new ones that are even more efficient with more capabilities for customers.

For someone looking to follow in your shoes, what would be your number one piece of advice?

Dream big and pursue with relentless passion and discipline.

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