Stopping People From Spreading Your Ideas Doesn't Seem Very Smart

from the backwards-thinking dept

Reader Another Mike sent in a long, but interesting story in Fast Company about a supposed “Green Guru” named William McDonough. The profile is not particularly flattering, painting McDonough as a blatant self-promoter at all costs, ignoring various projects that have failed (and even describing them as successes many years after they were clearly massive failures). However, what was most interesting for the stuff we discuss here was his overwhelming desire to retain “control” and “ownership” over his ideas. We see this all too often, and it ends up doing a lot more damage than good — and that’s demonstrated repeatedly with McDonough.

In one example, he was hired by a carpet company to help present a business plan on how to make the company be a positive force for the environment. Yet:

“Bill presented a business plan that said he owned the rights,” says John Picard, an environmental consultant on the team, “like it was his intellectual property. He was asking for an obscene amount [of money].”

And that resulted in the company parting ways with McDonough:

“The issue is that some of the things he thinks he originated no one owns. These are things that need to be blown up, not sequestered down with a patent.” Interface went on to develop its recyclable carpet, now a nearly $1 billion business, without McDonough. The company confirmed the accuracy of Picard’s account.

Next up, was his supposed “success story” with Nike:

McDonough, who includes a Nike shoe in his standard slide show, recalls the period fondly. “The great thing about working with Nike was it had tremendous interest in communicating with its supply chain, and it took cradle-to-cradle ideas to heart and developed its own strategy for communicating across an immense supply chain, over 3,000 vendors,” he tells me. “Incredible. It inspired us. A lot of what we do today is inspired by our clients.”

The folks at Nike remember the collaboration a little differently. “It was devastating that we couldn’t go forward with it,” says someone who worked closely on the project and requested anonymity. When McDonough’s team finished building a list of approved materials for manufacturing, after two years and a hefty consulting fee, Nike told McDonough the time had come to share the details with its thousands of vendors. To the company’s shock, McDonough responded that he owned the list — it was proprietary. “He wanted to charge us for every supplier we rolled it out to. We didn’t own it after we paid all this money, which made no sense,” says the person from the Nike team. “You can develop lists until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t have effective ways to roll that out to the supply chain, it’s not going to change it.” Nike, which went on to improve its supply chain independently, confirmed this account to Fast Company and said that, given the huge amount McDonough was demanding, it decided to terminate the relationship. The company adds that “neither Bill nor MBDC designed materials for Nike.”

Once again, in his demand for ownership of ideas, he’s actually shut down. Finally, perhaps the most ridiculous and damning story of all involves a non-profit that McDonough himself tried to set up to promote the term “cradle-to-cradle,” which he has trademarked as a description of his process. Of course, he didn’t actually coin it:

Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn’t his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, “Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it.”

The whole nonprofit, called GreenBlue was supposed to be used to promote “cradle-to-cradle” and build up McDonough’s reputation. And, in what appeared to be a contrary move to his earlier “ownership” position, McDonough announced GreenBlue with a plan to “give away the cradle-to-cradle protocol freely.” Except, he didn’t. The first employee at GreenBlue grew disenchanted, noting that McDonough did nothing to make “cradle-to-cradle” info publicly available. So, he pleaded with the board to jettison McDonough — which eventually happened. And then, after McDonough left, GreenBlue became a success:

It wasn’t until McDonough left that GreenBlue, specifically its Sustainable Packaging Coalition, took off. The coalition now includes 190 companies — Procter & Gamble, Kraft, and Starbucks among them — that are working to develop environmentally sound packaging practices. “Many people still think of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as a project that has succeeded because of Bill McDonough, which is simply not the case,” Pearson stresses.

Even better? Now that GreenBlue is a success, McDonough, who started it is demanding that GreenBlue pay lots of money to use that “cradle-to-cradle” trademark:

Earlier this year, his materials firm, MBDC, told GreenBlue it would have to license the term cradle to cradle if the nonprofit wanted to use it. “Our respective lawyers went back and forth at substantial cost to GreenBlue,” says Pearson, now GreenBlue’s executive director, “[but] I don’t have the financial resources, nor the strong motivation, to stop them.” By 2010, the very nonprofit that McDonough founded will be obliged to use terms such as “green chemistry,” “closed-loop material systems,” and “industrial ecology” to describe its work. Thanks to McDonough and his lawyers, Pearson says, “we will eliminate the phrase cradle to cradle from any of our materials.”

So, in his quest to “own” all of these ideas, he’s created a bunch of failed projects, and done little to actually help create successful environmental solutions. Yet, when he gets out of the way, and others are able to more freely share ideas, stuff gets done. Maybe he shouldn’t focus so much on owning ideas, and be a little more open to the fact that if he shared more freely, and there were actual success stories built around his work, the demand to hire him in the future would be much, much stronger.

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Comments on “Stopping People From Spreading Your Ideas Doesn't Seem Very Smart”

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19 Comments
Ima Fish (profile) says:

Has anyone considered that maybe McDonough is just a scammer? He has people pay him money to come up with ideas. But when it’s finally time for him to turn those ideas over, he demands a ransom to be paid first. Which of course the corporation rejects paying because it’d be asinine to do so. Basically, he gets money for doing absolutely nothing of value.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Stopping People From Spreading Your Ideas Doesn’t Seem Very Smart”

Smart for whom?

What is good for the economy is not necesaary good for the individual and what is good for the individual is not necessary good for the economy.

For the individual it makes perfect sense to place a tole on ideas while for the economy this makes no sense at all.

The idea of patten was to pay people for spending large amounts of time and money only to have some one steal the idea and use it for free with out paying the cost associated with the idea’s development. This is a concept that works very well when it cost millions to develop the idea and is a complete failure when the cost of development is approximately zero which makes a good preliminary test of whether an idea is patentable or not.

another mike says:

not the subby

i was trying to talk up Wired’s piece on brock pierce and the rise and fall of IGE. eliminating gold-farming bots and the companies that cheat with them off my favorite mmo is more interesting to me. MMOs would be very different places if there were sanctioned locations to trade real-world money for game world items and money. i don’t think it would be a better place.
i don’t know who sent in this story but it wasn’t me.

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