“…It is not possible to find in all geometry more difficult and intricate questions, or more simple and lucid explanations. Some ascribe this to his natural genius; while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlaboured results. No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required…” – Plutarch on Archimedes
Legend tells us that Archimedes lowered himself into a bath and discovered the effects of displacement, noted specifically by his cry of “Eureka!” Isaac Newton was supposedly struck by a falling apple, and from his pain, developed the theory of gravity. We appreciate and accept these anecdotal tales because we find it easy to believe that innovation is borne from epiphany.
It is counter-intuitive for us to think that innovation could be predictable, reliably obtained and reproducible. But what if the process of creative thinking could be reduced to a science? Could people actually learn to think innovatively and solve problems simply by following a set of pre-determined rules or steps? This concept is the basis for the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, or TRIZ – a Russian-born methodology that is fast gaining popularity inside corporations as a way to teach people to solve problems of all types and sizes.
Let’s face it, problems have been being solved as long as man has been faced with them. And some resolutions are infinitely better than others. But traditionally, when people are faced with a problem, rather than calling on historical data to find out how others have solved similar problems, they start from scratch – brainstorming or even simply waiting for the solution to magically appear.
So how does TRIZ (pronounced “trees”) turn the big “aha” into a methodical, predictable and repeatable process? TRIZ uses history – and more concretely, historical data culled from several million patents that have been analyzed and decomposed by the TRIZ community – as the starting point for people to look when solving a problem.
Some people might argue that their problem is unique, something that has never been solved before. But again the TRIZ methodology would disagree. TRIZ takes the approach that by stripping away the complex technical language of any problem, you will find that the basic root is exactly the same as thousands of past problems. In fact, TRIZ claims there is a finite number of potential problems and solutions in the universe – 39 parameters for defining a problem and 40 “innovative principles” for solving a problem to be exact.
How could this be? TRIZ takes the approach that a problem exists because there is a technical contradiction at its root that prevents the system from being improved. In order for the problem to be solved, two inter-related things must happen – Issue A needs to be improved without negatively impacting Issue B in the process. As an example, someone could desire to “reduce the weight” of an object without “decreasing its strength.” To solve such a contradiction with TRIZ, the problem solver would first spend time reducing the problem to its most basic root, then selecting from TRIZ’s list of 39 improving and degrading parameters to characterize the problem generically.
With the basic problem broken down and categorized, the problem solver plugs the parameters of his problem into the TRIZ “contradiction matrix,” to access a list of innovative principles that have been used successfully by the most skilled inventors in history to solve similar contradictions. This process, although a fundamental TRIZ element, is important as it provides a trainable algorithm for problem solving. The resulting suggested problem resolutions encourage the problem solver to think outside the box and in new directions, helping them to think more clearly and objectively about the problem and potential workable solutions. The result? Problems get resolved faster, more innovatively and with greater accuracy.
Additional advanced TRIZ techniques provide more sophistication for solving difficult problems, and these skills can be taught as well.
The bottom line is that every person in an organization can benefit from learning the basics of TRIZ – and that every corporation has room for improvement when it comes to developing a more structured approach to innovation. Consider the importance of innovation. Just look at the annual statements of today’s Fortune 1000 companies, where many of them make obvious references to the importance of innovation in their overall profitability strategy. In this day and age, it is critical that the ability to innovate become a core competency – not a finite resource that behaves unpredictably.
Rather than standing on the shoulders of giants as we progress successfully into the new millennium, we can solve problems standing side-by-side with them (only a little shorter).