Quantity, not quality equals better results

The title almost conflicts with logic as one might assume that best results are achieved through qualitative thinking. Yet research and personal practical experience continually and increasingly demonstrates that the opposite is true. The best design results are achieved through quantitative thinking.

In their book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland reveal a story about a ceramics teacher who divided a class into two haves instructing one group that their grades would be dependent upon quantity, so they should aim to produce as many ceramics as they can. The other group were told that they would be graded on one good piece of work. The observations were that whilst the quantity group busily churned out piles of work (and learning from their mistakes) the quality group sat theorising about perfection and had little to show for their efforts.

It does seem to make sense that if we are in an early design or solution development stage the more ideas and concepts that we can generate the more likely we are to find the best design or solution. The bigger the pool of ideas and concepts the more likely it is to contain the winner. Yet the evidence is that a majority of engineers involved in design and problem solving say that they would benefit immensely by exploring more design alternatives during concept design (in a survey conducted by PTC, a leading provider of technology solutions, the figure was 92%). Often, lack of time is cited as the main reason why this doesn’t happen, although I have alternative views on this.

The impact of investing time and efficient thinking tools and processes early in a design stage can be staggering. Not too long ago I was involved in an extremely high priority £1.7bn project where circa 90% of the design work had been completed. As the client closed in on the implementation phase it was decided that the current designs should be challenged in case there was a lower cost and faster way of delivering the solution to what was a critical project. A small team was assembled, and some systematic thinking tools and processes were introduced and applied. In a matter of weeks, the net result was that from the vast pool of ideas, concepts and alternatives a new design was carefully identified and selected. This new design would deliver all the required functionality and benefits whilst reducing the total cost by approximately £1bn and bring the commissioning date forward by 3 years. A jaw dropping result and in hindsight (which incidentally, I personally find a difficult thing to live with!) it would have made far more sense to have invested more up front in order to have identified the best solution earlier.

I have argued for a very long time that insufficient emphasis is placed on the need for divergent thinking when ideas, concepts and/or solutions are required, and whilst the benefits of this may seem obvious, making it happen is somewhat more challenging, though very feasible.

Perhaps it is time for designers and solution developers to be recognised and rewarded for the number of concepts, ideas and solutions they produce rather than for their quality.


Meetings – the ugly truth

“How do you feel about meetings at work?”

“They’re amazing, absolutely stunning. Incredibly productive, deeply satisfying and always a great use of time. I love ‘em, can’t wait for the next one!”

Okay, so the above conversation didn’t really take place. However, a quick search on the internet will produce a plethora of statistics and information regarding the ugly truth about meetings. Here’s just a few of them:

  • Middle managers spend over 38% of their time in meetings
  • Senior managers spend over 50% of their time in meetings
  • Meetings are unproductive – so say 67% of executives
  • 18% of an organizations collective time is spent in meetings (apparently, this figure has grown each year for the past 9 years)

The above are just random examples gleaned from a quick search but I do believe they are representative of the staggering waste of time, money and resources that is the result of unproductive, poorly managed meetings. This is most certainly reinforced by the frequent comments of clients, colleagues, friends and family.

Assuming we ‘need’ a meeting (the first rule of effective meetings being don’t have one unless it is necessary) why are they so often deemed as an unproductive waste of time, money and resources? Why are they so often characterized by frustration and dissatisfaction?

In my 25 years of researching and growing my understanding of individual and group thinking productivity, I have identified two fundamental elements that make the difference between success and failure. Perhaps somewhat obviously, these are 1. behaviors and 2. processes.

  1. Behaviours

The behavioral aspect of thinking falls into two camps, internal and external. The internal behaviors are concerned with what goes on in our own minds and are principally (but not exclusively) about focus and discipline. The external behaviors are those things that we have been historically exposed to or are currently exposed to that have an adverse impact on individual and group thinking productivity. Manifistation of this commonly includes (amongst many others):

  • Cynicism
  • Over dominance
  • Ridicule
  • Too much debate/argument/discussion
  • Lack of individual contribution

It is largely about the negative interactions that adversely effect thinking efficiency, productivity and motivation.

  1. Processes

The second fundamental element is concerned with the individual and group thinking processes that are applied and adhered to during meetings. There are a great number of proven systematic thinking tools and processes that can be applied to a variety of situations that will ensure high levels of productivity and successful outcomes. The applications include (again amongst many others):

  • Setting a clear and appropriate focus
  • Problem definition
  • Idea/concept generation
  • Value engineering
  • Cost reduction
  • Process improvement
  • Problem solving (including difficult and/or highly technical problems)
  • Selection and prioritization
  • Decision making

It is by combining the right behaviors with effective processes that we can conduct highly productive, efficient and satisfying meetings. Weakness in any area will lead to problems, as the following model illustrates.




It is possible to identify from the Behaviors + Processes Matrix why our meetings might be a struggle and zapping valuable time and resources (and adversely affecting employee motivation). The segments can be explained as follows.

Chaos (weak behaviors and weak processes)

The chaotic segment is where the individual and group behaviors and processes are weak. In the extreme, there is anarchy!

Chaos is often characterized by some, if not all, of the following:

  • Argument
  • Debate
  • Many voices (free for all) or one voice (domination)
  • Interrupting
  • Unproductive
  • Lack of contribution
  • Waste of time
  • Personal attacks
  • Hidden agendas
  • Ridicule
  • Unstructured
  • Lack of focus
  • Despair

Frustration (weak behaviors and strong processes)

Frustration is often born out of having a good understanding of thinking processes and tools but where the behaviors are still weak and preventing groups from getting on and applying what they know to be good sense.

Frustration is characterized pretty much the same as chaos.

Unproductive (well developed behaviors but weak processes)

The unproductive segment applies when the individual and group behaviors are well developed but the processes are weak. Consequently, the group is likely to work well together and have a nice ‘feel’. However, there are low levels of productivity driven by a lack of effective thinking tools and processes. This can also lead to frustration due to a lack of productivity and results.

The unproductive segment is characterized by:

  • Good listening
  • Not interrupting
  • Willingness to contribute
  • Being well prepared
  • Discussion
  • Justification
  • Debate

High performance (well developed behaviors and strong processes)

High performance is achieved through well-developed behaviors and the application of strong processes.

High performance is characterized by:

  • High levels of productivity
  • High quality output
  • High levels of satisfaction
  • Quality decisions
  • Everyone contributing
  • Great results

Occupying the middle ground is perhaps what could be considered as typical meetings. This is where some of the behaviors are constructive but there is still evidence of counter productive behaviors and where there is the application of some constructive thinking processes. In my experience, these types of meetings are fairly common but they do leave room for significant improvement and raised levels of productivity.

Typical meetings are often considered ‘good’ meetings, which is a shame and somewhat symbolic of the endemic culture.

Meetings seem to have become an embedded part of our business culture. The comments I frequently hear most certainly point to them being a huge drain on resources and often a significant barrier to people getting on with their day jobs. If meetings are necessary and we are to spend a significant proportion of our working lives attending them then perhaps considerably more emphasis should be placed upon making them more efficient, productive, satisfying and enjoyable.

If you decide to improve your meetings I very much hope the above will provide you with some understanding of where your efforts may be best placed.


About the author:– Tim Rusling runs Problem Engineering + Behavioral Science, a consultancy and training organization with a focus on making thinking as productive as possible. He works with organizations helping them to unleash the thinking capability of their employees. Working globally, he has helped clients generate high volumes of ideas and concepts, solve the toughest of problems and innovate. He is author of the book ‘Systematic Innovation’.

Contact details:



t. +44 (0)7901 910645



Win More Work Through Innovation

Clients want solutions that deliver as many benefits or as much value as possible, typically for the lowest cost (as many of us might often incorrectly believe, although this is a separate issue). Our ability to develop ideal solutions that offer benefits/value over and above those which are currently available elsewhere, may hold the key to winning more work.

This ties in well with our definition of innovation, which is:

‘Implementing new products, services, processes and systems that solve real problems and/or meet the requirements of customers and markets so that additional benefits are delivered above those that can already be realised. It is also applying new and existing technologies in ways that similarly deliver additional benefits’.

For this to happen effectively, it relies upon two key things. Our ability to:

  1. Really understand our clients, their business, problems, pressures, priorities, future plans etc.
  1. Generate high volumes of great ideas and concepts on demand that address a given focus based upon our accurate and complete understanding

Understanding Clients

I don’t suppose there is any real secret as to how to understand clients but in my experience this is rarely done as well as it could or should be. Sadly, people often genuinely believe that they are good at gaining a thorough understanding of clients, whereas the reality is this is often far from the truth.

But what impact does a heightened understanding of clients have on innovation? Hopefully the answer is obvious. If we develop a greater understanding of our clients (over and above that of our competitors) we can take this additional understanding into account when developing solutions. This creates a tremendous and real opportunity to differentiate by providing additional benefits/value over and above the solutions offered by our competitors.

Generating High Volumes of Ideas/Concepts

Innovation requires an ability to generate great ideas/concepts (fact!) and the better we are at being able to do this rapidly and with ease, the greater our innovations are likely to be.

In a recent study, the findings showed that 3 was the average number of concepts explored early in the design stage of projects while 92% of respondents agreed that they would benefit immensely by exploring more design alternatives during concept design (source: trends in concept design – PTC).

In order to generate more ideas/concepts on demand, in high volumes and with ease requires many things to be considered, these include:

  • Ensuring we have the time and discipline to do it
  • Careful and well-executed individual and group thinking ‘management’
  • The removal of any suppressants that limit our ability to generate ideas/concepts (of which there are potentially many)
  • The application of systematic tools and processes that enable the generating of ideas/concepts

It is by combining a heightened understanding of clients and an ability to generate high volumes of ideas/concepts that we create a wonderful opportunity to innovate and develop solutions that will deliver additional benefits/value over and above that which can be realised through any other alternative or potential solution.

Surely this will lead to winning more work.

Innovation and ‘temporary’ high performance teams

I was recently engaged by a client to run a series of workshops that brought together a dozen or so of the brightest of minds at the sharp end of the nuclear decommissioning industry. The purpose of the series of workshops was to challenge the current design for a new waste processing plant and to generate new, innovative ways to carry out the making safe of a substantial amount of highly toxic waste.

The first workshop involved a tour of the proposed facility, followed by a session to set the scene for the challenge team. During this initial session, a guest proposed his concern that the size of the team and the nature of the challenge would make it difficult for the group to become a High Performing Team (HPT). Based upon previous experience I had immediate misgivings and have pondered upon this for some time since. I now believe it is undoubtedly possible to create ‘temporary’ High Performance Teams that can quickly be up and running and upon reflection this accounts for a vast majority of the work that I currently undertake.

In 1965 it was Bruce Tuckman who first proposed the popular ‘Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing’ model. He maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results. All of which are required in the workshops that I run.

I actually wholly support Bruce Tuckman’s model and have worked with it with clients on numerous occasions. However, for the aforementioned challenge team, time constraints meant that there simply wasn’t time for the team to develop through the four stages. I would actually argue that for the purpose for which the team was created, it was not necessary for them to be a High Performance Team in the pure sense of the term. Their purpose was to come together on a number of occasions to think/work effectively and productively in order to develop some powerful ideas/concepts that would help solve some really tough challenges.

Albeit the challenge team would still have to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results.

The big question is how do you successfully manage to get an unfamiliar team to demonstrate the characteristics of a High Performance Team with ease and on demand? Broadly speaking there are three parts to the answer.

Firstly, the identification and buy in to the behavioral aspects that will enable this team to meet and think as efficiently and productively as possible is essential (most of these are common sense but often not common practice). By asking the team to identify the behaviors for themselves that will both help and hinder efficiency and productivity and making these explicit, buy in is typically easy to achieve and the adherence to these behaviors is easier to manage. The helping behaviors are acceptable and encouraged and the hindering behaviors are unacceptable and banned. Simple.

Secondly, the application of productive and efficient systematic approaches to thinking, idea generation and problem solving is equally essential.

Thirdly, the team needs to be well facilitated to keep thing on track and there is much to consider here. Amongst other things it is essential that the facilitator ensures:

  • There is a clear and inspirational vision for the team
  • Adherence to the behavioral aspects
  • A clear and understood focus at all times
  • The effective selection and application of systematic tools and processes to maximize idea/concept output and/or solutions to problems
  • Thinking is complimentary as opposed to adversarial
  • Everyone contributes
  • Decisions are by consensus
  • Roles and responsibilities are understood
  • The management of time
  • ALL output is captured
  • The effective selection and prioritisation of ideas/concepts and solutions

In my experience, by following the above guidelines it becomes easy for a team to display the characteristics of a High Performance Team, albeit on a temporary basis.

If you would like to find out more, please do get in touch.

Innovation – more action, less of the word

Innovation is a term that has become so widely used. We hear it on the television, we read about it in newspapers and trade press, our MD or CEO are calling for more of it. In fact, the more you hear about it, the more you have to question the reason as to why it has become such a common term (other than it’s perceived as good for business and UK plc as a whole).

Other reasons might include:

  • It is seen as a critical asset in today’s competitive market
  • The value of innovation is being felt therefore, let’s have more of it
  • Senior management want it but aren’t getting it and therefore they have to keep asking for it
  • It’s become a buzz word whose meaning is being lost in the plethora of references to it
  • Maybe organisations are genuinely desperate for it but fail to understand how to enable innovation other than to hire greater expertise or make efforts to manage the innovation process (which of course makes sense)

I suspect all of the above have a part to play. Irrespective of the reasons, it is a term we frequently hear and are likely to do so for a very long time to come because of the obvious value of it.

If you were asked the question “what is innovation”, how would you answer?

Maybe you see it as the development of new products and services or perhaps using technologies in new ways. You may answer that innovation is something R&D come up with or even that it is about finding new ways to tackle problems.

Again, I suspect that all the above are relevant answers and there are bound to be more although I equally suspect that there will be differing views on this adding to the ‘fuzzy’ nature of the term.

Innovation to me is quite simple. It is developing new products, services, processes and systems that solve real problems and/or meet the requirements of customers and markets so that additional benefits are delivered over and above those that can already be realised. It is also applying new and existing technologies in new ways that similarly deliver additional benefits.

Another somewhat useful question to answer is rather than ‘what is innovation’ how about ‘how do we innovate’? This, to me, is a somewhat more interesting question which may lead us back to the beginning and provide some answers as to why we hear the term so frequently.

The ‘how do we innovate’ bit is a little trickier to deal with because one of the critical parts of innovation (creativity and idea generation) is often down to a wide range of factors that include chance, opportunity, inspiration, genius, dogged determination, coincidence, accident and more. It is because of these many and varied ingredients that it is difficult for many to see how this essential part of the innovation cycle can be ‘managed’ or significantly improved, adding further to the ‘fuzziness’.

Whilst there is a lot of emphasis these days on managing innovation processes, one would have to question the value of this unless the creativity and idea generation element is also harnessed in a way that will lead to higher volumes of higher quality ideas. After all, innovation relies entirely upon this for its quality. This suggests that whilst we can introduce efficiencies into our innovation processes through better management, the quality of innovation is unlikely to be greatly affected.

Perhaps then, this is the reason that we hear the frequent call for innovation. Maybe it is because whilst there are efforts being made towards fostering innovation through improved processes and the management of those processes, improvements in innovation are still not matching expectations or desired levels.

The good news is that there are established and proven systematic tools and processes that will significantly increase the volume and quality ideas. If we were to focus more on these, the quality of innovation would in turn significantly increase.

Perhaps we would then see more innovation and hear less of the word.

Do get in touch if you feel your organisation could benefit from significantly increased levels of great ideas.

Achieving perfect innovation

In my mind, perfect solutions or product/service improvements are ones that deliver additional benefits over and above those that can currently be realised from an existing solution or product/service. As I’ve previously explored, the greater the additional benefits, the greater the innovation. But is this enough and does it suggest great design?

In this day and age there is strong support for the notion that great design should not only deliver the greatest benefits possible but also do this whilst minimising any associated costs and eliminating any undesirable consequences (harms). In TRIZ terms, this equates to moving towards what is termed ‘ideality’. Something that is truly ideal delivers all the benefits without any costs or harms and whilst achieving ‘ideality’ might be unrealistic, it could easily be argued that great designs move towards it.

Often, how to reduce/eliminate costs or harms may be obvious and the solutions may immediately spring to mind but there are likely to be times when this task is somewhat more challenging.

Amongst many systematic approaches to reducing or eliminating costs and harms, there are a couple which stand out as being particular favourites with many of my clients, the first of which is trimming.

Trimming is all about eliminating parts of a system (a system being anything where two or more components interact with one another, this could be a physical system or a process) whilst retaining all the useful functions of that component. A recent example of trimming was the elimination of car tax discs where the function of the tax disc was transferred to another part of the system, in this case the license plate. By doing so, the function of the tax disc was no longer required, therefore it could be trimmed and in turn the car has become incrementally more ideal. This used the third of three basic rules for trimming: ‘a component can be trimmed if the useful function is transferred to another component in the system’.

The second favoured systematic approach is to make the best possible use of available resources (ideally those that are readily available at no or low cost).

A good illustration of this is that of the changes made to corrosion testing, when traditionally a sample (typically a cube) of the subject to be tested would be weighed and then placed in acid in a platinum lined vessel. After a given period of time the sampled would be removed and weighed again to determine the weight loss and therefore the rate of corrosion. The problem with this is that:

  • Platinum is very expensive, resulting in most laboratories only having one testing vessel
  • Testing has to be carried out sequentially
  • Therefore, it is time consuming and costly

By identifying all available resources, the list (simplified for illustrative purposes) might look like this:

  • Subject
  • Acid
  • Vessel
  • Platinum

Assuming that we have identified that to make an improvement to this system an alternative to the existing platinum lined vessel is required we could evaluate each of the available resources for their usefulness in providing a solution. This may enable us to conclude that the subject itself could become the vessel. Bore a hole in the subject, weigh it, fill it with acid for a pre-determined period of time, remove the acid and re-weigh the subject and make the necessary calculations.

This solution is not only considerably more cost effective but also means that testing can now take place simultaneously, radically speeding up the process.

In hindsight, you might say that the above two examples are blindingly obvious but then aren’t all good innovations?

What this does illustrate though, is that by applying systematic approaches to design and problem solving it is possible to develop great solutions that not only deliver additional benefits but also reduce costs and harms thus making incremental steps towards the ideal.

For more information on how we support our clients in all aspects of innovation, visit http://www.problem-engineering.com.

Access the world’s knowledge of inventive principles

It is estimated that 99.7% of all problems have been solved somewhere and at some point in time. The solution may have been found to solve a similar problem in an unrelated industry on the other side of the globe and the solution may have been discovered many years ago. Nonetheless, it is extremely rare to encounter a problem where a solution has not already been developed.

The problem with this though, is that the task of researching and collating all this information is a massive one and probably too daunting to be seriously considered by most of us but how useful would it be to have access to all this knowledge especially when faced with really tough technical problems?

Those of you that are familiar with TRIZ (Geinrich Altschuller’s approach to inventive problem solving) will probably be aware that an easily accessible database of this knowledge already exists.

Altschuller defines the really tough technical problems that we face as either physical or technical contradictions.

A physical contradiction creates a conflict with the same parameters. For example, a coffee cup should be hot to keep the coffee inside hot but it should also be cold so that it can be comfortably held by the user. Here the same parameter ‘heat’ needs to be high and low, therefore a physical contradiction exists. Physical contradictions are solved using one of four separation principles by separating in time, in space, between parts and the whole or upon condition.

Technical contradictions on the other hand occur when different parameters are in conflict with each other. For example, the motor should run faster but at the same time it should not generate more heat and therefore the parameters of speed and temperature are in conflict. Technical contradictions are typically solved through compromise but Altschuller claims that problems should be solved without compromise. But how?

Altschuller spent much of his time analysing patents from all over the world in a bid to identify if there were any repeatable patterns that could assist with problem solving. This analysis (initially based upon approximately 50,000 patents) led him to identify just 40 inventive principles that successfully solve technical contradictions. Subsequently millions of patents have been analysed and the original 40 inventive principles remain the same.

Altschuller also found that there are 39 standard parameters which might conflict with one another in a system (speed and temperature being two of them). These 39 parameters can create 1482 possible conflicts.

By placing these parameters on a 39 x 39 matrix these 1482 conflicts become clear and it is possible to immediately identify which of the 40 inventive principles have been used before to solve these conflicts, putting the world’s knowledge of inventive principles at your fingertips.

Systematically solving physical and technical contradictions is just one of the many proven tools and processes that greatly assist with problem solving and innovation. If you would like more information on TRIZ and our other systematic approaches or if you would like to receive a copy of the contradiction matrix, I would love to hear from you.