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.

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Systematic Innovation – The Book

Book Cover

Systematic Innovation, my new book, is now published and will be available from next week.

The purpose of the book is to bring together in one step-by-step guide a powerful suite of systematic tools and processes that make innovation happen.

Based upon years of development and refinement, the systematic approaches have been successfully applied and have helped clients develop new products and services, solve tough and complex problems (often those of a highly technical nature) and innovate.

Innovation is a process.  It can be learnt and easily applied and this book will show you how.

The chapters include:

Behavioural Science – an exploration of the suppressants that restrict our ability to generate ideas and concepts, solve problems and innovate. These include individual and group thinking issues.

Leadership and management of innovation – explores the significance that effective leadership and management has on innovation. It will either encourage innovation and allow it to flourish or create an environment where it will wither on the vine.

Systematic innovation (the process) – a look at the innovation process from start to finish that if followed, guarantees success.

The innovation pipeline – this is a great framework for helping to manage your innovation flow. It is comprised of seven segments from IP-1 to IP-7, each representing a different set of core activities and can be populated by products and services at various stages of their development and lifecycle.

Problem or design definition – defining problems correctly is essential if we are to develop truly effective solutions. Similarly, if we are designing something, we need to be clear about what that something is before we make a start. In both scenarios it is also important to understand peripheral information such as context, constraints, barriers etc. The book explores all the above and more.

Systematic thinking tools and processes – this provides a wide and varied collection of systematic thinking tools and processes that when applied enable the generation of high volumes of ideas, concepts and solutions.

Selection and prioritisation – this includes my favoured and most commonly applied approaches to selection and prioritisation of ideas and solutions.

Implementation – approaches to ensure that we successfully implement our chosen ideas and solutions.

Measure, monitor, review and feedback – it is essential that we know how we are doing and this chapter is all about what and how to effectively measure, monitor, review and feedback (MMRF).

Systematic approaches (quick guides) – these are a handy reference to remind you of the key steps to the systematic approaches.

Innovation is not just about developing new products and technologies, we can benefit from innovation in just about everything we do and the systematic approaches described in the book have been applied to many different focusses.

These powerful approaches will enable you to:

  • Generate high volumes of ideas and concepts on demand
  • Solve the toughest of problems
  • Innovate
  • Manage individual and group thinking
  • Make meetings more productive
  • Lead and manage ‘innovation’
  • Develop new products and services
  • Improve processes
  • Engineer value
  • Select and prioritise your best ideas and concepts

Systematic Innovation will soon be available through Amazon but if you are interested in receiving a copy straight away, please do contact me and I’ll make the necessary arrangements.

The Wisdom of Crowds

I was fascinated to recently learn of Francis Galton’s ‘Vox Populi’, an article he wrote in 1907 based upon his observations of a competition at a farmers fair in Plymouth the previous year.

The competition involved participants guessing the weight of a particular ox by entering the weight on a purchased ticket for the chance to win a prize. Some 787 people entered and Galton was sufficiently intrigued by the variety of guesses that he collected up all the tickets after the competition and analysed the results. His statistical analysis makes fascinating reading but in my mind one fact stands out in particular.

The average of all the guesses was not only closer than any single guess but was remarkably only 1lb short of the 1198 lbs that the ox weighed. Given the breadth of the distribution of guesses this really is quite fascinating.

The exercise was recently replicated, albeit with fewer entrants and the same results were observed. The average guess being closer than any single guess and on this occasion the average being 7 kilos way from the actual weight of 584 kilos. The range of guesses in this second exercise was between 200 and 1400 kilos and yet collectively the group’s average was still more accurate than any other guess (including those of expert farmers).

For me, this begs the question as to whether we sufficiently capitalise upon the wisdom of crowds in the workplace. Whilst I am acutely aware of the beneficial effect of group synergy when generating ideas and concepts, I am convinced the effects can harnessed in other ways.

I would love to hear your comments on the above and if you would be interested in taking part in some form of research to determine the potential benefits of the wisdom of crowds, do please get in touch.

Thinking Suppressants

In relation to our ability to generate ideas, be creative and solve problems there are a number of suppressants that exist that can stifle this. Some of these are internal, in other words what goes on in our own mind and some are external, those factors that we are exposed to or applied to us that limit or suppress our ability. The purpose of this short article is to explore some of the more common internal suppressants.

Knowledge

Whilst knowledge is essential it can also become a major factor in limiting our ability to create ‘new’ ideas. We can easily become bound by our own pool of knowledge, restricting us to what we know and often the more ‘expert’ we become the greater the significance of this. Without meaning to single out a particular group or stereotype a profession, engineers can present a somewhat classic manifestation of this particular issue. After all, when faced with difficult technical problems they are paid to apply their knowledge of engineering principals and rules to solve them. However of course, the solutions they present are more often than not limited to their own knowledge and experience and there could easily be a multitude of other improved solutions that exist outside their current knowledge base.

Lack of time

A lack of time to generate ideas and be creative can be real but in my experience more often than not it is a perceived excuse rather than a reality (although it can be made worse by management pressures). Of course we are expected to be productive and to have our sleeves rolled up and often this encourages the need to be seen to be busy, this is often compounded when economic pressures are high and the need for job security is raised.

This is somewhat paradoxical. Whilst we indeed may be busy or are keen to be seen to be busy, taking the time out to think could easily lead to better ways of working, improved solutions to problems, higher quality work and faster ways to work, freeing up time and improving performance!

Hindsight

One of the issues regarding idea generation is that when we strike upon a really good idea it often appears ‘obvious’ and in hindsight we devalue it. This tendency to view good ideas as obvious leads us to convince ourselves that it has probably already been done before and I wonder just how many really good ideas have been generated but have fallen foul of this and therefore never made it to fruition.

Fear of ridicule

Ridicule can be a major problem and can significantly contribute towards the cessation of people putting forward their ideas. If in the past when we have put forward an idea it is ridiculed, we clearly become les and less inclined to put future ideas on the table in the future. This often manifests itself in meetings and group thinking sessions and clearly needs to be stamped out.

We often hear the phrase ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea’ and this notion should be actively encouraged. An idea may on the face of it appear ‘stupid’ but within it could be the seed of something great.

Not my job

Sometimes we simply do not see it as part of our role to generate ideas, be creative or solve problems we see our function as simply getting on and achieving our objectives which more often than not do not include generating ideas. It’s more about getting the job done, delivering objectives in line with managerial expectations, rather than being paid to think.

Don’t know how

The sad fact is that very few people have been taught or ‘trained’ to think in a way that will enable the generation of high volumes of new ideas on demand or in the art of innovation. Going back as far as my school days I struggle to recall being taught ‘how to think’ and being creative was pretty much left to the domain of the creative arts but even then I can’t remember being taught how to generate ideas or think creatively (maybe I wasn’t listening)!

Therefore, perhaps traditional education is in part to blame for our lack of knowledge regarding how to generate ideas, be creative and solve problems.

In addition to this, I have encountered very few clients that have invested in the training and development of thinking skills, although there are early signs that this may be changing as more organisations are waking up to the significant benefits that this has to offer.

Why bother (apathy)

Even when we put ideas forward, it can feel like they disappear into a black hole or worse still we see them being implemented and someone else taking the credit for them (often management). A lack of feedback, recognition and/or reward is a certain way to kill off idea generation.

If we go to the trouble to share an idea and hear nothing thereafter we are certainly less inclined to bother again in the future.

Appropriate feedback (even if the idea is not going to be implemented), recognition and perhaps reward are essential if we are to be encouraged to make a constant effort to generate useful ideas and be creative.

Premature critical thinking

There is a tendency for us to be prematurely critical of both our own ideas and the ideas of others. When we have an idea the risk is that we immediately search for the reasons why it won’t work or can’t be done, thus prematurely killing off what might be the seed of an excellent idea.

In a group thinking scenario someone might table an idea in a meeting and the first reaction is for people to similarly comment on why it won’t work or can’t be done. This can often be construed as negativity and faced with it on a frequent basis can feel like we are swimming against an insurmountable tide. This is another external suppressant.

A proportion of internal suppressants or the manifestation of them can be put down to poor management. Not exclusively perhaps but management certainly have a major part to play in ensuring that they are addressed.

The paradox of knowledge when solving problems

One might be right in thinking that the more knowledge we have the better we are likely to be at finding solutions when faced with problems or seeking new ideas for products and services. Innovation at its best is often associated as being the creation of gifted, bright individuals. However, the accumulation of knowledge is paradoxical when it comes to being creative, generating ideas and finding breakthrough solutions.

To appreciate this we first need to understand a little about traditional thinking and how the brain goes about processing information as we get on with our daily lives.

Imagine a large pile of soil that has been arranged so that it is smooth sided and conical in shape (wide base and pointed at the top). Now imagine slowly pouring a large bucket of water over the point of the mound. Where is the water going? It is likely that the water travels in a downward motion and over time creates gullies down the side of our pile of soil. Let’s assume that we stop pouring and allow everything to dry up and then reconvene our pouring. Where does the water go this time? Almost certainly down the same gullies that were previously created. This is very much like how we process the information that we are continually bombarded with. It is passed along the paths of least resistance, where previous similar information was passed. We refer to these as neural paths and these gradually become more and more embedded. As time goes on we find it increasingly difficult to break out of these neural paths and the ultimate effect being that they limit our ability to think creatively or laterally. We become increasingly dependent upon something stimulating or jolting our thinking if we are attempting to be original or find new approaches etc.

Combine this with our ‘education’ and accumulation of knowledge over time and this compounds the problem even further. The risk is that the more expert we become the harder we find it to break out of our own pool of knowledge. In engineering, for example, we are taught a set of principles that when applied to certain situations allow us to create things and/or solve problems. The greater our range of knowledge, the more likely we are of success in this.

Of course, this is necessary and I am in no way attempting to belittle the acquisition of knowledge but it does follow that the more expert we become the harder we are likely to find it to break out of our pool of knowledge and be truly creative and innovative.

A recent study on problem solving by Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School supports this. Lakhani concludes that “the further the problem from the solvers expertise, the more likely they are to solve it”.

It is rather like having all of our knowledge in a box (similar to a set of tools) and when faced with a problem or challenge we search the box for a solution that best ‘fits’. But what if there is a better solution beyond our own knowledge or there simply isn’t a suitable tool in the box? This is where we can seriously struggle.  We continue to apply engrained thinking patterns and our existing knowledge to find ideas and solutions when actually what is required is a totally new approach or breakthrough solution.

What is required here is an approach that will enable us to break out of channelled thinking and enable us to be truly creative, thinking in new ways. The good news is that this is a lot easier than most of us would think. There are a vast number of thinking tools and systematic processes that will enable us to generate vast volumes of new ideas on demand, solve the toughest of problems and deliver breakthrough innovation.

William Plomer, the South African and British author was famously quoted as saying:

“It is the function of creative men to perceive relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expression that may seem utterly different and to be able to combine them into new forms – the power to connect the seemingly unconnected”.

There is a very powerful tool that encourages just this approach but many struggle to apply it, simply because the brain initially finds it difficult to make connections between things that are apparently unconnected and yet with practice we can all become very effective at this.

Idea generation, creativity, the ability to solve tough and complex problems and innovation isn’t, in my opinion, something that should be left to the gifted few. The ability to do these things is most definitely something that can be learnt and over the past fifteen years we have developed and refined a wide range of very effective systematic thinking tools and processes that enable individuals and groups to do just this.