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.

Time and discipline – innovations best friends

I remember running a workshop some years ago for a group of engineers. The aim was to develop their ability to generate innovative ideas and concepts when developing solutions for clients.

The workshop was a resounding success and by breaking psychological inertia and introducing a small number of systematic thinking tools and processes, there was a remarkable increase in the numbers of ideas and concepts that they were able to produce.

The participants were wonderfully enthusiastic and highly motivated and the feedback at the end of the workshop reflected the success of the day. I drove home that evening with a smile a smile of satisfaction on my face believing I had made a real difference. That is after all, the one thing above all others that drives me to do what I do.

I also recall the follow up workshop that took place some weeks later to explore how things were going.

The feedback from the initial workshop remained extremely positive and it was clear that the training had hit the mark.

I then asked the participants to share their experiences of using the tools and processes that they had been introduced to. They looked at one another expectantly and then turned to me as their expressions fell blank other than slight signs of awkwardness and embarrassment.

‘I’ve not really had the opportunity’ was one reason put forward for the lack of application of the tools and processes. ‘I’ve just been too busy’ was another.

This was followed by pretty much unanimous agreement that these were the main barriers they had met to successfully implementing the work we had done.

Upon further exploration the truth of the matter was, there had been an abundance of opportunities and lack of time and opportunity had simply been excuses.

It occurred to me then that simply giving people new skills or tools and processes that they wholeheartedly embrace and value is simply not enough (in hindsight this was obvious).

Reasons for the lack of implementation can be attributed to a number of things. Insufficient management support, psychological inertia, lack of motivation being amongst them.

In my mind, these are more often than not also excuses. Contributing factors perhaps but still excuses. After all ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can give people opportunities but you can’t make them think’.

If you want to be more innovative, find great solutions and generate great ideas and concepts there are two essential ingredients. Finding or creating time to do it and having the discipline to apply effective thinking tools and processes.

It really is as simple as that.

The value of rephrasing problems

Often when dealing with problems and attempting to identify potential solutions we are either trying to solve the wrong problem (or symptoms of the problem rather than the cause) or are viewing the problem as one dimensional.

The purpose of this brief article is to help us understand the value of rephrasing problems in order to develop a deeper, wider and better quality pool of potential solutions.

By rephrasing problems we are able to shift our view of the problem and change perspective which enables us to find solutions beyond a one dimensional view.

I was recently told a story which illustrates this rather well. It involved the presence of a substantial amount of asbestos in a nuclear power station and its necessary removal to safeguard the health and safety of the engineers working there.

The problem was how to remove the asbestos safely and without releasing any harmful particles into the atmosphere. The location of the asbestos and other environmental and physical factors made this a challenge for which a team of experts were assembled to find a solution.

Weeks went by, and then months as they continued to struggle, until a visitor was invited to take part in one of the sessions aimed at finding a solution.

It wasn’t too long before the visitor interrupted the meeting by asking “are you sure that you’re solving the right problem?” Quizzical eyes peered back and one individual asked what he meant by that.

“Surely, the problem is not about removing the asbestos but how to protect people from its harmful effect” he replied.

This rephrasing of the problem very quickly led to a solution. The asbestos was clad in protective sheeting and remains in that location to this day with the harm eliminated.

Here are another couple of examples of rephrasing a problem:

Problem 1:          I need a hammer to drive this nail in (solution = find a hammer)

Rephrased:         I need to drive this nail in (solutions = find anything that will drive the nail in)

Rephrased:         I need to join these two pieces of wood together (solutions = all the above and more!)

Problem 2:          We need a new tunnel to get cars across the river (solution = dig a tunnel)

Rephrased:         We need to get cars across the river (solutions = any method to get cars  across a river)

Rephrased:         We need to move the river (whoa!)

The rephrasing of the problem in the above examples, would potentially lead to very different solutions.

Do get in touch if you would like to know more.

Problem roll over – issues that don’t go away

Understandably, in the current economic climate organisations are striving to become leaner. Many have implemented one or more of the various approaches to support this endeavour. Lean Six Sigma for example, has established itself as the firm favourite methodology for reducing costs by improving efficiencies in manufacturing and internal processes and there are now a plentiful and growing number of Six Sigma specialists.

Commendable indeed but are these organisations missing a trick?

There is another area of business that if improved would without doubt deliver results that are even potentially greater. An area that is often talked about but little understood and rarely focussed on or ‘managed’ in a way that will ensure that it delivers maximum benefits. An area where we rarely see any effective processes in place or proven tools used to ensure that it is capitalised upon.

The area I am talking about is how we go about generating high volumes of good ideas on demand, how we create quality solutions to problems (including those that occur when delivering projects, the bigger scale longer term problems or simply the day-to-day problems that we encounter) and how we go about the task of implementing good quality solutions to ensure that we (and/or our customers) realise the benefits as quickly as possible.

We often work with clients who have been attempting to find solutions to serious issues of varying nature and discover that a number of these issues have been around for many years. Often they look outside their own organisation for assistance in finding an ideal solution only to find that the same or similar ideas and approaches and similar technologies are offered up, none of them really getting to the heart of the matter and solving the issue once and for all. What they end up with is what we term as ‘problem roll over’, year after year.

The price of this can be enormous in terms of financial costs, resources and time.

A recent experience was an excellent example of this. One of our clients had a particularly perplexing technical challenge and to solve it had gathered a team of six of their best engineers to find a solution. Six months later with each of the six having given up on average a third of their working time they had invested heavily and were absolutely no further forward in arriving at a solution.

So what was holding them back? It transpired that whilst incredibly bright and at the ‘top of their game’ they lacked any dedicated systematic tools and processes to support their efforts and they were relying on ‘traditional thinking’ and brainstorming approaches that all too often fail to deliver.

We introduced them to some powerful thinking tools and applied a proven process and the same six engineers arrived at three workable solutions just three hours in to a facilitated workshop. Using further proven techniques one of these solutions was selected and then ‘worked up’ to a deliverable solution and successfully implemented. This not only prevented problem roll over but solved the issue for good and at the same time created a multi million pound new market for the client!

How many more man hours would the client had to have invested to arrive at a solution on their own? Potentially an infinite number, it is conceivable that the problem would have never gone away and would have become a subject on their agenda year after year.

Problem roll over is a major issue for many organisations and there are many contributing factors that fuel its existence. Surely though, if idea generation, the search for quality solutions and innovation is key to a companies success and can contribute significantly to the bottom line why is not more emphasis placed on the tools and processes that enable it? In our experience it is a widely neglected area and yet one that is relatively easy to resolve.

If problem roll over is an issue for you organisation, here are some tips which may help you break the cycle:

  1. Ensure that you have defined the problem thoroughly and correctly in the first place (are you trying to solve the right problem?).
  2. Examine you existing processes and approaches for ‘managing’ idea generation, solution development and innovation.
  3. Find ways to improve your current processes and approaches so that they are effective at developing ideas and delivering solutions quickly.
  4. Introduce systematic thinking tools and processes to stimulate thinking, break psychological inertia and encourage lateral thinking.
  5. Put in place excellent facilitation practices when managing group thinking.
  6. Manage the behavioural aspects that inhibit effective individual and group thinking so that it is as productive and enjoyable as possible.

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.