The Misnomer of Thinking out of the Box

Do you want to innovate? Try something new? You surround yourself with a bunch of creative people, go offsite and have a brainstorming session. The ideas are abundant and with so many it seems a shame that we can only try a few due to budget or time constraints. The cold hard truth is that is not the way successful innovation works. In fact, most of the time it is downright unsuccessful; innovation does not work as a result of thinking out of the box, it works because how closely it is to thinking in the box. Out of the Box

There is hardly a methodology that has done more research on Innovation than the TRIZ method or Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. These numbers have not been updated in the 20 years which to me seems a shame with the amount of Innovation that is occurring. However, I still think we might be surprised on how closely these numbers are still represented. From John Terninko’s book, Systematic Innovation: An Introduction to TRIZ.

Table 5 Levels of Innovation

  1. Apparent or Conventional Solution: 32%
    • Solution by methods well known within specialty
  2. Small Invention Inside Paradigm: 45% .
    • Improvement of an existing system, usually with some compromise
  3. Substantial Invention Inside Technology: 18%.
    • Essential improvement of existing system
  4. Invention Outside Technology: 4%
    • New generation of design using sciences technology
  5. Discovery: 1 %
  • Major discovery and new science

The founder of TRIZ, Genrich Altshuller, believed that he could help anyone in Level 2, 3,or 4 and Level 1 are just improvements solved internally to most organizations and teams with little effort (they still can be very rewarding). He initially selected 40,000 patents from 200,000 or so that were representative of inventive solutions. Without going into too many details, he used this information to form the basis of where to find examples. The majority of these patents fall within four major technologies: mechanical, electromagnetic, chemical and thermodynamic. A glaring exception noticed is the digital world that we now live in and the predominate use of smart devices that are used.

My argument with these numbers would not be that they are no longer applicable but that some of the definitions of what constitutes a specialty, paradigm, system or technology has changed (broaden), especially, when we apply this nomenclature to the service arena. The other area is the influence of the Internet and the ability to capture knowledge within your industry. We think of Level 1 knowledge as being something that an individual knows and Level 5 is the knowledge of the Universe. With the introduction of the internet individual, organization knowledge, at least on a superficial level has broadened tremendously.

If You Want to Think Out of the Box, You Have to Have a Box

If we go back to Level 2, 3, or 4 principles, TRIZ believes that 95% of inventive problems have already been solved in a different field. Or in my words, “This is not new Stuff.” Summarizing from the TRIZ Journal archives:

  1. Problems and solutions are repeated across industries and sciences. The classification of the contradictions in each problem predicts the creative solutions to that problem.
  2. Patterns of technical evolution are repeated across industries and sciences.
  3. Creative innovations use scientific effects outside the field where they were developed.

If you think this sounds familiar think of the Lean 3P approach and as Allan Colleta said in this Business901 Podcast, Lean 3P Design Process

Then for each of those value-adding steps, we try to get the group to look at seven different alternatives that can be created to create that process step. They come from nature. This tends to be a very interesting part of the event, where a lot of people really love it. Other people really hate it. Probably, the most contentious part that I’ve seen of 3P is this idea of looking to nature, to try to find solutions to the problems you’re trying to solve.

Even in this description, you can see the justification through inventive problem solving where my experience lends to the credibility of TRIZ by using the Lean 3P example. Thinking completely out of the box in innovation can be dangerous. The degree of success is very limited in true out of the box thinking. Even in the broadest terms, Level 5, 4, and 3 constitute 23% of the level of invention. If you just consider Level 4 and 5, it is 5%.

In sales and marketing, the higher level of innovation, the less acceptable your market will be. I wrote about this in a previous blog post, Innovators Congenital Myopia.

More than likely, I will not become a TRIZ expert to be used as it was intended. I struggle with it since it seems so laborious to use. However, it has always been on the fringes of something I want to do but just never have pulled the trigger. However, if it can increase my ability to understand how 95% of solutions are derived, I have to admit it intrigues me. What about you?

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