When TRIZ met KIM: how to think like a genius and resolve contradictions

cartoon of cave people with one pointing at a wheel and saying 'look what I've invented!', another saying 'what use is it?' and four others all with thought bubbles of different potential uses
Cartoon by Clive Goddard, copyright Oxford Creativity

TRIZ (a Russian acronym for a phrase usually translated as ‘the theory of inventive problem-solving’) is not a well-known technique in knowledge and information management circles. It is the brainchild of Genrich Altshuller, an engineer, scientist, inventor and writer – who, incidentally, paid the price for his innovative thinking style by displeasing Stalin and consequently being sent to a labour camp. However, he used his experiences there to further refine his problem-solving techniques! TRIZ is still most widely used in the engineering field, but the TRIZ principles are applicable to any kind of problems, not just technical ones.

Ron Donaldson, NetIKX committee member and TRIZ expert at Oxford Creativity, took us through the fundamentals of TRIZ in an intensive yet enjoyable seminar, enhanced by the wonderful cartoons of Clive Goddard. The TRIZ approach is based on the principle of analogous thinking – often we limit ourselves to the solutions found within our own area of expertise, whereas in fact we could apply solutions from other domains where similar problems have been faced. The advantage of this approach is that you learn to think conceptually and to view a problem in an abstract way, rather than becoming bogged down in detail.

But, given that most of us lack this breadth of knowledge, how do we access these creative solutions? Altshuller analysed 50,000 patent abstracts to identify how the innovation had taken place. From this he developed the essential TRIZ methodology: the concept of technical contradictions, the concept of ideality of a system, contradiction matrix and the 40 principles of invention. He also modelled creative thinking tools and techniques from observing creative people at work and uncovering patterns in their thinking. 

At the heart of all problems requiring an inventive solution, there is a contradiction: for example, we want something that is both strong and lightweight, but how do we increase strength without also increasing weight? The existence of a contradiction does not mean you cannot solve a problem: Ron suggested that we need to ‘channel our inner Spice Girl’ and state what we ‘really, really want’ as there is usually a way of getting it without having to change anything! Altshuller’s research identified three characteristics of creative people: they think without constraints; they think in time and scale, and they get everything they want. When you have identified your ideal outcome, you can work ‘backwards towards reality’.

One of the TRIZ tools is the contradictions matrix, which allows you to map the contradictions inherent in your problem and to identify inventive principles to solve them. We saw examples of the principles and how they can be used in different contexts: for example, principle 13 (The Other Way Round) could involve turning an object upside-down, or making the fixed parts moveable and the moving parts fixed. TRIZ also emphasises the importance of using the resources that you have, which supports sustainability and reuse.

Ron set us two questions to consider in the breakout sessions (which luckily we were able to replicate effectively via Zoom!): how would you use TRIZ within knowledge management? and which bits of the session really inspired you? This led to a discussion ranging across the design of tin-openers, Altshuller’s science fiction stories and the challenges of applying inventive solutions in the public sector. It is safe to say that we were all intrigued by what we had learned and keen to explore further.

TRIZ is open source and is not copyrighted – so you can try out the toolkit for yourself. The contradictions matrix, the 40 principles and other tools are free to download from the Oxford Creativity site, where you can also sign up for free webinars on TRIZ. Give it a go and unleash your genius!

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