Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Altshuller and Innovation

Genrich Altshuller was a Russian and Jewish engineer, scientist, journalist, and writer. He is the father of what in English is called the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TIPS). Working as a clerk in a patent office, Altshuller embarked on finding generic rules that would explain the creation of new, inventive, and patentable ideas. During one of Joseph Stalin’s purges he was imprisoned for political reasons and continued his studies with his fellow inmates while in the labor camp. Altshuller died in 1998.

Today, TIPS (known in Russia as TRIZ) is a methodology, tool set, knowledge base, and model-based technology for generating innovative ideas and solutions for problem solving. The process provides tools and methods for us in problem formulation, system analysis, failure analysis, and patterns of systems evolution (both “as-is” and “could-be”). The techniques developed by Altshuller differ from more common innovation techniques, such as brainstorming. Traditionally, brainstorming revolves around the false premise that to get good ideas, a group must generate a large list for which to cherry-pick. But researchers have shown repeatedly that individuals working alone generate more ideas than groups acting in concert. Among the problems are these: throwing in an idea for public consideration generates fear of failure and engineers looking to advance their own interests often keep their best ideas to themselves.

Altshuller looked at the process differently. Instead of identifying a problem and then seeking solutions, he suggested turning the process around: breakdown successful products and processes into separate components and then study those parts to find other potential uses. The cornerstone of Altshuller’s work was his “40 Principles of Invention.” His most important observation is, “Inventing is the removal of a technical contradiction with the help of certain principles.” To develop a method for inventing and innovation, he argued, one must scan a large number of inventions, identify the contradictions underlying them and formulate the principle used by the inventor for their removal.

A leading practitioner of Altshullers’ ideas is an Israeli company called Systematic Innovative Thinking (http://www.sitsite.com/). The company, which was founded in 1996, is privately owned and based in Tel Aviv. The firm has a team of 40 facilitators that focuses on projects in five major areas: Problem Solving, New Product Development, Marketing Communications and Advertising, Strategy, and Conflict Resolution. One of the “Thinking Tools” that the firm employs is called Subtraction.

Ask a co-worker next time at lunch to give you three quick suggestions for an improved alarm clock. Your co-worker will probably come up with ideas like these: introduce color or glow in the dark effects, have the clock emit a pleasant scent when it rings, create a larger and easier-to-push off-button, add an additional screen with pastoral scenes or smoothing music to help ease you into the morning. What do all of these ideas have in common? They all involve adding something to the original. Addition is the easiest way to modify a product – it’s so intuitive, in fact, that we usually don’t stop to consider the alternatives. But is more always better? Do added features always mean added value for clients? Consider how many functions your DVD player has (approximately 578). But how many do you actually use? One – Two? The DVD development process keeps adding features because that’s what we tend to think improvement and innovation are all about. But instead of the obvious approach, Subtraction might lead to a truly innovative product.

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