Here is one school of thought you’re unlikely to have heard of, but it is one that you should definitely acquaint yourself with.

TRIZ (pronounced TREEZ) is the Russian acronym for ‘Theory of Inventive Problem Solving’. It is an algorithmic (that is, process-based) approach to problem solving and innovation that eschews the notion of creativity-based innovation, which is often personality-dependent, unreliable and unrepeatable.

TRIZ was invented by Genrich S. Altshuller. Altshuller analysed thousands of worldwide patents covering a range of engineering fields. He then analysed the solutions detailed in those patents that were, to his mind, the most effective. This analysis led him to theorise that the most difficult engineering problems involved fundamental contradictions, and that most solutions were trade-offs.

Furthermore, he discovered that the same fundamental solutions were being used over and over again to address different problems.

The TRIZ literature provides this example:

On the surface, there appears little connection between these problems:

– Removing the stems and cores from peppers
– Cleaning air filters
– Unpacking parts wrapped in protective paper prior to assembly
– Splitting cracked diamonds along microscopic cracks

Yet a similar solution was invented for each problem: placing the object in a high-pressure chamber, slowly increasing the pressure within the chamber and then suddenly dropping the pressure, creating a pressure differential between the inside and outside of the product, resulting in an “explosion” that split the product.

This ‘invention’ appeared at different times and in different fields. Each “inventor” could have saved considerable time and effort if s/he’d been aware of the earlier invention. But, due to knowledge barriers between the various disciplines, they were none the wiser.

Altschuller theorised that knowledge about the inventive process could be extracted, compiled and generalised to such an extent that it would be accessible to any inventor in any field.

Before we look at Altschuller’s theory in more depth, first some terminology:

Everything that performs a function – be it a car or an elevator or a pocket knife – is a ‘technical system’. Technical systems may be comprised of one or more subsystems. For example, a car is comprised of an engine, chassis, steering mechanism etc. Each of these subsystems is a technical system unto itself (with its own series of subsystems) and performs its own function. For example, the brake system in a car is a both a subsystem (within the car) and a technical system (it is, itself, comprised of multiple subsystems – brake pedal, cables, pads etc.).

All subsystems within a technical system are interconnected within the bounds of that higher technical system (or ‘supersystem’). It follows that changes to one subsystem can produce changes to the supersystem. For example, modifications to a car’s engine can affect its aerodynamics. Greater speed generally requires a larger engine, which adds weight and bulk, thereby deteriorating the car’s aerodynamics.

TRIZ conceptualises technical systems using the ‘Law of Ideality’, which posits that, during the lifetime of any given technical system, it will become more “ideal”. Each time it is improved, it tends to become more reliable, simple, effective, smaller, cheaper – more ideal. Today’s cars, for example, are better than the original Model T Ford by orders of magnitude.

Technical systems, then, can be judged according to their ideality. The further they are from their ideal state, the more complex they are, and vice versa.

Another example from the TRIZ literature: Say you’re an abattoir in South America that wants to ship meat to North America. To conform with food safety requirements, you must freeze the meat during transport. Consequently, you install freezer compartments in your cargo planes. However, as competition increases, you need to cut costs. Solution – carry more meat on each flight. How? Remove the freezer equipment. As the plane normally flies above 15000 feet (where the temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit / 0 degrees Celsius), no refrigeration is needed.

Innovation, then, can be described as the process of removing barriers to ideality by qualitatively improving the underlying technical systems.

The crux of the dilemma, however, lies in improving technical systems (this is where it gets interesting!).

Improving a particular characteristic of a given technical system (weight, colour, speed, strength, durability etc.) will usually result in the deterioration of another characteristic of that system. For example, increasing speed generally requires a reduction in weight, which, in turn, can adversely affect durability.

A solution that involves a change to one characteristic, therefore, would result in a sub-optimal (deleterious) change to another characteristic.

As a result, most inventors would consider a compromise solution – one that, for example, generates a slight increase in speed but only minimally affects durability.

A truly breakthrough solution is one that resolves this contradiction.

TRIZ is based on a series of 40 ‘inventive principles’ that can be used to create solutions that resolve these contradictions. Absolutely fascinating stuff!

So what is the practical benefit of all this theoretical stuff?

Most entrepreneurs don’t invent – they simply look at how things are currently done and innovate to do them better. TRIZ provides a process-based framework for analysing the “pain” inherent in your opportunity and innovating a better solution. You literally don’t need to be a rocket-scientist to build a better rocket.

Further resources:

Altshuller Institute

Technical Innovation Center
The TRIZ Journal
InnovationTriz Papers