How to become better at innovative problem solving


Brian Tracy, in one of his talks to a small audience, begins by saying that he took the time before he came in to read a brief biography of everyone in the room and memorize their photos and job titles.

He looks around and people start to shift in their seats nervously. He points to a person and says, “Your title is Problem Solver”. Another is Chief Problem Solver. Yet another is a Vice President of Problem Solving.

Everyone’s job is to solve problems – the things that turn up day after day and cause big and little issues.

So, how do we normally approach problem solving and how can we get better at it?

The traditional approach when we have a problem is to treat it as something that is just our own – it’s my problem.

We get started working on it and face a brick wall. All the issues, complexities, computations and knowledge gaps emerge.

Eventually, we keep working on it and break through to a solution. Our solution.

That didn’t seem like a sensible approach to the Soviet inventor Genrich Altshuller, who came up with a theory of inventive problem solving, abbreviated as TRIZ.

Altshuller reviewed a number of patents and identified ideas that popped up again and again in innovations and found that around 40 principles could account for nearly all inventive ideas.

Take, for example, flexible films, foils and membranes. These approaches underpin relatively recent innovations such as solar PV coatings, energy generating floor tiles and a coating that makes objects super strong.

TRIZ’s starting point was to solve physical challenges. For example, there are often physical contradictions that limit systems.

These can be resolved by applying principles such as:

  • Time: Schedule differently
  • Space: Separate them
  • Condition: Have the system meet requirements under different conditions
  • Alternative/Structure: Spread contradictions across the structure

The TRIZ approach is little known – it’s not mentioned in the standard textbooks at an MBA level – perhaps because of its origins and issues with translations.

The Internet makes it easy to find this stuff now though. The TRIZ journal has a useful summary of the method, including an example, and says there are over 2 million analyses backing the method spanning fields from aerospace to human resources.

TRIZ is a simple but potentially transformative approach to problem solving.

All too often, we think that we need to start from scratch and work something out.

A systematic approach to using the world’s knowledge could be much more effective, especially now that we have the Internet.

Using it effectively just means that we need to start by retraining ourselves to follow the less traditional route.

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