An In-The-Box Method for Creative Problem Solving


In his book, Evolutionary Ideas, Sam Tatam, global head of behavioral science at Ogilvy, points out how some of the best behavior change innovations—across billboards, tip jars, café walls, and supermarket shelves—aren’t built from scratch but are instead adaptations of psychological principles based on decades of research. One lesson Tatam draws from this observation is that, often, the answer to any behavior change problem has already been discovered. This excerpt from Tatam’s book traces this insight back to a Russian scientist and inventor who discovered a framework for systematic innovation, later known as “TRIZ.” After reviewing hundreds of patents, he noticed a pattern—the most innovative solutions weren’t so novel after all.  —Antonia Violante, Books Editor

Growing up in 1930s Soviet Russia, Genrich Altshuller was recognized from a young age for his uniquely inventive brain. He received his first Russian patent—for an underwater diving apparatus—while a primary student, and by tenth grade he had developed a carbide-fueled rocket boat. In his twenties, Altshuller enlisted in the army and soon developed what many consider to be his first mature invention, a method for escaping an immobilized submarine without diving gear. Both this design and its designer were hastily snapped up by the Russian military, his invention was classified as a military secret, and Altshuller quickly landed a position at the navy’s innovation center.

During his navy service Altshuller found himself faced with an unusually tricky challenge: how to help others to innovate. It was a task he found increasingly frustrating, especially during a time when the scientific and innovation communities believed that the creative leaps of invention were the result of accidents, mood, and even blood type. “Sailors can draw maps of reefs and shallow waters that others can follow, but inventors have no such maps. Each beginner goes along making the same mistakes.” When charged with scaling the navy’s creativity without a structured methodology, Altshuller committed himself to making one.

Surrounded by patents at the naval innovation center, Altshuller threw himself into the interrogation of a potential science behind problem solving, an exploration that led him to his most significant discovery. Through reviewing many hundreds of patents, Altshuller uncovered that inventors were unknowingly using the same solutions over and over again, with the same fundamental question in one area being addressed by multiple technical inventions in another. For the navy, this meant they had been funding expensive, long, low probability projects, when in reality, a vast majority of their problems had already been solved.

He had stumbled across the existence of a universal pattern of technical problem solving—and the implications were huge.

Through reviewing many hundreds of patents, Altshuller uncovered that inventors were unknowingly using the same solutions over and over again.

TRIZ: A Theory of Inventive Problem Solving

His study of thousands of patents didn’t just expose the scarcity of genuinely revolutionary thinking, it unearthed a logic for systematic innovation, later to be known as TRIZ (a Russian acronym for the ‘Theory of Inventive Problem Solving”). Through TRIZ, Altshuller was now able to demonstrate the science behind creative innovation, not only paving the way for new breakthroughs in technology but establishing a framework of immense value to countless other fields.

To solve creative problems with TRIZ, there are three elements you need to know:

  1. It’s been solved before.
  2. There are consistent patterns of solutions.
  3. Solving contradictions creates breakthrough innovation.

It’s been solved before

TRIZ works to formalize the belief that somebody, somewhere has already solved your problem. Just as different species have converged upon similar biological solutions when faced with shared environmental constraints (like the dorsal fin helping both dolphins and sharks thrive in the ocean), TRIZ helps us recognize engineering strategies that have converged across categories and industries, when faced with shared technical constraints. While biology classifies different families and species of animal based on the similarities of these adapted features (like the presence of a spinal cord or gills), in TRIZ, these patterns of solutions are classified based on their related technical features. These are known as inventive principles. In total, the TRIZ methodology recognizes that there are 40 inventive principles that can be drawn upon to inspire innovation.

There are consistent patterns of solutions

TRIZ’s inventive principles, these identified patterns of solutions, include concepts such as segmentation (principle 1): describing solutions that break up an object into its independent parts (like modular furniture or Venetian blinds). Do it in reverse (principle 13) is another favorite, in which the movable part of an object or environment is held stationary, and the stationary part made moveable (like a swimming training pool where the water moves, not the swimmer). The inventive principle nested doll (principle 7) classifies patterns of solutions that place one object inside another (like the typical Russian doll), helping to represent an array of adaptations from several technical categories. A nail polish brush that’s screwed inside its own bottle is an example of a nested doll. So too are the Kinder Surprise, stacked measuring cups, telescopic lenses, and the retraction mechanisms of many tape measures.

TRIZ inventive principle no. 7, nested doll: (top) retractable tape measure; (middle) telescopic camera lenses; (bottom) nail polish bottle and brush.

TRIZ inherently draws on the past knowledge and resourcefulness of many thousands of engineers. By classifying technical solutions based on their shared features, their commonalities, stacked measuring cups, telescopic lenses, and retractable tape measures are now all able to serve as suitable inspiration when looking to solve nested doll–shaped problems.

Although nested doll is just one inventive principle, it represents, and helps us better connect, hundreds of engineering solutions that have convergently evolved in the wild.

Solving contradictions creates breakthrough innovation

To create breakthrough inventions, one must overcome a contradiction (or trade-off). TRIZ helps to address challenges like “How might we make a bulletproof jacket stronger without it becoming heavier?” or “How might we make an umbrella big enough to cover a human body but not so large it doesn’t fit in a handbag?”

Altshuller concluded that there were about 1,500 standard engineering contradictions which he then summarized into a contradiction matrix comprising 39 parameters. These parameters include physical constraints (like weight and shape), performance parameters (think speed, power, and stability), and efficiency limitations (like time, temperature, and information). For each contradiction identified in the matrix, TRIZ then maps the most relevant inventive principles for a solution. For example, when using TRIZ’s contradiction matrix, the inventive principle nested doll can be used to address contradictions like “How might we increase the amount of a substance without increasing its volume?” or “How might we increase the length of an object without changing its shape?”

To create breakthrough inventions, one must overcome a contradiction … “How might we make a bulletproof jacket stronger without it becoming heavier?” or “How might we make an umbrella big enough to cover a human body but not so large it doesn’t fit in a handbag?”

Let’s look at an example.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every 40 seconds an American will have a heart attack. Heart attacks occur when an artery carrying blood and oxygen becomes blocked. To fix this, and help people recover, tiny devices called stents are used to keep arteries open, allowing the flow of blood and oxygen to travel more smoothly. Stents are tubular in shape and tend to be made from a very fine metal mesh. The challenge with these metal stents is that, after too long in the body, they risk tissue forming on the stent, creating a danger of further clotting. So, while stents are an effective and reliable solution, using a metal one can become costly through the requirement for multiple surgeries. To innovate in the face of this challenge, one might ask, “How might we increase reliability without reducing ease of operation?” Well, if you were to look at this contradiction via the TRIZ matrix, it maps three inventive principles for you to explore: principle 17: another dimension, principle 27: cheap, short-living objects, principle 40: composite materials.

Let’s take inventive principle 27: cheap, short-living objects. Examples of this pattern of solution include paper cups and disposable diapers. If we were to look even further afield for convergent “specimens” of this principle, we may discover an innovative plastic product developed to replace single-use packaging. Made from polylactic acid, its special quality is that it dissolves in water. Fast forward a few years, and with the first polymer stent gaining FDA approval in 2016 the dominance of the field of polylactic (or bioresorbable) stents is set to increase continually. When compared to a permanent metal stent, these bioresorbable alternatives are found to improve arterial recovery while reducing the risks of further clotting. Inventive principle 27 to the rescue!

By identifying a contradiction, mapping recurring inventive principles, and borrowing from existing solutions, the TRIZ methodology helps to shortcut costly reinvention processes so prevalent today. Rather than starting from scratch every time, this approach helps us generate new ideas from those that have already survived the test of time. As our friend Altshuller writes, “There is no magic formula after all, but there are procedures that are sufficient in most cases.”

Adapted from Evolutionary Ideas: Unlocking Ancient Innovation to Solve Tomorrow’s Challenges by Sam Tatam. Published by Harriman House. Copyright © 2022 Sam Tatam.