Starting to invent


Innovation is considered one of the most important and often critical resources in modern society. It is widely researched, the refined principles are then taught and sometimes practiced, but most importantly its impact is felt every day. Because at the heart of it, innovation is about doing things differently,and every day we do something new, we participate in the innovation process around us.

Why do it ?

But innovation is also a wasteful process. Pushing the boundaries, and breaking habits requires energy, and more importantly not all new things succeed. So from an economic standpoint innovation is justified if either

  • it provides a better process
  • or it opens up new possibilities and resources

thus creating a return on the investment in innovation.

Its important to remember, innovation is not an abstract process. it is the cumulative process of many individual inventive activities. These activities range in scope from the science and technology, to design and art. Their common denominator is that they constitute something new. Creating something that previously did not exist. Interestingly, creativity is defined as the origination of something new which has value. We will touch on the value aspect later, since it is a critical enabling element in the inventive and hence innovative process.

So now we have many words, creativity,innovation, inventions, borders, resources, and we want to answer a simple question. How do we invent.

How to Invent

The answer has been given over thousands of years by demonstration, and refined into a theory by a Russian scientist called Genrich Altshuller. He named the theory TRIZ, which is the Russian acronym for the “theory of inventive problem solving”.

Today TRIZ and its variants are widely used in many fields of activity. Many books have been published on it, and many experts teach and refine it. I will describe certain aspects of TRIZ in future posts, but in this post I wanted to highlight one critical, and universal aspect of TRIZ, and that is the role of tools.

TRIZ is composed of two elements

  • Identifying a contradiction
  • Using one or more principles of invention to resolve the contradiction

It turns out the hard part is the first. It is hard, because it is not structured, and we should get back to it later. The second part, is what most people remember about the TRIZ, the toolbox of principles by which most inventions are created. Surprisingly, or not, the toolbox and tools in it are a central theme in any human activity. They are obvious in the worlds of engineering and science, but they also govern the world of art, music, cooking, and even human behavior.

Creativity is about pushing boundaries

It is simplest to exemplify this with the notion of a language. To create language related elements, be they books, stories, poems, or slogans, we must first achieve some command of the language and its rules. We need both words, and their relations. Once we have an understanding of the connections and words, we can experiment, or create, new ways of combining them. We can create sentences to our liking, and yet they need to meet some criteria of sensibility to impart information or feeling on another person. This comes back to the value criteria in the definition of creativity. Focusing on just sentences, we can in principle imagine all the sentences in the world written up. Of course, in a random approach, most of what is written has no value. So the essence of creativity, is to focus only on sentences of value. A simple way to go about that is to start from past sentences of value and make small variations in them. This seems a timid approach, and yet done consistently, and diligently, it produces volumes of prose.

Inventing follows a similar path. We start from the corpus of existing technology, and make small changes. The changes follow the rules that TRIZ documented. In this process we create something new. Sentences are designed to impart information or feeling. Inventions create value in other forms as described previously. So the the invention resulting from a small change can now be assessed for value.

To sum up

I’d like to sum up this short introduction by returning to the first TRIZ principle which is “identifying the contradiction”. Its interesting, but also fundamental that the sentence analogy carries over. A sentence can be formed in two ways. It can start as an idea, which is then cast as a sentence following established rules. Alternatively, the sentence can arise from something else, and after formation, it suddenly embodies an idea. More often, than not, its is a combination. Ideas are not fully formed before articulation. An invention is similar. The ideal picture of a contradiction requiring a solution, is not always available. It exists in places where problems are well defined as the fields of engineering. In blue ocean problems, the expanse is huge and the choice of contradictions can be random or even misleading. More often, we define contradictions, we know how to solve, and we permute existing inventions, because it is something that expands our imagination and thought.

So that is where I stand at loss of words; What is the contradiction, which stands at the basis of the art of invention. Altshuler described one solution to inventing, can we invent others ?

and more importantly,should we ?


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