Innovate March 2016

Innovating Inside The Box


Written By: David Whitney

Most of us learn about innovation via traditional methods. Whether taught innovation in the classroom or the boardroom, we most likely were encouraged to think “outside the box.” That is, to brainstorm without restriction — let your imagination run wild — in the hope of arriving at breakthrough, innovative ideas. To unleash our creative juices was to engage in a proven formula for achieving success — especially for revolutionary, game-changing types of innovation. Sometimes, traditional methods like thinking outside the box worked, and other times, those methods did nothing to generate the creative thinking and effective problem solving solutions they were supposed to produce.

What I learned from teaching innovation is this: Innovation success occurs more frequently when recognizable patterns are present — and when these patterns can be acted upon. This is why the methods found in Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) are powerful for achieving innovation successes and just may dispel your inclination to think outside the box ever again.

SIT’s lineage is rooted in academia and its applications are also well established in business. A Russian engineer, Genrich Altshuller, studied creativity using a different lens in focusing on what was common in inventive solutions, not what made them different. His research was exhaustive — it is rumored he studied 200,000-plus patents — and produced a thesis of identifying common patterns in innovative solutions. The patterns formed a basis for a methodology that would eventually become known as SIT.

But, a few transitional steps would need to occur for SIT to emerge as it is today — a concept known as thinking inside the box. Altschuller’s work is more readily recognized by the acronym TRIZ, which translates from Russian to be roughly, the “theory of the resolution of invention-related tasks.” TRIZ is still applied today and is used as a problem solving, analysis, and forecasting tool that is based on the patterns found in innovation and invention.

The transformation from TRIZ to SIT was motivated by a quest for simplicity That is, academics — along with scientists, business people, and others — sought a method that was easier to learn and retain; the goal was to apply the model more universally and align problem-solving approaches with a pragmatic, inventive framework. So, with its development in the mid-1990s in Israel, SIT emerged as a thinking method derived from Altschuller’s TRIZ. SIT is best known for its practical approach to creativity, innovation, and problem solving — all pillars of innovation processes most of us learn and apply. At the core of the SIT method sits the principle that reflects Altshuller’s body of work: Inventive solutions share common patterns. This is why highlighting what makes inventive solutions alike underscores the practice of Systematic Inventive Thinking.

I knew SIT would work for me, both as a teacher and student of innovation, when I read the book “Inside the Box.” The book is co-authored by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg. It was Goldenbergs studies under one of Altshuller’s proteges, Ginadi Filkovsky, which eventually resulted in his co-writing the book. The key impression the authors made on me in explaining SIT was their description of its practical, simplified methodology. I clearly understood the authors’ premise: People are most creative when they constrain their options rather than increase them. According to Boyd and Goldenberg, “By defining and then closing the boundaries of a particular creative challenge, most of us can be more consistently creative — and certainly more productive than we are when playing word-association games in front of flip charts or talking about grand abstractions at a company retreat.”

That’s all it took for me to become an “inside the box” thinker. The model made complete sense to me — as did the authors’ five techniques that innovators use to create innovations that are both problem solving and commercially viable. The five techniques are:

  1. (Adding by) Subtraction
  2. Multiplication (of Uses)
  3. Divide (and Conquer)
  4. Unifying Tasks
  5. Attribute Dependency

I use the author’s examples — along with my own — to demonstrate how SIT serves as a basic building block for creativity as well as a scaleable model for producing innovation breakthroughs.

Subtraction

What do contact lenses, an exercise bicycle, powdered soup and an ATM have in common? Nothing! Then again, they all have had something subtracted from their original use. Subtracting eyeglass frames results in contact lenses. Removing a bicycle’s rear wheel produces an exercise (spin) bike. Removing water from soup made it a powder. Subtracting bank tellers from cash transactions gave birth to self-service ATMs.

Another example of subtraction, the Sony Walkman, seemed to defy logic. A cassette recorder’s key function — recording — was subtracted to produce less than the original. The authors cite how even Akio Morita, Sony’s chairman and the inventor of the Walkman, was surprised by the market’s enthusiastic response.

But wait, there’s more! Philips Electronics eliminated features to revolutionize the DVD market. The Philips team removed key functions from the DVD player (object) and placing them on a hand-held device. The result: A hand-held controller that co-existed with a slimmer, cheaper, sleeker and easier-to-use DVD machine. The resultant new design standard emerged not just for DVD players but also for the entire home-electronics and entertainment market.

Multiplication

The notion of multiplying makes me think “feature creep.” However, innovations over the ages have demonstrated multiplication’s benefits. Today’s cameras — even the ones found in smartphones — take all sorts of digital images: Close up, far away, wide-angle, blurred, distorted, etc. Most shots are performed using “one click of a button” to produce multiple looks. Razors have evolved from a single blade into a “shaving system.” Gillette’s introduction of two blades instead of one launched a shaving arms race that continues unabated 40-plus years since the first whisker was pulled from the skin by one blade and sliced by the second.

And, we’re far from over in this race, ladies and gentlemen: Unconfirmed reports from Sweden tout a new invention called the “Skarp.” I, for one, am skeptical, though the inventors launched a Kick starter campaign to fund a futuristic razor that uses laser beams to remove hair. Of course, the concept of laser hair removal is not new (see intense pulse light), but this claim by the Swedish entrepreneurs sheds new light — sorry — on the race to shed unwanted hair.

Division

When you travel by plane, most likely you checked in at home — and printed your boarding pass — before being accosted by airport security Only those of us of a certain age remember getting up to change the TV channel. Floridian’s liberation from oppressive heat and humidity was achieved via air-conditioning, a well-appreciated invention. The first central air-conditioning units contained all the necessary components in a single box: Thermostat, fan and cooling unit. But over time, the cooling unit’s motor and fan were separated from the other moving parts; this allowed them to be placed somewhere else (e.g., outside) so noise and heat were reduced and it was no longer necessary to place air conditioner units in windows.

Think how stereo systems have evolved via division. Modular sound systems were invented by separating the various units (speakers, turntable, etc.). And, all of this occurred before “sound” became portable and mobile. The music industry’s turned upside down revolution soon followed sound going portable and mobile.

Unifying Tasks

This is my favorite Systematic Inventive Thinking application. Luggage is now on wheels, though it was not until travel-bags and wheels were unified. Samsonite, the world’s largest travel-bag company, unified tasks for expanding into the school backpack market. This resulted because backpacks, especially for college students, cause back and neck strain due to the weight of their contents: textbooks, laptops, food, beverages, etc.

So, instead of padding the straps like other backpacks, Samsonite used the pack’s weight as a comfort advantage. The straps were designed to press softly into the wearer’s shoulders at strategically located (shiatsu) points; doing so provided a soothing massage sensation. The heavier the contents, the deeper the sensation and the more stress relief for the backpack wearer.

Examples of innovations produced by unifying tasks are found in everyday life: alarm clocks, computers, laundry machines, refrigerators, clothing irons, etc. No wonder unifying tasks results in my favor SIT application: They are everywhere!

Attribute Dependency

An excellent example of this SIT application involves transitioning eyeglass lenses. These lenses change color based on the amount of sunlight hitting them. A related technology designed to block ultraviolet light from users’ eyes was developed by Dr. Herbert Wertheim, a graduate of the UF College of Engineering and the namesake of the college. Innovations like these have helped millions of people prevent acquiring cataracts or going blind from macular degeneration and other degenerative eye diseases.

Other examples of attribute dependency: Windshield wipers that speed up as rain drops accelerate; loyalty programs offering discounts based on how many friends a customer recommends; labels that indicate the ripeness of a fruit or vegetable; and baby clothes that change color as the infant heats up and cools down.

In conclusion, the key benefit from Systematic Inventive Thinking is to train your brain how to think about solving problems. Doing so leads to pattern recognition — and familiarity with what exists. Although most conventional innovation methods start with identifying problems and then proposing solutions, SIT is the opposite. This unconventional approach produces innovative breakthroughs because people are most creative when they operate within the constraints of what they know to be the familiar.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

DAVID WHITNEY serves as the assistant director in the UF Engineering Innovation Institute. Whitney previously served as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in the college. The courses, Entrepreneurship for Engineers and Engineering Innovation, use real-world examples and the experiences of innovators and entrepreneurs to teach engineers how to change the world. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the founding managing director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies. Whitney is also co-chair of Innovation Gainesville 2.0, a regional-based initiative in which people and organizations collaborate to strengthen Gainesville’s innovation economy by bringing 3,500 jobs and securing $250 million in capital investment to the region.

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