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October 30, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 10


What’s the contradiction in the problem you’re trying to solve? The Theory of Inventing Problem Solving (TRIZ) may help you find the answer.

Every invention is a proposed solution to a contradiction. A coffee mug needs to keep liquids hot on the inside while remaining cool enough to touch on the outside.1 Contradictions like these are the essence of engineering tradeoffs, and they are familiar to anyone who devises solutions to problems, from a rocket scientist to a cosmetics package designer. The best answer, of course, is one that requires no compromise to solve the contradiction. That is an invention.

Genrich Altshuller, a Soviet engineer, noted that there are common problems that inventors face in all fields. While working as a patent examiner in the Soviet Union in the mid-1940s, Altshuller reviewed more than 200,000 patents. He found that about 80% of them described incremental improvements, not inventions. The remaining 40,000, however, were inventive solutions to problems.

Altshuller then set about developing a rigorous taxonomy of those inventions, focusing on how the inventors solved problems. He found that there were 40 inventive principles that were used time and again, regardless of the industry or technical discipline, to solve common technical contradictions. This led Altshuller to a Theory of Inventing Problem Solving, which became known worldwide by its Russian acronym TRIZ.

Altshuller’s method focuses on straightforward problem-solving skills: identify the problem; find the contradictions within the problem; apply the relevant inventive principles, and formulate an ideal solution. TRIZ is in no way simplistic — it calls for detailed study of the contradictions and the inventive principles that can address them, but its basic steps are grounded in a common-sense process that can be applied across a range of disciplines.

Learn more about the Academy’s IDEAS course.

1This metaphor is borrowed from a recent feature in TRIZ Journal.

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