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Getting The Best Out Of The Contradiction Matrix

Getting The Best Out Of The Contradiction Matrix

| On 10, May 2018

Darrell Mann

In light of the publication of the new version of the Contradiction Matrix for Business & Management problems, it felt like a good time to review different ways of using the various different Contradiction Matrix tools. We’ve had twenty-five years of using the various different evolutions of the Matrix, teaching others, and watching people working on real problems using it. Over that time, we’ve tried or noticed many different strategies and methods. Some work better than others, but when we step back from all of the variants, three strategies stand out as more effective than others:

  1.  Finding ‘The Right’ Box
  2.  ‘All Possible Boxes’
  3.  40 Inventive Principles

Route 1: Finding The Right Box

This has become my own default method of using the Matrix. Mainly because, I think, the biggest advantage of this route is that it forces the user to spend as long as possible in ‘problem definition’ mode. The trick to getting the most out of using the Matrix this way is to spend time in the specific-to-generic translation:

Figure 1: Route 1 Time Focus 

By only allowing yourself the possibility of choosing one improving parameter and only one worsening parameter, it forces you to really think about what precisely you’re trying to improve and what’s on the other side of the conflict.

To take a typical example, many ‘specific’ problems involve cost. But, of course, there is no cost parameter in the (technical version of) Matrix, because, in effect, all 50 of the available parameters in the menu have a relationship with cost. What the list is in effect forcing the problem definer to think about is, ‘precisely what aspect of cost is it that you’re trying to improve?’ Is it material cost, for example (Amount of Substance). Or is it an inadequate durability cost (Duration of Action or Reliability)? Is it about reliability? Or is the amount of time more important? By forcing yourself through this kind of thinking process, you’re giving yourself the best shot at ensuring you know exactly what the conflict you’re trying to solve is. And then, by implication, that the Inventive Principles the Matrix presents back to you after you’ve finally allowed to look in the relevant row and column intersection box, are all going to be meaningful and usable.

Route 2: All Possible Boxes

In many ways the opposite to the Route 1 strategy is the one that allows the user to choose as many of the Matrix parameters they think ‘might be’ relevant to their specific problem as they like. This effectively allows the user to spend a lot less time thinking about what the actual conflict they’re trying to solve is, and to get to the solution generation part of the process as quickly as possible.

If the problem solver is using the paper version of the Matrix, the first downside of this Route 2 strategy is that it can get pretty tedious looking up lots of boxes in the Matrix. What will almost inevitably happen, however, when users do adopt this approach, is that they will quickly begin to notice the same Inventive Principles suggestions appearing in multiple different boxes. This is the ‘self-correcting’ nature of the Matrix coming to the fore. It happens because, turning the story around the other way, whenever the SI research team adds a new case study onto the Matrix, the strategy they use says, if we don’t know which specific box to put a given solution into, we’ll put the solution into multiple boxes.

If you’re using the software version of the Matrix, of course, all of this ‘self correction’ ranking of the Inventive Principle suggestions is done for you:

Figure 2: Route 2, ‘All Possible Boxes’ Matrix Strategy

The main downside of the Route 2 strategy is still to come, however, irrespective of whether you’ve been through the manual or automated Principle ranking task. And that is that some of the Principle suggestions will be quite difficult to connect to the problem you’re trying to tackle. In no small part this problem arises because you haven’t actually spent the time to really think about what your problem is. I’ve seen many occasions where teams have travelled this route, encountered a Principle suggestion that they have no idea how to connect to what they think their problem is, and have thus ignored it and moved on to the next Principle on the list. Whereas a later search of a patent database has revealed that many others have indeed used said Principle to derive a very elegant solution to what you eventually realise was your problem.

Route 3: 40 Inventive Principles

This is the route favoured by the Matrix-averse. On one level, their rationale is very logical: ‘if there are only 40 Inventive Principles, and this is a real problem we’re working on, why wouldn’t we examine all 40 of them?’ The most obvious advantage of this route is that it misses the first two steps of the process completely and allows users to get straight to the exciting idea generation part of the process.

The downsides are, unfortunately, somewhat less obvious. As with Route 2, one issue is that the idea generation activity is less focused because no-one in the session has really had an opportunity to really think about what the problem being solved actually is. The more insidious disadvantage is that brainstorming through 40 Principles and doing it effectively is hard work. Or rather, ‘it should be’. Something I notice a lot with teams that track down Route 3 is a propensity to goof off when it comes to doing the hard work. I’ll hear comments like, ‘we already had that Principle’ when they see that one Principle appears similar to another (e.g. Principles 3 and 4 have a very clear overlap). A truly disciplined use of the 40 Principles would involve doing the opposite of trying to find excuses to not use a Principle – the key to successful use is looking for the parts of each Principle that don’t overlap with other ones. That’s a fairly counter-intuitive and therefore difficult mindset for people to get themselves into.

Which Route?

The existence of these three different Routes is perhaps indicative of a higher level contradiction. Should I use Route 1 or route 2 or 3 is ultimately the wrong question. We know it’s the wrong question because it has the word ‘or’ in it. If we were actually using the philosophy of the Contradiction tool, we’d do something to solve the contradiction. Which, in practical terms means knowing where, when and under what conditions the various options needs to be separated.

That story, I believe, looks something like this: