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The Ideal TRIZ Teaching Method

In Search of the Ideal TRIZ Teaching Method

| On 04, Aug 2008

By Darrell Mann

Practitioners of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) debate how best to teach TRIZ. TRIZ masters argue whether it is more effective to begin with the system operator, contradictions, trends or su-field analysis. TRIZ instructors debate the merits of templates and matrices with arguments on both sides.

The paradox in this is that one of the TRIZ pillars states that in any kind of either/or debate the answer is “both” or the question is irrelevant. Or, perhaps less controversial, the answer is “it depends.” The “right” way to teach TRIZ depends on who is teaching it, and, more importantly, whom they are teaching it to.

Recognizing that everyone is different, learns differently and possesses a different knowledge base leads to the question – What is the ideal way to teach TRIZ?

Applying TRIZ to Solve the Problem

Using TRIZ can help solve the problem.

  1. TRIZ research has shown that apparently millions of different solutions all distill down to just a few important solution strategies.
  2. TRIZ states it is the patterns of discontinuous, step-change solutions that distinguish the “breakthrough” from the merely “optimal.” Is there, therefore, a similar pattern of step-changes that can be observed in people?

Spiral dynamics founder, Dr. Clare Graves, focused on a series of experiments conducted to determine if there were any patterns and correlations between thinking-modes and creative problem solving abilities.1,3 In many ways, Graves’ research is the psychological equivalent of what Genrich Altshuller, the father of TRIZ, did in creating TRIZ. Altshuller uncovered patterns in the way that technical systems make jumps; Graves was looking for patterns in the ways people think. His starting point was a belief that Abraham Maslow’s work was a good start, but was incomplete and flawed in many respects.

What Graves found was that as people progress through life, their thinking shifts between a number of distinct (as in discontinuous step-change) thinking modes.2,3 Below are the first eight different modes.

Figure 1:Graves Spiral Dynamics Model of Thinking Modes

Thinking Modes

Consider these different thinking modes as the different gears inside a gearbox – individuals are born with one gear in their gearbox – the “survival” gear. Later when people experience and solve a contradiction they add a second gear. And then a third, until they reach a point in life where they either do not experience the next problem or are unable to solve it and are thus unable to add a new gear to the gearbox. Individuals can switch from one gear to another depending on circumstances;each gear is equally important.

Although society needs all the levels in order to function, they do not always work well together. This is because they are all distinctly – step-change – different from one another. These differences can affect how people learn. When learning new things, what the gearbox analogy suggests is that, as when driving, people spend most of their time in one gear. They can access the other gears, but there is one optimal gear for the prevailing conditions. Everybody possesses multiple gears, but typically has a preferred gear and is likely to use that gear in a learning environment.

These different thinking modes are about “how” people think rather than “what” people think, and carry with them some distinctly different definitions of what people like and do not like. Figure 2 provides a crude summary of these desires and fears at each of the first eight thinking modes and is useful when designing a teaching program.

Figure 2:Pleasure Seeking and Pain Avoidance at the Different Thinking Modes

Because people in different thinking modes have different likes and dislikes, the way they prefer to learn is different. If instructors know and recognize the different thinking modes, they can design TRIZ training to suit those different modes.

The following are some of Graves’ findings on the way the different levels think and learn.

Beige: Survival Mode

This thinking mode is akin to Maslow’s first hierarchy level; there is virtually no beige in the workforce. There is little more awareness than the problems of sustenance, illness, reproduction and disputes, and any education or training needs to be based on a nurturing model:

  • Provide unencumbered ministration to the imperative, periodic, psychological needs
  • Sustenance must be provided
  • Failure to nurture will result in death of the managed

This person is highly unlikely to either be at work, or, more specifically, in a TRIZ session.

Purple: Tribal Mode

While only one to five percent of the workforce is in this category, they will work hard and long when properly managed and the work is not negated by their superstitions or taboos. Education and training needs to be built around a friendly parent model:

  • Require close and immediate supervision: the manager must accept and accommodate the purple way of life, guiding by becoming a role-model through adopting their way of thinking and acting, making work fun and pleasant
  • The feudal thinker must be isolated from anyone who will not accept their way of life, who scoffs or is competitive
  • To a degreetribal thinkerscan be “negatively motivated” by the use or threat of force – so long as it does not come into conflict with strong second-level taboos

Red: Feudal Mode

Described by Graves as “the hardcore, the rough, tough unemployed,” they comprise approximately 10 percent of the adult population. A red subordinate knows how to do the job, shows pride and personal ability in the task and has to feel free to come and go as desired. There is a problem, however, in that red’s ego-centrism and short attention span causes him to frequently interrupt. They normally have attempted and failed to get into “our world” and are now absolutely, firmly convinced that the whole world is organized to keep them out. Work, education and training must be built around a tough paternalistic model:

  • Wherever a red centered thinker works, the work must be organized to suit that person.
  • Every person brought in to administer an education program must understand how to work with red people and provide them with an ongoing positive experience.
  • A short attention span means reds need work variety: package at least five to seven activities in 15 to 20 minute units. They prefer highly structured lessons with the teacher moving promptly between each.
  • Closely prescribed limits of behavior are necessary.
  • The educator must establish and uphold a tough, competent, “no-fool” image or the subordinate will do as he pleases.
  • The educator assigns tasks in a tough manner providing enough detail to define the end results, limits to subordinate discretion and a completion date. The educator then keeps out of the process unless asked.
  • Educator’s trust should be based on performance or she will lose respect and the red thinker will try to take advantage. The teacher, therefore, never admits a mistake.
  • The teacher stops undesired behavior and/or errors but never discusses or punishes it. They must be dispassionate and candidly say, “I told you not to do that,” refusing to discuss it, never punishing and then rewarding positive responses.
  • Red thinkers are egocentric, impulsive and hedonistic – for them the best answer to any problem is the one that brings immediate pleasure, regardless of what happens to anyone else. Positive responses are rewarded immediately.

Bear in mind across all of this that in his career, Graves worked a lot with criminals and, therefore, largely red minds. His conclusion was that it was almost impossible to teach these thinking types.

Blue: Order Mode

Blue thinkers, who comprise approximately 30 percent of adult populations, believe the role of each human is predestined – people are born into classes of unequal rank, those born with more have the vested responsibility to supply the needs of others and regulate them through fatherly concern. They choose autocracy over democracy; their core belief being that there is “one right way.” Work, education and training should be built around either a paternalistic or benevolently authoritarian/moralistic prescriptive model:

  • Provide the routine, structure the task, define and clarify the regulations and represent the established organization.
  • Rules are prescribed for everyone and all things – security comes through sacrifice and submission to these rules.
  • Failure to teach blue consistently with their expectations results in work deterioration. If the teacher is perceived to not be providing order and regulation, it becomes the duty to unseat that teacher. This will tend to be done through neurotic or psychotic behavior or unconscious sabotage of the productive effect.
  • The trainer must watch the students until he finds an environment that they are in equilibrium in and then he must not vary from this environment; they need a predictable work setting.
  • When attempting to get the student to do something new, the authority must suggest the shift, accepting that the blue will at first reject the idea. The authority must quietly insist blue considers it and consistently supervise the change once they finally accept it.
  • If the trainer begins to get negative manifestations, he must quickly backtrack and find out what caused the negative reaction.
  • Blue believes questioning authority is the biggest sin. The curriculum must build on what the person believes and must not be so difficult that students cannot achieve a successful outcome.
  • Blue learns best when punished for doing the wrong thing – establish strict guidelines and stop negative behavior/errors immediately.
  • Blue also learns best through rote repetition and instruction.
  • Vague answers at the end of exercises will be viewed with disdain.
  • The instructor must be a respected authority, e.g., the highest academically qualified rather than the tutor with the greatest expertise.

Orange: Scientific Mode

Graves believed 30 to 40 percent of the population fell into the orange category, and he stated, “They see life, and thus learning, as a game that has precise rules that if mastered will enable them to win.” Orange thinkers tend to see themselves as superior to and as the organizer of the productive energies present in lesser men. They are convinced they engineer human behavior. As such, rules and regulations have no inherent sanctity to orange and will be changed, as the situation requires. Orange thinkers expect compensation as a result of accomplishment. Both their job and education should be flexible and provide opportunities for individual initiative. Work, education and training need to be built around a by objectives model:

  • Expression of ambition must be controlled. Teachers should always be discreet and never too trusting.
  • Employ a system of control that prescribes that managerially determined ends and means are proper and that it is necessary to accomplish organizational goals through coercion, reward and threat.
  • Education is often viewed as a bargaining situation. There are three essential items: 1) rewards, 2) sanctions and3) defined boundaries with latitude within the boundaries. Goals and objectives must be shown to the student along with the associated rewards for their accomplishment. Once the rewards are deemed acceptable, the boundaries must be clearly communicated. The teacher must not tolerate boundary violation. Once the bargain has been made, orange is self-managing and prefers not to be controlled. The only supervision required is to check for boundary violation.
  • Major motivating factors: the patterning of stimulation, changing and challenging ideation content, and the degree to which the outcomes meet the person’s expectations.
  • Does not have to be tied to need and immediate rewards if orange is allowed to control his own learning. Visibility of some form of longer-term justification and benefit will, however, always be helpful.
  • The individual must be allowed to experience things herself in order to learn. Working through prescribed menus of options gets orange exploring within a range and making his mind up about which is best.
  • Competitive learning between individuals or teams is likely to be successful if adjudication means are demonstrably fair.
  • There should be an opportunity for orange to present what they have learned back to others – in effect becoming the teacher.

Green: Communitarian Mode

Green thinkers, 10 to 20 percent of the population, believe in belonging, adjusting and togetherness. An increasingly frequent problem inside organizations and education establishments is that many managers and educators are forced to remain at the order and scientific thinking levels, while their subordinates and students are likely to have moved on to communitarian modes. This discrepancy can cause conflict, confusion and cynicism inside those organizations. Looking beyond this potential problem area, the green thinker’s energy is heavily consumed in the fear of being disliked. Unlike the blue person, they do not believe it is a moral duty to do their best, nor do they believe that the work is the measure of the man as is the case at orange. The green thinker must be socially motivated through his group. The danger from this model is that the group becomes enamored with the group decision-making process and nothing gets done. Work, education and training for green needs to be built around a participative/collaborative model:

  • Green wants to work with the teacher, leader, manager, etc. Organizations will prosper when all play a role in the education process.
  • The teacher must be open to the group’s values and become a group member – they have the equal right as a group member to offer suggestions. This group values consensus, majority rule and sensitivity training.
  • The teacher must be open and non directive and ready to support group’s course of action.
  • If the group process slows, green slows their work pace and satisfies their social needs. While this limits what they accomplish, it minimizes further deterioration.
  • In a worst case situation the teacher does not assimilate with the group and views the green state as evidence of people “going soft” and then attempts to combat it through directive, authoritarian management. If this occurs the group will passively resist and productivity and performance will tumble.
  • Green thinkers will judge for themselves whether the teacher has expertise. If they are deemed not to have it, they are not going to get anywhere.
  • The teacher must respect the green thinker as an equal without the expertise that the teacher is sharing. They must use a methodology of openness and honesty.
  • The teacher is provides the framework for thinking that the person lacks.

Yellow and Turquoise: Holarchy and Holistic Modes

The yellow thinking mode seeks a sense of personal competence and is comprised of less than one percent of the population. Thinkers at this level believe they should make the decisions wherever they are competent to make them, and believe that the most capable in the prevailing context should be the leader/teacher. Both yellow and turquoise are highly self-directed and will avoid any type of relationship where others try to dominate. Neither is motivated by threat of coercion, by pecuniary motives beyond a certain point, by status or prestige symbols and often do not need social approval. Work, education and training for yellow and turquoise must be built around an exploratory/big-picture model:

  • The teacher provides an initial road map defining where the group is going. The group will then determine who will be responsible for the journey. The teacher facilitates goal accomplishment.
  • The organization and management must be open, transparent and honest. Full disclosure of facts and holes is important.
  • The teacher’s role is also to rework the structure so that goals are achieved, utilizing people as they are, not as someone wishes or perceives them to be.
  • The yellow thinker will not subordinate her desires to those of the organization. If they cannot get the acceptance they desire, they will build a non-organizational world for themselves, retire into it, do a passable but not excellent job, and wait for managerial change.
  • Yellow thinkers are reluctant to waste their precious energy without a valid reason and the freedom to proceed as desired.
  • Once interested and engaged, there is nothing that yellow and turquoise think they cannot achieve. Apparently impossible engaging challenges are the dream of these thinkers.
  • Although Graves had less data on turquoise, an important distinction with yellow is that this thinker has a more finely tuned sense of intuition. Getting them to rationalize and explain this intuition needs to be done carefully since if the activity is not perceived to be interesting or adding value, it is highly likely to be treated with contempt.


One of the main images emerging from these mini-portraits is one of complexity and conflict. The preferred learning styles for one thinking mode are often the polar opposite of another. This makes any trainer’s job tricky, as it is unlikely that any group will be centered in just one thinking level. And if this situation did arise, there is still the problem of whether people are open to learning. Assuming that they are, and assuming that an instructor’s job is to teach them new problem-solving tools (as opposed to trying to get them to change their way of thinking from one level to another),the table belowsummarizes some suggestions that work best in the TRIZ/systematic innovation context:

TRIZ Teaching Strategies for the Different Thinking Modes
TribalNoHide the complexityEssentialOne “right” answerOne- or two-step procedures
Feudal“World’s best”Quick hits, cards, gamesEssentialA clear “best” answer< 4 step procedures
Order“World’s finest problem solvers”Contradiction matrix, 9-windows, radar plots,patent database, no PI toolsEssential“Best” answer depends on contextSequential (ARIZ)
ScientificThree million data pointsTools should adapt to the userFlexible, feel free to adaptOpen questions, real problems, patent ableBuilding blocks to be sequenced as user sees fit
CommunitarianHere is what has been foundso farSegment the group according to what fits whom, emphasis on definition over solutionTeam decides, and possibly divides, into sub-groups – some with templates, some withoutMeaningful problems where learning points emerge from debate and discussionFlow-charts, if/then gates, divergent/convergent cycles, thinking hats
Holarchy/Holistic“All theories are wrong; some are useful”Think of this as a start point; if the individual thinks she can improve it, she can do soNoRelevant problems with no known solution, the bigger the betterSelf-correcting

In addition to illustrating how difficult the trainer’s task is – it is highly unlikely everyone in the classroom will think in the same mode – it is also instructive to identify the thinking modes of the TRIZ masters and experts who make their statements about the “right” way to teach TRIZ. Describing something as the right way is classic blue thinking. Paradoxically, the blue thinking mode is the one that really does not like breakthrough or change. How ironical would it be if it turns out that the originators and main advocates of TRIZ are the ones least accepting of change and different ways of doing things?


  1. Systematic Innovation E-Zine, “Some People Are More Creative Than Others,” Issue 64, July 2007.
  2. Graves, C.W., The Never Ending Quest, ECLET Publishing, California, 2005.
  3. Mann, D.L., “Theories of Everything and TRIZ,” The TRIZ Journal, July 2008.