Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top


Innovate By Discovering What You Do Not Know

By Michael S. Slocum

Nearly all existing innovation methods are based on divergent thinking and methods of brainstorming; these only help the mind think the best it can about what it knows. The reason these methods are so limiting is that the nature of innovation is to discover what you do not know. As with a wide and perilous river, it is hard to cross without a bridge – the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) is that bridge for innovation.

TRIZ forces the question of how well even people with genius abilities can formulate new strategies, products and services in a way that meets the need of business to do continually innovate quickly and effectively. Business leaders are often dissatisfied with their return on investment (ROI) on innovation spending. From this, it can be inferred that current approaches are inferior to TRIZ, because they are all grounded in psychological inertia. This is true of the innovation methods as practiced by internal development teams, as well as firms to whom companies outsource their strategic and/or tactical innovation functions.

Psychological inertia is the sum of one’s intellectual, emotional, academic, experiential and other biases. No matter who you are, or what you know, your knowledge is meager compared with the rest of the world’s knowledge. Yet almost all of more than 250 methods of creative thinking are designed to facilitate the crystallization of what one already knows, not the discovery of what one does not know.

The Best and Brightest

A company’s typical innovation practice is to hire the smartest and most creative people possible to fuel the pipeline of tomorrow’s offerings. With these folks in the system, a business optimizes its chances that perhaps one of the 250 psychologically and/or emotionally based methods will be forceful enough to harvest genius. In other words, if current innovation methods are limited to the universe of knowledge held in smart people’s heads, it makes good strategic sense to hire as many smart people as possible, and to reward them when they develop something the company can sell.

This is how the mainstream innovation waters flow – toward stellar performers who file patents with fervor. These people are legendary in companies like IBM, which has 500- and 1000-patent clubs. Most people do not understand how inventors do what they do – or even what they do – but we respect them as the landlords of our intellectual property. Some innovate in the absence of a structured process, even though more often than not their innovations are inferior to those they could make with TRIZ.

Shocked Out of Biases

Fifteen healthcare industry experts were trying to come up with a new device for delivering an electrical charge to a human heart when it malfunctions. It was an impressive group of doctors, lawyers, statisticians, scientists and engineers who had spent most of their careers in this particular area of heart defibrillation. Some in the group had multiple patents around this technology, so it made sense that they were involved in finding a substantively better and cheaper way to defibrillate. If any group could make a breakthrough, this one was it.

Anyone would have been impressed to observe this team of M.D.s, Ph.D.s and engineers discuss and debate various ideas, all of which pointed to the idea of making a smaller defibrillation device that required much less power to operate. All the discussion revolved around the “box” of making the current product smaller and/or more effective, and some interesting ideas arose. By its own power, the team converged on an idea to make a defibrillation device that could run on a very small fraction of the power required to run it the current way.

But how to do this? How to create a defibrillation device that could operate with 99 percent less power and, consequently, far less cost? No one had the answer until TRIZ entered the discussion. By answering questions about the fundamental purpose of defibrillation, the team agreed that the reason a device shocks a heart is so the heart will continue to deliver oxygenated blood to the brain. The team assumed the only way to do this was to deliver an electrical shock to the heart.

We all have our biases – TRIZ shocks you out of those biases. Using TRIZ, the team generated 15 new patent disclosures in just four hours, some of which revolved around dramatic power reduction in the current system and others around altogether new approaches for delivering oxygenated blood to the brain. The team defeated its psychological inertia. What would have been an exercise in continuous innovation within the existing box of knowledge, became a journey from the known into the unknown.

Defeat the Enemy Within

Without the structure of TRIZ, you are likely to meander upon a solution that is supposed to be innovative but, in reality, is only an incremental improvement over what you now have. This should be motivation enough to go inside the “box” and see what is there – that is where the demons of innovation reside. As political and social satirist Walt Kelly once said in “Pogo,” one of his famous syndicated comic strips, “We have seen the enemy and it is us.”

Although you can be your own worst enemy, sometimes profound discovery and change do come from inside the parameters of one’s own mind. Any company should acknowledge and encourage this, but never to the exclusion of taking a more risk-free approach when possible. That said, let’s examine some of the ways in which innovation classically happens.

Eureka Phenomenon

In the eureka phenomenon, an innovation derives from happenstance, like when chocolate accidentally smashes into peanut butter and you get a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Or when Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, noticed that water was proportionately displaced when he lowered his body into a bathtub; when Archimedes discovered this, he yelled “Eureka!” while running naked through the streets of the Greek city Syracuse. People like these stories, because it is easy to accept that this may be how innovation occurs. You do something and witness an unexpected result, and it does not matter that the process is not repeatable, because you have stumbled onto the next big product, process or service.

Enigmatic Theory

Enigmatic theory says that certain people have an inexplicable yet real ability to innovate. These people live in the organizational black box, which is mostly dark and scary, even though sometimes it can be an incredible source of light, principally when someone actually invents something the organization can use. One practical expression of the enigmatic world view is the market economy around hiring and retaining these mysteriously superior human beings. A company is not particularly interested in seeing how the black box works, and those who live there do not want to tell (even if they do let you peek around inside from time to time).

Unpredictable Blessing

Another view of innovation is that it is an unpredictable blessing, happening when you least expect it. Sir Isaac Newton must have sat under several trees before the proverbial apple fell on his head, which then caused him to create the concept of gravity. Again, even if this story is an anecdote, people like it because it seems like a reasonable explanation for what could be the cause of an innovation or creative breakthrough.

Trial and Error

Trial and error is widely perceived as a virtuous scientific pursuit in the absence of any established roadmap. If you are out to break new ground, how else can you do it except by trial and error? (Hold on, we will give you the answer soon as we delve into the details with TRIZ.)


People understand how trial and error and other forms of psychologically inertia approaches have become wired into the human psyche. After all, innovation is a one-off sort of thing; innovation does not happen every day and it is not something everyday people make happen. Typical thinking says that the path to new profits is made by heightened individuals who rely solely on their personal intellectual capital – the universe of what they know to the exclusion of what they do not know. This approach, while effective sometimes, is the biggest roadblock to remove in creating a culture of structured, continuous innovation – to creating a culture that uses methodologies like TRIZ.

About the Author:

Michael S. Slocum, Ph.D., is the principal and chief executive officer of The Inventioneering Company. Contact Michael S. Slocum at michael (at) or visit